Facing up to failings in Church of Ireland’s view of the other

Opinion: As Christians, we are called to put love into action among our neighbours, no matter who they are

In the course of a broad-ranging address to the Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Synods on October 15th, 2013, my overall theme was: change and consolidation, harvesting the fruits of the Spirit. In addressing change and consolidation, I identified areas in the dioceses where clergy and people have done groundbreaking work and also areas where there is a need to do considerably more work.

One such focus is the structured involvement and intentional engagement in the local parochial life of the Church of Ireland, as a pervasive norm, on the part of those who are Anglicans in two particular definitions: (a) those whom we still call immigrants and who are now our neighbours and have been Anglicans in their countries of origin; and (b) those who are Anglicans by conviction having formerly been members of other Christian traditions or other world faiths.

Both are our fellow-worshippers. They witness to the saving and redeeming work of God in Jesus Christ. They live this life of faith with us in the here and now through the Holy Spirit. I applaud and support the courageous work of mission of many lay people and clergy across these united dioceses who have sought such spiritual and ecclesiological integration of people who are our equals before God and who, like each of us, are made in the image and likeness of God.

Worry over inclusion
Such was the worry that newcomers were not experiencing welcome and inclusion in parishes across these united dioceses that Archbishop John Neill, formerly archbishop of Dublin and bishop of Glendalough, set up a working group, which reported in 2005. The report produced by the group, Welcoming Angels, acknowledged that it was responding to a root problem that "seems to be a lack of proper welcome from the Church of Ireland" .

My concern in 2013 is that the inclusive attitudes and behaviours that I support and applaud are still not a universal phenomenon in these united dioceses (of Dublin and Glendalough). The problems acknowledged in Welcoming Angels appear to persist. I have been told by concerned clergy that some of them experience resistance to change in their parishes when they engage in work to welcome and integrate new people. That resistance often comes from small groups of assertive lay people who are, perhaps, fearful of change and of the challenge to their comfort zones. The first scoping study report of the Hard Gospel project, published in 2003, told us that clergy all across this island tend to be more open to ecumenism and more positively oriented to change than are some lay people.

Dr Neill, formerly archbishop of Dublin and bishop of Glendalough, spoke pertinently of tribalism at the launch of Malcolm Macourt's book Counting the People of God? The Census of Population and the Church of Ireland in February 2009. He believed this phenomenon was confined to rural areas, and spoke of new members of the Church of Ireland as those who share "none of the prejudices, customs, memories of the 'tribe'". Significantly, he made no reference in his launch to the cast of mind of historic, or even perhaps genetic, members of the Church of Ireland or to the urban areas in this movement towards effective openness and freshness. This has to be the other side of this numerological coin, regarding the influx into the contemporary Church of Ireland of those who were not previously "members" in any sense of that word. It is entitled to its own analysis, in all its richness and complexity combined.


Dr Richard Clarke, archbishop of Armagh, speaks with characteristic nuance of a childhood in a Dublin parish as manifesting a form of apartheid in the following terms: “The word ‘apartheid’ has unpleasant overtones, and yet it is hard to think of a Church of Ireland childhood in the 1950s … as anything other than a form of denominational apartheid … it was apartheid by mutual consent.” (Hard Gospel Untold Stories 2002) This, to my mind, opens up again the debate with honesty and, I feel, gives permission to ask the question of contemporary Dublin and Wicklow about the manifestation of such a mindset, if indeed such there be.

Such a debate needs to focus largely on the attitudes displayed by long-standing members of the Church of Ireland, young and old alike, to those who are fresh to the church. There are, of course, many variables including the more obvious, namely age difference and life experience in individuals regarding perspectives and beliefs held. As I outline below, there continue to be stories of ongoing fear and prejudice that belong with the Hard Gospel material.

There are examples from Anglican institutions that match the experiences reported from parishes. I recently was astonished by the following phrase, “Polyester Protestants” being used to describe those whom I have delineated as Anglicans by conviction.

This phrase was reported to me by a member of the community in a prestigious institution in Dublin suburbia and is in current use. It is reported to me as being used in that institution by cradle members of the Church of Ireland to describe fellow community members who are Anglicans by conviction.

I also add that in my work throughout these united dioceses, people speak with me and write to me about the continuing hurt to which they are subjected from within the Church of Ireland community because they married someone of a tradition other than their own, most usually a Roman Catholic person.

Deeply pejorative
I remember earlier this year the deeply pejorative remarks I heard directed against the Roman Catholic Church by members of these dioceses to me because of its stance and principle on abortion. The comments were conversational but it was, more than anything, the assumption of an entitlement to be dismissive more than the criticism of content of the other tradition that came across as instinctive.

I remember only last year going to address an historical society in another part of the Republic of Ireland having been invited to speak on aspects of Northern Ireland and having to tear up my speech. I did so in order to speak, and listen and respond very gently as people told stories of relatives who had fought both in the first World War and in the second as Irish people and who were shunned as "disloyalists" (my own phrase) in their communities on their return. They went on to live lives of public and private shame in an Ireland which was claiming for itself mature international nationhood.

The cultural apartheid that was labelled as such by Archbishop Clarke lives on in the ways of thinking that frame many aspects of Irish life, whether in our own faith community or in the broader society. The fear of difference that is at the basis of that desire for segregation has, I believe, impacted on our ability to welcome the newcomers among us.

Lest you think such evidence is simply personal and anecdotal, let me quote from two recent publications which point us in the direction of an entitlement to raise issues about sectarianism in the Church of Ireland, and beyond, of today.

The first is from Outside the Glow by Heather K Crawford (2010). Crawford describes the reception by the Church of Ireland of ARCIC I (Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission) thus: "However, its final report, when issued in 1982, 'was coldly received by the General Synod with … a grudging and graceless assent.' Ultimately many Protestants were 'suspicious of an even intra-Protestant rapprochement, let alone of cross-confessional treating.' (page 109, quoting Daithi Ó Corrain, Render to God and Caesar: The Irish Churches and the Two States in Ireland, 1949-73 (Manchester, 2006), page 182.)

Not 'one of our own'
The second comes from people within Dublin and Glendalough, a study by Anne Lodge and Dermot Dunne entitled "Crossing the Boundary – implications for leadership in the C of I" (Search 2010). This is a highly sophisticated paper by two people who hold significant roles of leadership in the contemporary Church of Ireland and are members of these dioceses. For such reasons it would be quite unfair positively to generalise from their nuanced particular. However, the following phrase in this paper is one that I hear on the lips of contemporary members of these dioceses time and again in some form: "You will have to keep an eye on her. She isn't one of our own. She doesn't know our ways." I hear it also in the male gender form.

To my mind this challenge indicates that the position articulated by Dr Clarke continues to impact on our thinking. It presupposes an inner and inaccessible identity as definitive of being Church of Ireland that is ultimately inaccessible to those views as the outsider while they are on the inside. I hear it regularly in 2013. To my mind it runs in the face of an openly accessible Anglican life in the church and in its institutions. It is a warning shot.

When I went to work in Cork in 1997 I remember vividly the following comment: "You come from 'the North', don't you? You will find none of that sort of thing here." It came from two members of my parish. My reply, even then, was: "I shall have to wait and see."

Complacency and self-congratulation
Crawford's 2010 study found evidence of suspicion between communities right across this country. My question for exploration now is: Why should Dublin and Glendalough be totally different from the rest of Ireland?

I remind all of us of the words of the former dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, the Very Rev Victor Griffin in his book Enough Religion to Make Us Hate. He says that he found upon his arrival to serve in Dublin at the beginning of the Troubles at the end of the 1960s "a general atmosphere of complacency and indeed self-congratulation on having a society which, if not perfect, needed very little, if any change when compared to Northern Ireland".

My further question is whether these united dioceses have changed in the interim? And my resultant questions are: What can we do and with whom to improve things, to help alleviate distrust and an apparent unwillingness on the part of some in our community to welcome newcomers to our churches and our institutions? Is there not scope for a further Hard Gospel initiative in the Church of Ireland in areas insufficiently touched by the initial study?

Ultimately, the Gospel calls each of us to reflect on our own attitudes and behaviours, to be courageous and mature enough to recognise that there may still be a plank in our own eyes while we are busy criticising the splinter in the eye of our neighbour. Change in attitudes, in behaviour and in acceptance of new challenges, new neighbours is seldom comfortable. But as Christians we are called to put Christ’s love into action among our neighbours, no matter who they are.

Dr Michael Jackson is Archbishop of Dublin and Bishop of Glendalough