Ireland – after a year away

We’re back in Donegal after being away for a year. Just up the road in Portnablagh we met this – very Irish – quaint even. But then I thought of Portadown days. The dead were brought home. People gathered with tea, cake and the ubiquitous pavlova. This happens in communities where families have lived close for generations. A funeral is a community event and everybody understands how it is done properly. That is something precious.

And we had another example of what makes this kind of community special. A puncture on Saturday when we needed to go to the Stena Terminal in Belfast on Sunday. People like us go on the internet and ask, ‘Where can I get a puncture repaired on Sunday?’ To which the answer is ‘With great difficulty or not at all’. At which point a single phone call revealed that our nearest neighbour over the hill had what was needed and fixed it in five minutes. Good communities are full of people with skills and kindness.

Beaches around here are magnificent – and virtually deserted. The one we were on today had lots of children having surfing lessons. Some quick research shows that the Surf Schools are real engines of tourist development – making the most of our difficulties with travel – showing adults and children alike that there is very little to beat a Donegal beach, even in the rain

Meanwhile I think about what are the really big issues here.

Well Brexit obviously and the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ireland is an enthusiastic member of the EU and is also passionate about the Peace Process. Brexit faces in other directions.

I’ve also been following an issue which seems to me to illustrate the question whether Ireland is that modern, social-democratic, European country or – or maybe also – a regressive, religiously conservative country. That issue is the plan to build to build a new National Maternity Hospital on the site of the large St Vincent’s Hospital on the south side of Dublin. The issue is that the land on which this €800 million public hospital is to be built is in the trustee ownership of the Sisters of Charity. The state will lease the land for 99 years and the hospital itself will be a private charitable institution.

Ireland has long had difficulty with the question of whether Catholic moral teaching should apply within medical services. That question is obviously particularly acute in the context of a maternity hospital.

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole has been writing about this issue. In June he wrote that ‘A real republic should not have charity delivering public welfare’. And he goes on to say that ‘It is time to put a stake through the heart of this slavishness. Maternity and reproductive services are not charitable gifts.’

The vehemence of his language suggests that he sees this issue as another test case – a nation-defining issue -:for modern Ireland.

Thought for the Day

Voices from around the world speak about the Covid experience. We need vaccination for all. My Thought for the Day on BBC Scotland yesterday

Covid has changed the lives of all of us – constraints on what we can do, anxiety and, for too many, painful bereavement.  

We focus on the figures and statistics – including of course the hopeful vaccination figures.  But we need to hear the voices and the lived experience of people – and not just in our relatively hopeful context.

I was fortunate to travel a lot as a church leader – I have friends and contacts in many places.  I listen to their voices.  From Brazil, where there have been 16 million cases and nearly half a million deaths, a friend says – ‘it’s sad to hear at an increasing pace news that people we know, including friends and relatives, are dying because of the virus

Another in South Africa said, ‘We used to hear figures and now we know names’

And from a children’s HIV/Aids Hospice in Kolkata, India, which I have visited, and which people in our church support – they tell me: ‘All the children live in communal spaces meaning the spread of Covid could be severe.  Every child is affected by HIV meaning they are immuno-suppressed’

I’ve now had both my jags.  It was a good moment – a slight ‘lump in the throat experience – a time to be thankful for what science can do.  But another voice said, ‘None of us is safe until everybody is safe’

The virus mutates and the variants spread – Kent, India and now Nepal.         The policy of trying to determine which places are safe enough for us to visit on holiday is now chaotic.  In those very limited terms, nowhere is 100% safe.

There is a logistical challenge about how we vaccinate the world population. It will be discussed at the G7 meeting this week.   It is also a conceptual, moral and spiritual challenge.   The question to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbour’ can have only one answer in this case – it’s everyone and everywhere.  It’s now also the question for us.

The world needs vaccination quickly

I have fond memories of my four visits to India – three to Kolkata where we had a diocesan companionship relationship and one to Kerala in the south. India is chaotic and crowded. And now it is an unfolding tragedy of suffering, pain and desperation where about 20000 people are dying every day.

We have now received both our vaccinations. There is a feeling of relief about that moment – but also a nagging concern that ‘none of us is safe until everyone is safe’. According to the Economist, the probable global death toll is 7.1 – 12.7 lives and the pandemic ‘has spread remorselessly from the rich, connected world to poorer, more isolated places. As it has done so, the global daily death rate has climbed steeply.’

The irony is of course that the Indian Covid variant now threatens a reverse of that rich to poor movement. The only way to stop it is to get vaccinations into arms as quickly as possible.

The reality is that rich countries have over-ordered vaccines because they did not know which vaccines would work. Britain has ordered nine doses for every adult. So what needs to be done to get an effective vaccination programme in the countries of the developing world? We have the means of protecting people all over the world – we just need to find a way of doing it.

Most obviously, rich countries could donate their surplus vaccines through COVAX – and that is happening to some extent. Then there is the need to waive intellectual property rights – this is moving slowly through the World Trade Organisation. Then there is the need to speed up manufacture and supply and that is already happening. The Economist reports that annual global vaccine capacity is moving from 3.5 bn per year to total output of 11 bn.

But back to the daily reality in India:

This is Mintu. He lives in the Aurima HIV/Aids Hospice in Kolkata which I have visited and which we have supported. My friend Ross Stirling Young, who has led fundraising to build a new wing at the Hospice, says on his Facebook today that Mintu has now tested positive for Covid. Mintu has helped with care for some of the younger children. It seems almost inevitable that Covid will now run through the Hospice – the children have all been affected by HIV and so they are immune-suppressed. Ross says further that the massive stigma associated with HIV means that access to hospitals is not always possible.

Mintu’s story is the human and individual face of a global tragedy. And it is a tragedy which is far from finished yet.

Churches and Climate Change – it matters what they do

It was good to see the Church of Scotland adding itself this week to the lengthening list of churches which have decided to disinvest from fossil fuel companies. Churches may be small investors in relative terms – but it is important that they should say clearly that investment in fossil fuels can no longer be treated as the norm or seen as ethically or morally acceptable.

It was also encouraging to see my former diocese in the Scottish Episcopal Church – the Diocese of St Andrews – announcing the winners of a competition in which young people were asked to share their ideas for a Carbon Neutral Church. In my experience, young people don’t need to be persuaded of the importance of this issue.

it really does matter what churches do in this. Churches too easily live within their own world and – I speak from experience here – spend far too much time talking to themselves in their internal dialogue. The decision to disinvest is important because it happens on the interface between faith communities and the wider society.

My reading in this area also reminds me that fossil fuel companies are generally valued by the size of their reserves. But it is becoming inconceivable that all of those reserves might ever be extracted and used – it’s the ‘leave it in the ground’ plea. If that is the case, those reserves lose may their value and become ‘stranded assets’. So the decision to divest may actually become one which is prudent.

I think – with some shame – of my own carbon footprint in the years before I retired. I used trains and buses as much as I could around Scotland. But I was living in the rural community to the north of Perth and it was hard not to be car-dependent. In my work of representing the SEC in the Anglican Communion, I took too many flights. But Covid has made that kind of travel impossible. Yet the national and international relationships of churches have continued.

One more thing – reporting of response to the climate emergency tends to focus on what governments are saying and doing. People like me take note of what faith communities are doing. But I hadn’t realised – until I was casually listening in the car – how much ‘push’ for change is coming in the world of industry,

It is good to hear that investors – particularly institutional investors – are pushing companies on GHG targets. But it was also news to me, as the Guardian reported recently, that there is a list of 100 companies which are the source of 71% of fossil fuel climate change.

None of this ever moves as fast as we might hope – but it is moving!

Brexit everywhere

What does the Hartlepool by-election result tell us? Many things, no doubt. But surely that the political dynamics which gave us Brexit are still very much in play – and not much that the Labour Party can do about it.

The same dynamics have brought an end to Arlene Foster’s time as First Minister of Northern Ireland. Under her leadership, the DUP made two strategic errors – the first when the supported Brexit; the second when they believed Boris Johnson when he said that there would be no border in the Irish Sea.

Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times, put it like this:

“They were exactly the consequences that unionism should have most feared. Brexit would destabilise the UK as a political entity. And it would, by dragging them out of the EU against their will, alienate the Catholics of Northern Ireland. It was a missile precisely targeted against Ulster unionism’s own protective walls. The DUP said: “Fire ahead!”

Meanwhile, on a slightly more cerebral level, I’ve been reading Professor Anthony Reddie’s book ‘Theologising Brexit’ – having listened to him recently on the Corrymeela Podcast. Professor Reddie is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture and a leading authority on Black Liberation Theology. He describes his book as concerned with ‘providing a theological articulation of the subtextual nature of Brexit that was the collective dis-ease with immigration, ‘race’ and notions of ethnic and cultural difference in Britain, as opposed to discussing the merits or otherwise of the European Union.’

In suggesting that churches and faith communities have largely failed to make a theological or prophetic response to Brexit, he mentions that ‘Anglicans were more disposed to vote Leave than any other religiously defined group in the United Kingdom when it came to Brexit.’ And he went on to remark that it was the Anglicanism of the Vicar of Dibley – where there wasn’t a black face in sight – which would have voted leave while the Anglicanism of ‘Rev’ would have voted Remain.

It seems to me that, as Arlene Foster discovered, Brexit poses political questions which it is very hard to answer. Meanwhile stresses and strains in the United Kingdom are growing – and the previously unimaginable prospect of some kind of rapprochement between North and South in Ireland becomes something which can at least be talked about.

100 years of Northern Ireland

Today marks the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland. Although I was born in Dublin, I grew up in Enniskillen – a beautiful place tarnished by the smoke and mirrors world of discrimination and gerrymander so well captured by Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. And of course Enniskillen is probably best known for the Remembrance Day bombing of 1987.

We did our best to make a contribution in reconciliation until the time came to move on in 2005 Much of my heart remains in Northern Ireland. Our children grew up there. The people are wonderful – warm and kind. They have wonderful turns of phrase which stay with me. We lived through the ups and downs of the Troubles – both the hopes and the awfulness of it all.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a real moment of hope. It has largely ended the violence but Northern Ireland really isn’t a place at ease with itself. I remember that I misread the significance of the Agreement – telling my congregation that Easter Sunday that it would strengthen the centre and marginalise the extremes. In fact, it did the opposite.

Professor Duncan Morrow has been writing today on his Facebook page. What he writes is the best analysis I have read of the situation as we now find it. This is part of what he said:

The peace process and the Good Friday Agreement were by far the closest Northern Ireland came to a second chance. After years of carnage, Britain and Ireland concluded that hard borders in Ireland were incompatible with a sustainable peace. So we got the opposite: reconciliation, shared government, human rights, North-South and East-West bodies, consent and exclusively peaceful and democratic means. And open borders and self defined citizenship which allowed the water of nationality to find its own level.It has been complicated enough. The institutions and principles designed in 1998 have tottered between promise and collapse. A new generation escaped the trauma of everyday violence, although real trust has been hard to detect. But there was at least a project until Brexit. In practice, Brexit was the moment when the British interest in peace in Ireland was subordinated to a determination to leave the European Union. It was not so much that they were against the peace- on balance they were for it- but the Brexiteers saw NI- even Unionism- as a second order commitment, not in the end essential compared to escape for England from the vice of Brussels. And so the paradox. A century after partition, a British PM was willing to try anything to sort his ‘Irish problem’. Instrumentalism was back in. For Boris, get Brexit done meant removing the ‘obstacle’ of Northern Ireland, and dealing with the costs later, maybe.But the Irish problem was and is that the Good Friday Agreement – or at least the spirit of reconciliation and tolerance which was its purpose – is destroyed by the hard borders which are the purpose of Brexit. So getting Brexit done meant sidelining all of that. Unable and unwilling to enforce a border in Ireland, the UK government agreed that the problem should be resolved by controls within its own territory. And so this time we got the border in the Irish Sea.As we hit 100 years, it is hard, these days, to detect much ‘celebration’ of the Irish border. Nationalists, not surprisingly, see it as Ireland’s greatest historical injustice, something to be mourned and reversed and given no encouragement. But as the consequences of the Brexit deal sinks in, Unionism finds itself in a tail-spin, with no obvious project except the continuous negative refusal of Irish unity.

The story from here is hard to read. The DUP, having supported Brexit now finds itself in a political situation which is simply impossible The centre ground is growing and that at least is promising. One article today said that, for every vote which the DUP loses to groups to the right of it, it loses three to the Alliance Party. I heard Dennis Murray, former BBC Northern Ireland Political Correspondent in an interview today about the centenary. He suggested that Northern Ireland has some years left in it because that suits the main players in Britain and Ireland. Maybe … but the pace of change everywhere in Britain and Ireland is quickening by the day.

Dream Deferred

Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem – written in the year of my birth 1951 – says this:

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

A comment in the Church Times from Canon Mark Oakley pointed me towards these lines and I used Dream Deferred as the title for a Quiet Morning last Wednesday. The poem seems to me to say something haunting about the experience – the constraint – of lockdown. And since a Quiet Morning seems to have plenty of talk in it, I had time to explore it.

I was with the clergy of the two Church of Ireland Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and Limerick and Killaloe – two dioceses which will soon join together. Zoom in these moments is amazing. I was at home in Edinburgh – the clergy, lay readers and others were stretched all along the western seaboard of Ireland from Westport in the North to Dingle in the far south west. There were 53 of them involved. Online meetings make sense when you consider the travel time and cost involved in moving from one end of the country to the other.

Much of what I learned from them had echoes in our experience in Scotland. We have similar challenges in sustaining a presence across huge geographical spaces and with relatively small numbers. We too have found that endless amalgamations and groupings don’t necessarily achieve what is needed – better by far to identify and put in place some indigenous ministry presence in each place. So I listened to people introducing themselves – a relatively small number of stipendiary clergy working with auxiliaries, lay readers and others. A real patchwork of committed ministry.

We talked of course about Covid, about lockdown – about how we have experienced the constraints of that personally. And we talked about how it has affected ministry. We talked about dreams deferred. The real challenge was to explore together how the pandemic will have changed our society – and there can be little doubt that it will be found to have brought fundamental changes – and how we in the church will need to respond.

Thought for the Day

I’m still doing a regular Thought for the Day for BBC Scotland. One of the really great things of the Covid era is that I no longer have to be in the Studio to broadcast at 7.22 am – just nip upstairs for ten minutes and it’s done!


In this Easter season we dare to hope that a new and brighter future is beginning to beckon beyond the pandemic.  Easter is always linked to springtime with fresh flowers and brighter days.  And spiritually it is a springtime of hope – hope in death defeated and evil overcome.

I guess that for most of us, it will be enough just to get back to some kind of normal – freedom to move around, to meet family and friends, to socialise and to go on holiday.  But, even if we are not yet aware of it, the trauma of the pandemic will have brought fundamental changes to our society.   We have all suffered but the price has been paid more by some than others – the elderly, the poor more than the rich, BAME communities.  Then there are the lost jobs and ruined businesses. Change will come.

In 1945, the world emerged from another long agony – the horrors of World War II – brought to an end by the inhuman agony of the atom bomb and leading to the uncovering of the holocaust.  People were exhausted – time out for recovery would have been understandable – unimaginable amounts of money had been spent and needed to be repaid.  It sounds familiar.

But terrible conflict had actually cleared the way for change.  And within just a few years, the social map of Britain had altered drastically.  The 1944 Education Act had already made secondary education free and available for all.  Then in 1948 came the founding of the NHS with its promise of healthcare free for all at the point of delivery.  And it is the same NHS which has brought us through the Covid pandemic at huge financial cost but even more personal and emotional cost for its staff.

Those changes of the 1940’s graced our society – astonishing in their vision and commitment to the flourishing of all.  They actually transcended everyday politics.  At this moment, we hope again – hope for nothing less.

Writing Faith

My parishioners used to say that they ‘did not know what they were supposed to believe.’  I never quite knew how to respond to that.  But I always wondered.  Because when the moment came ……….it was very clear that they knew exactly.  They might not have been able to speak it.  But they were experts in deep faith deployed with dignity.  Or, to put it another way, they had the ‘faith thing’ of being able to face both life and death calm and unafraid.

Those wonderful people taught me that the church doesn’t function primarily on theological concepts or dogma elegantly defined.  What builds it and sustains it is faith and trust, relationships, openness and honesty, a passion for justice .. and many more.  As I write that, I wonder if that kind of faith maybe doesn’t transmit very easily to those who are not part of it.  And it may just be vulnerable to idealised pictures of how things were in the past.  But that isn’t its fault.

Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, has just written a book called ‘Dear England.’  He is a person worth listening to because he has a breadth of involvement – being both President of Affirming Catholicism and Chair of the Church Army Board.

I slightly tripped over ‘Dear England’ – immediately brought back to John Major’s George Orwell reference to elderly ladies ‘bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.’   And then I wondered what a ‘Dear Scotland’ letter might look like.  And I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

He began at the Costa Coffee stall at Paddington Station where a young woman asked him ‘why I was a priest.’  To which he replied that it was because, ‘I believed in God, that I believed that God was made known in Jesus, that I believed that God wanted, through Jesus and through me, to change the world and that God was going to do it by changing my heart.’

This not a ‘simple guide to Christian faith’.  It is a passionate attempt to set out a coherent way of coming to terms with faith and living it with integrity in society.

I’ll come back another day to what he says about Covid – and about the relationships of the nations of the British Isles and the relationship with Europe.

But for now I’m going to go on thinking about that Dear Scotland letter


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