Sixteen years!

Facebook pushes the memory – Consecration Service in Perth sixteen years ago today with Alison, Simon, Mark and Anna.

It was a moment of transition – unexpected and unlooked-for. Yet it felt right. I’m sure some of the people who took the risk of electing me wondered if it would be ‘all right’. And I certainly did. Great trust was placed in me. We never intended to leave Ireland – yet it became clear that people like me who had made a commitment to work for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland were gradually leaving and finding new challenges in new places. The phase of the conflict which was ‘our time’ was over.

I knew so little at that point. Very little about Scotland and the SEC. Very little about the geography – I had to buy maps to find my way around. So it was a steep learning curve – just over four years later I found myself elected as Primus of the SEC.

I remember that I enlisted all sorts of people in my learning process and I certainly underestimated how different Scotland is. Ireland is steeped in religion – much of it linked to historic conflict. Scotland by contrast is secular, shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment. It took me a while to work all that out – indeed I’m still working on it.

This was the beginning of an extraordinary period in our lives. It brought great opportunities, great challenges and great fulfilment. We travelled extensively and met all kinds of remarkable people.

I remember that people often asked questions because they wondered if we were ‘just visiting’ and would return to Ireland when I retired. But I sensed from the beginning that this was a one way journey and so it proved to be. We are happily retired just outside Edinburgh within reach of Anna, Simon and Mark and our four grandchildren. Of course we keep close links in Ireland – long friendships and our cottage in Donegal which we hope to be able to visit some time this year. But Scotland is home now.

After Covid – Worship

I’m glad that I am not in pastoral leadership of a congregation at present.  Clergy have been learning all sorts of new skills – and people have adapted well.  But it’s going to take time to rebuild congregations and, in particular to draw younger people back in

I have enjoyed being able to be part of congregations in many places The opportunity for people to see what is happening in other congregations and in the worship provided by the Scottish Episcopal Church must surely reduce our tendency to congregationalism.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve picked up two examples of thoughtful consideration of how clergy and congregations can meet the challenge of providing worship online.

The first was a half page in the Irish Times from Maria Jansson, Dean of the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Waterford in the south-east of Ireland.  The headline was ‘Pandemic means religion for religion’s sake is gone.  That’s not a bad thing.”   ‘Leadership’ she says ‘will not come from a moribund clerical caste, but from those who must now step up to the bar.’  Ouch!.

It is clear that she has been on a journey of exploration.  One initiative which she mentions is, ‘Prayer at Breakfast’ which lasts 6-8 minutes each day.  As she says, if she did the traditional thing of heading into the Cathedral to ‘say the Office’ she would be lucky to have three people with her.  Prayer at Breakfast has now being going for more than 100 days and 130-160 join in every morning.

She describes the challenge as being to establish authentic Christian community again rather than ‘going through the motions’

The second came from Church News Ireland which reports that Badminton Benefice, a group of 10 rural parishes in the Diocese of Gloucester, has been offering online services in the first lockdown.  What they do is worship according to the Book of Common Prayer and they say that the increase in their congregations has been 1500%.

it seems to me that worship on Zoom crosses two lines – probably more than that but it’s a start.  The first is where worship leadership and broadcasting meet.  Broadcasting has quite a bit to contribute – pace and tightness to start with – and the opportunity of hearing a number of voices.  The second is about the movement in worship between formal and informal.  I’ve always been interested in that – how you move easily and quickly from one to the other.  It seems to me to be good to hear a congregation talking informally – before worship begins and at the Peace.

I am pretty sure that the online presence of worship is going to be here to stay.  Obviously it has its place in enabling the housebound to be part of the congregation.  But it also has value as yet another ‘way in’ to worshipping life.  If you can peep round the church door to see what it is like and whether there are ‘people like me’ in the congregation – without actually having to open the door – that surely is helpful!

Build the Wall!

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

‘Build the Wall’ said Donald Trump over and over again. The slogan was always a way of energising his base more than a piece of practical politics. The reality of course didn’t really matter. According to Pew Research, Mexican immigration into the US has been in long term decline. The significant factor in this has been economic recession which has removed exactly the jobs which migrants find attractive. Of those who are stopped at the border, Mexicans are no longer the majority. But the US retains a magnetic attraction as a land of wealth and opportunity – and safety – for many people who are simply desperate.

American Dirt is a story which tries to get inside the experience of Lydia one Mexican migrant and her eight year old son on their flight to ‘el Norte’, the United States. I thought it was a great book – a real page turner.

Lydia has seen fifteen members of her extended family brutally murdered after her investigative journalist husband published an expose of the leader of a local cartel. She is convinced that her only hope of survival is to get to the US – somehow escaping the network of informers which the cartels maintain across the country.

The book describes the various twists and turns of the story – particlarly the experience of riding La Beste – the freight trains which run through Mexico towards the US border. This is staggeringly difficult and dangerous. Along the way, there is unexpected kindness and there is betrayal. The final part of the book describes her experience as part of a group being led by a guide – or Coyote – on a three day trek through some of the most inhospitable and desert border regions between Mexico and the US.

There has been controversy about this book – some of its popularity stems from a recommendation from Oprah Winfrey. There has been some ‘what does a person like this really know about the experience of the migrants?’ criticism. But it was the best I have read in a while.

Hello Again!

This last year of lockdowns has been challenging for everyone.  And we have certainly found it so.  If it wasn’t for a regular commitment to caring for our grandchildren, we would have lost touch of what day it is.

During the twelve years when I was working in Scotland, I wrote over 1600 blog posts.  I wouldn’t have time to do that now – that’s retirement for you.  It was a big commitment but there were a couple of reasons why I did it.  Partly as a diary – partly because when I came to Scotland I was relatively unknown to the people I was working with and it gave them access to what I was thinking and doing – partly because it was a way of climbing over the church wall and engaging with wider Scottish society or as we sometimes say being in the ‘public square’.  It was also a kind of running commentary on the life of the church and the nature of leadership at that time.

I’ve been contentedly retired now for three and a half years.  So I’m not the same person as I was when I retired in 2017.  I have more time to read and longer to think.  Some of what I write will come from that

And now is utterly different.  I think Covid has changed almost everything – touched everything in ways that we could not have anticipated.  It’s unsettled us and infused a tinge of fear – even as it locked us down and kept us apart from family and friends.  It has  closed churches so we can’t ‘do what we do’ – the long term impact of that is unknowable.  Covid has also made an unholy alliance with Brexit to give a good shaking to what we call in ecumenical circles the ‘four nations’ of the British Isles and what politicians in London like to call ‘the nation’.  But we need to begin thinking about how it will be ‘after Covid’.

There are many other issues to address and I am looking forward to exploring them.  One of the benefits of being retired is that I have more time – time to read and explore in ways which would have been impossible before.

If you want to find out more, read the ‘About’ page.

John Hume

The Church Times asked me to write briefly about John Hume who died yesterday. It will take generations to bring Northern Ireland to the point where it is at peace with itself, its painful memories and its history. But the contribution of John Hume and his generation was get to a point where the history and the memories were no longer costing lives. Many of us would regard that as more than we ever expected to see in our lifetimes – John Hume was one of the major figures who make that possible

Never a showy or a band-standing politician – John Hume’s intelligent leadership and dogged persistence were central to Ireland’s long march away from violence and towards peace.  The most intractable conflicts across the world are those which feed on a tribal mixture of religion, politics, identity and painful memory.  John Hume’s example in Northern Ireland showed that even these conflicts can yield their toxic power to determined and long-term efforts in the cause of peace.

I left school at 18 in Belfast in 1969 as the Troubles were beginning.  I was 46 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.  Through all that time and beyond, John Hume gave hope to my generation that better times might come.

Two of John Hume’s achievements are particularly important.

The first was that he internationalised the conflict.  Irish-America, through agencies like Noraid, tended to support a romanticised version of the conflict.  John Hume cultivated the friendship and respect of key Irish-Americans like Edward Kennedy and the friendship of Bill Clinton.  Their involvement in the movement towards peace was to be of fundamental importance.

The second was the Hume-Adams talks – John Hume’s effort to make a pathway for Sinn Fein and the IRA away from politics through drawing Gerry Adams into talks.  He knew that such a process would be messy and that he would be accused of compromise with violence.  But he knew and taught us all that, however costly, such processes are absolutely necessary.  For John Hume and the SDLP, the cost was the growth of Sinn Fein as a political force which came to eclipse their own party.  Such personal and political sacrifice are rare and precious. They were the essence of the political capacity and the spiritual depth of a truly remarkable man

A blessing and not ..

Why has it taken me so long to get into Podcasts? After all they provide what is missing from much of mainstream reporting – a chance to explore a subject in some depth and often with one of the ‘behind the scenes’ people rather than one of the main actors.

Spotify helps too – and it happens that the length of time it takes me to drive from home to St Peter’s, Lutton Place, in Edinburgh where I remain for the time being as interim pastor is exactly the length of the average podcast.

So this morning I listened to a New York Times podcast which featured Chris Hughes who is a Facebook co-founder and a college room-mate of Mark Zuckerberg. He said some interesting things – chiefly that he didn’t necessarily agree with the proposition that putting people in touch is a self-evident good. He questioned the power – and in particular the monopoly power – of Facebook and suggested that it was time the company was broken up.

It’s been clear to me for a long time that the internet in general and Facebook in particular puts power – of a kind – without any accountability into the hands of literally anybody who has a keyboard. That’s where internet abuse comes from and I’ve experienced my share of that in leadership.

But of course there is always another side. In the middle of a stream of photos and comments on Alison’s 50 year school reunion in Dublin last weekend was a comment from somebody who wasn’t part of it – asking about my paternal grandfather in ministry in Kilkenny. Her father was the joiner and cabinet maker who made some furniture for them and ecclesiastical furniture for the Cathedral. Yes that’s the back story of the monk’s bench in our hall and the simple Celtic Cross which is also there … And while I knew that story as a piece of ill-defined family history, it was Facebook which put me directly in touch with it.

Vocation and Ministry Sunday

If you are old enough to remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, you will recall the dread fate of being stuck in a lift watching old Tony Curtis movies. I doing a bit of re-ordering old sermons at present – and I get the same kind of feeling.

Vocation and Ministry Sunday turns up regularly – but it would never have occurred to me to explore the idea that a congregation has a vocation.

I’m still acting as Interim Pastor at St Peter’s, Lutton Place. This is the sermon from this morning and it explores that theme