A new land, a new church and new horizons.
Religion in Ireland today might surprise you
After twenty years ministry in the Church of England, my wife, Sue, and I and our two boys Fergus and Patrick (19 and 20) and the two dogs left our vicarage of nine years and moved to a post in the Church of Ireland, on the west coast of County Clare.
We left the town centre parish church of the established church, where the assumption was that most people in the community were nominally C of E, and where I had an accepted and prominent role as ‘vicar’. We moved to a much smaller town centre church, of a tiny minority community of Irish but also English, Welsh, Scottish, South African and American Anglicans. As most Anglicans are in the East Coast or the midlands, located in the extreme west coast of Ireland, we are smaller still. Fortunately, we were familiar with the area, having holidayed here since our boys were small, so we generally thought we knew how things would be, notwithstanding the culture shift of moving from the Church of England to the Church of Ireland.
Of course, we had not reckoned on moving into the Rectory three weeks before the country went into a Covid 19 lockdown that was to last for most of the year, save for a brief reopening in the summer, and which now looks set to continue past March 2021. At times, as now, we have not been able to move further than 5km from our home, despite the fact that my ‘parish’ spans the entire county.
As is my wont (as an ex-television and advertising executive) I arrived with to do lists, pre-prepared strategy documents and a list of short, medium and long-term objectives. Naturally, I expected to adjust them as I went along - I did not expect to drop them almost entirely. What is the old joke - How do you make God laugh - tell him your plans?
And so, I found myself having to learn video and audio recording and editing techniques and software, the nuances of camera technology and making a DIY teleprompter - such is ministry post covid. We set up our own YouTube channel which now has around 200 videos comprising services (including Tenebrae and a one-man Easter Vigil) plus talks, sermons and prayer meditations that we send out via email and Facebook. We have a new website with a selection of video from the ‘greats’ including Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong, Karen Armstrong, Dom Crossan, Richard Rohr, Mathew Fox, Walter Bruggemann, Tex Sample and others such as Yvette Flunder and Robin Meyers. We have blogs and vlogs, podcasts and resources plus links to theologians and organisations such as PCN Britain.
Religion in Ireland today might surprise you; the past is so filled with stories of abuse and exploitation, the recent Mother and Baby Homes report not least among them, that those outside this island could feel that Ireland still treads that traditional and superstitious path. But things have been changing and rapidly too. Repeated shocks and scandals have meant that the old ‘theocracy’ is largely a thing of the past and whilst there is still respect for clergy and religious who are selfless and loving, the people have learned to distinguish the wheat from the chaff - there being little sympathy for the latter.
In the Church of Ireland, certainty in my brief experience, the ministry of women clergy is such an established fact as to rarely be a topic for comment, compared to the CofE diocese I left where the issue was still fraught and divisive. The majority of my fellow local clergy have also expressed support for same-sex marriage blessings and I suspect that this would also hold true in large part for weddings too.
Whilst certain parts of the country still have a reputation for discord between church traditions, I have to say that in the South, in County Clare, the ecumenical situation is welcoming, genuinely respectful and mutually supportive. I meet the local Catholic Bishop for morning prayers every two weeks (when restrictions allow) and my Bishop and he work well together, including on video. Indeed, I have been asked to video more of their ‘double-acts’ for future videos and services with joint blessings etc. Certainly, I am not so dewy eyed as to deny that many unresolved issues remain between us, but to address them there must be good will, and I have encountered that to a heartening degree.
All in all, I feel that the time is ripe to start a group for progressive Christians here, although we may be widely dispersed and will need to be more online based than meeting regularly. I very much hope that PCN Britain will one day have a partner PCN Ireland.
Please do visit our website: clareanglicans.ie and YouTube channel, search under: St Columba’s Church, Ennis and subscribe if you would like, comments and constructive criticism would be welcome. We are slowly building a presence and there is great potential for the progressive Christian voice to be heard in Ireland.
People in Ireland are clearly ‘done’ with authoritarian religion, but thankfully they are not done with faith.
Revd Kevin O’Brien
St Columba’s Church, Ennis
with Kilnasoolagh and
Christ Church, Spanish Point.