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.

EV’s – the real problem?

We drove 90 miles last Monday in our electric Renault Zoe – along the M8 and the M74 to our weekly child-minding commitment. We came home with 53% still in the battery and we’ll run around locally on that for a day or two before charging overnight at 5p per unit.

The Zoe is smooth, silent and swift. But I’m not completely convinced that this is the future. I suspect it’s like the ‘battle of the formats’ when VHS overcame Betamax in the struggle for a single video recording format. People may talk wistfully about hydrogen power and fuel cell technology. But the investment is going into EV’s and that’s how it’s going to be – regardless of the merits of the issue.

Cost and range are the two big issues in the EV world. Cost is a bit challenging – for people like us who have always run second-hand diesels until they would run no more. But there are remarkable cost savings which offset the up-front cost, Range, as you can see, is not a daily concern. The car claims 245 miles but of course never does anything like that particularly In cold weather when temperature greatly reduces the range. The problem comes when you actually want to go somewhere beyond the immediate range of the battery – my sister in Cambridge or Donegal. That sort of trip requires significant advance planning and quite a bit of extra time. First stop is the Zap-Map which tells you where the charging points are, how fast they are, whether or not they are in service and whether they are currently occupied. Even a brief survey presents a dismal picture. Far too many charge points – particularly off the motorways – are out of service.

Which magazine took aim at this in its April edition. People see the problem as being about the range of the cars – but it is actually as much if not more about the viability of the charging network. There is no single plug format or charging speed. There is limited ability simply to arrive and make a contactless payment – you have to sign up to each charging network in advance. Tesla has installed its own charging network which excludes all other makes. And of course there is the problem that too much of the charging network is out of service anyway.

if the government is serious about a general move to EV’s by 2030, this is going to have to be dealt with – as is the challenge of providing access to home chargers for people who do not have a private driveway.

Until then, people will stay away – or will do as we have done which is to run a second car alongside an EV – open to the accusation of ‘virtue signalling’

The big questions

Huge events leave searching questions in their wake.

I’ve been working on material to share with a group of clergy next week – exploring the post-Covid world which we hope is now beginning to beckon. No problem with the obvious questions which churches face – about the continuation or not of online worship, about the challenge of rebuilding congregations and many others

But the real questions may be ones like, ‘So what do faith communities have to say and offer to the post-Covid world?’ and ‘Will we find that the way we were before Covid isn’t there any more and that we have to be made new?’

The pandemic has shaken our society to its foundations. Easy notions that life will always be as it has been – and that problems can always be fixed – have been shown to be false. Inequality abounds – the pandemic has affected different age and ethnic groups to a greater or lesser extent. Some people have been impoverished and others enriched because their income was secure and they couldn’t spend it. Employment has become yet more fragile. Personal freedoms have been hugely inhibited in the interest of the common good. Successive lockdowns have challenged our mental health. We have all been forced to look our mortality in the eye. Many have been painfully bereaved and unable to mourn properly. There has been absolute heroism in the people most affected and in the carers.

That picture – however incomplete and however inadequately expressed – is the world which we in the faith communities are going to have to address. Christians would say that these are Gospel questions – what we say of comfort and hope and faith – what pictures of meaning we can offer – to a world of suffering and insecurity which needs some hope to enable it to move forwards. I think we need to help that world to find a new spiritual and moral rootedness.

In terms of the ability of churches to meet that challenge, I hope that we may find that, even if the pandemic leaves us to some extent institutionally weaker, it will leave us spiritually more agile and better able to speak and act out of the heart of what our faith is about.

These moments of challenge come around in all sorts of different guises. In my own lifetime, I think about what it was like to emerge from the decades-long Troubles of Northern Ireland. The long years of violence drove people back into sectarian blocs which artificially made churches look stronger. The coming of peace – of a kind – has gradually been reversing that movement and churches have to find a new narrative for more secular and maybe less sectarian times.

The Celtic Tiger period in Ireland was another. Unimagined prosperity arrived and everything changed. It proved to be a great engine of secularisation – once again one which requires a new narrative. Ireland is no longer the almost universally religious country which it was

Every institution and organisation has to face these moments. Last week at the Funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh we were watching the monarchy beginning to respond to similar challenges. The lonely and bereaved monarch sitting on her own moved hearts. The lesson was of identification – others may disobey the rules because they are powerful and think they can get away with it. But she did not.

I can’t resist the bizarre story of the demise of the new European Superleague. At first I neither cared nor understood. But the narrative from fans and players gradually became clear. Football in which it isn’t possible for a team to lose and be relegated isn’t worth anything – no matter how many millions it generates for already rich owners. There is spirituality of a kind in that understanding.

These are moments of seismic change. We can probably only work it out gradually and as we live it. By the time I meet the clergy next week – on Zoom of course – I hope to be maybe half a step further on!

Big Government

I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with the US. Many visits and many friends – much time spent working on the historic relationship between the Scottish and the American Episcopal Churches. So I thought it was a bit ironic that my final working visit to the US began when I preached at the Diocesan Convention in Cleveland, Ohio four days after the 2016 Presidential Election – in the heart of Trump country. I remember a sense of real foreboding as I watched the building of the dais where Donald Trump was soon to be sworn in and would make his notorious ‘America First’ speech.

The commentators are working hard on their assessment of the Trump years – excellent material like John Sopel’s ‘Unpresidented’

But it’s a real surprise that they are now having to come to terms with the speed and determination of President Joe Biden’s move to the progressive left. Many appear dumbstruck by Biden’s sheer audacity. Over a long career, he was many things but never a radical. Reversing normal practice, he ran from the centre, yet now he governs from the progressive left. Perhaps, at 78, he feels he has little to lose and the nation much to gain. Biden is a man in a hurry and spurring him is not only an older man’s zeal but a crude calculation. The Democrats’ majority in Congress is wafer-thin and the 2022 midterms loom.

In part this is about the return of ‘big government’. Some compare him to President Franklin D Roosevelt whose New Deal saw America through the Great Depression and World War II. Irish President Michael D Higgins put it like this:

“The notion was that the state should be small, where it was tolerated at all, but here we are now, where, at the global level, we can’t possibly respond to the challenge of climate change without the state. And now with the pandemic – again it is the state.”

The theorists of minimal government, he suggests, “have all run to the hills but they’re not gone away. They are in the bushes. They will re-emerge on an argument about the deficit. There is no way you can handle the state deficits that are built up in responding to Covid and say it can be done in that [old] model.”   

People write with appreciation of the competence of the new administration and its readiness to listen and to take ideas on board.

But some things look very familiar to anyone who has tried to offer radical leadership in a conservative/traditional context. I used to say in the parish that ‘I would always approach from the right’ if I wanted people to go with me. Biden is really interesting in his approach. After Donald Trump’s non-stop Twitter assault on the psyche of the American people, Biden is quiet and invisible for much of the time. They say he has the gift of making his most daring and radical proposals seem utterly boring.

And the polls seem to suggest that it is working. Public support is high. And one more thing …. Biden is a natural ‘crosser of the aisle’ – always wanting to see if he can make a cross-party approach work. At this moment, he has made the pragmatic assessment that that isn’t going to work for him with today’s Republican Party and he is forging ahead anyway. Even the most dedicated healers and reconcilers sometimes need to recognise when that just isn’t going to work.

To Zoom or not to Zoom

We were back in church at Easter. On many levels it’s good to be back in the church community. But ….. the small numbers, the absence of singing, the masks … I guess that, as we move back to some kind of normality, the ‘in church’ experience will improve. And then we’ll have to talk about whether Zoom was just something we did when we had no alternative – is it going to be an enduring part of what we offer.

This is actually a number of quite separate questions. There is the Lord Braid view that online worship is an alternative rather than worship itself. I guess that questions about the authenticity of sacraments are in the same area. I have to confess that there are things about worship on Zoom which I like. I like being able to see the congregation all on the screen at the same time. I like being able to visit a number of churches – some would say that I am fickle. But Zoom really helps to challenge the congregationalism which is so characteristic of church life. And it makes it possible to include housebound people in the community – and to give people who may be considering joining a congregation an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’

I know that I am privileged in my ability to have a ‘view from the pew’ or more often a ‘view from the laptop on the kitchen table.’ To lead worship on Zoom must be very demanding – particularly if you want to do more than just ‘point a camera’ at what you would have been doing anyway. One of my clergy friends described it to me as ‘like running a small theatre which also broadcasts its offerings.’

I suspect that we are going to be talking about this for a long time. I’m about to run a clergy ‘Quiet Day’ on Zoom. I wonder how that will go!

Back to Rioting

I left Northern Ireland in 2005. So I have a sort of accumulated understanding of it – but I don’t have the day by day nuances of it any more.

I certainly know about the peace lines where the current rioting is taking place. I made my start in ministry in 1976 on the Oldpark and Ballysillan Roads. In West Belfast, the communities are divided into clearly-defined areas. But this area of North Belfast was and remains an area of conflict because the communities are interwoven street by street. In the parish area where I started, there were no fewer than eight peace lines – tall metal structures designed to make people feel safe by separating them. And now, nearly fifty years later, the same cycles of violence are being played out. And the reasons for it are both as brutally simple and as mystifyingly complex as ever.

The simple answer? Well it usually comes down to some version of the Zero Sum Game. BBC reporter Emma Vardy walked down the pavement with a young man who explained it succinctly – if people come to believe that Sinn Fein are winning, then our side must be losing. And some suggest that the view that Sinn Fein are winning is rooted in the decision not to bring prosecutions for Covid rule violations around the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey. And so we see young people hurling rocks and petrol bombs.

But the more complex reasons?

Today’s headline in the Guardian says ‘Boris Johnson’s careless Brexit is now playing out in Belfast. And surely at least some of the truth is in there. Brexit was always going to be costly for Ireland – if there couldn’t be a border on the island of Ireland, then there had to be a tariff barrier in the Irish Sea. That has been enough to lead some of the unionist population to believe that their status within the United Kingdom is being changed. We have sat on the quayside in Larne and Cairnryan and thought about these things – sat in queues sometimes of as few as eight cars and thought about the nonsensical and whimsical plans for a bridge or a tunnel as a way of helping us to feel closer together

If we open the focus out more widely, we end up needing to consider the future shape of the nations of the British Isles and their inter-relationships

I’ve been reading Gavin Esler’s book: ‘How Britain ends: English nationalism and the rebirth of four nations’

I’ll return another day to the themes of this book. But for now, I simply restate this comment: ‘The central argument of this book is that, while the United Kingdom can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism’

That analysis assumes that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism. As such it inevitably destabilises all the other relationships within the United Kingdom and the British Isles.

Categorised as Identity

Dear Scotland

Archbishop Stephen Cottrell’s ‘Dear England’ book has nudged me to think about ‘Dear Scotland’. There are many things which I could write about – with great affection. But the one which interests me most is the nature of secular society in Scotland.

Almost everywhere, society has been becoming more secular. It’s a sort of inexorable attrition of the life of faith and the practice of religion. To turn the tide tends to be a Canute-like endeavour. But strangely, as our societies become more multi-faith, religion paradoxically becomes more important,

It took me a long time to realise that what drives the secularising movement is not the same in every society.

In England, it’s been a steady ‘movement away’ and I’m often surprised by how much is left. In Ireland, the prosperous ‘Celtic Tiger’ years and the abuse scandals reduced the Catholic Church to a shadow of itself in a single generation. In Northern Ireland, the all-pervasive sectarianism artificially sustained religious affiliation – and the peace process has tended to weaken it. But there is a long way to go.

The Brierley Consultancy has been surveying religious practice in Scotland for many years. The figures are startling:

The 1984 Scottish Census recorded total church attendance as 854,000, and between 1984 and 2002 it reduced by 33% to 570,000 in 2002. That 2002 attendance figure has reduced over 14 years to 390,000 in 2016, a reduction of 32%.

No doubt there are many causes behind those figures – but the one which seems to me to be ‘special to Scotland’ is the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The Enlightenment implanted in the Scottish DNA strands of rationalism and empiricism. So the roots of Scottish secular society lie in an intellectual movement not in a gradual ‘falling away’. It is obvious that this will make efforts to grow religious movements challenging to say the least.

Faith communities say, quite rightly, that a decline in religious practice is not the same as the absence of appetite for exploration of the spiritual. But, as applies everywhere, it helps to understand the context.

So my experience has been that it is possible to stir interest in spirituality and prayer. Many people have a radical and faith-driven attitude to issues of social justice. Celtic spirituality remains deeply attractive to many and is increasingly being expressed in the growing pilgrimage movement.

But in a society like this, it is tempting for faith communities to live inside their own world. It takes energy – but it is absolutely necessary that they should try and engage with the whole of society and take their place in the ‘public square’

More another day

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