United Dioceses of Dublin & Glendalough



Archbishop pleads with Government to refrain from further budget cuts to Special Needs funds

During his Presidential Address at the Diocesan Synod of the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough, the Most Revd Dr John Neill pleaded with the government to refrain from making further budget cuts to funds allocated to helping children with special needs, saying "a society is surely judged not by its wealth or by its poverty, but by its care of the most vulnerable".

In his speech, Dr Neill also spoke of the regrettable fact that many problems in healthcare and education in Ireland have worsened during his eight years as Archbishop and called for anomalies in both systems to be addressed sooner rather than later. He also encouraged the continued engagement in ecumenical advancement and called on both clergy and lay people to set an example of this at local level, calling for this to be reflected at the highest international level where there have been several severe setbacks.

When speaking of society at large, Dr Neill admitted there is a "serious sense of disillusionment" felt by many in the current economic climate but encouraged people to not lose hope as it is "an attitude of mind, and indeed an attitude of faith".  

The full transcript of the presidential address is provided below.

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The presidential address at a Diocesan Synod is normally an opportunity for a bishop to suggest some of the issues facing church and the implications for the diocese as it faces to the future.  It is also a time when a bishop may offer some leadership and perhaps seek to move the mission of the diocese forward. On this occasion, my ninth and last Presidential address to these Diocesan Synods, it is hardly proper for me to fulfil exactly this role, though I hope that what I say may prove in some manner worthwhile to those of you who are entrusted in one way or another with sharing in the next chapter in the life of the Church of Ireland in the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough. This is not a farewell address, for I intend with God’s help to continue in office until the end of January and complete a quarter of century as a diocesan bishop in the Church of God. So what I intend to do now is to reflect a little on where we are today and this may be of some value to those who will be responsible for moving forward the life of the diocese.


My first topic is to consider where the Church in the diocese actually is today in the autumn of 2010.  In this respect I can reflect as a child of this diocese, and ordained in the diocese almost forty two years ago, but also as curate and rector here for eight years and archbishop for another eight years.

I detect firstly a sense of unity in the diocese that has grown rather than diminished across the years.  That unity stretches across those of differing theological outlooks and those of churchmanship – and this is something for which I thank God.  I see the clergy as a team, and I see lay ministry developing alongside the ordained ministry in this same spirit of unity.  Though, we cannot but take different views as to the divisions that seem to be emerging in the wider Anglican Communion, I find that with few exceptions they have caused little division here in the diocese.

Such a sense of unity becomes more important when faced by diversity of every kind with the diocese. Our congregations are no longer made up almost exclusively of “cradle” Anglicans, that is those born within this part of the Christian Church. We have many people who have joined our parishes through deliberate choice, and not only from other churches, but from a position of religious apathy or alienation. It has been my joy to baptise into the Church, or to confirm, those who have come from outside any connection with the Christian religion. We also welcome to our churches those of many different racial backgrounds and rejoice when they make their spiritual home with us. The effect of this is that in some parishes the tightly knit community which has long lived by its own local family structures, and its own denominational identity story, is augmented or even outnumbered by those with another story to tell. The assimilation of such diversity is a work in progress in some places.

The drift towards the city has across these many years reduced the church population in rural Ireland, which was once seen as the backbone of the Church of Ireland.  There is no reversing this, as the Government found in its own way with its failed decentralisation plan, but it does throw up some challenges for the Church. Those coming from rural life often find the city and suburban churches quite different, and even impersonal compared with small country churches where the same families have worshipped for generations. This is an example of the way in which it is essential that the wide diversity of newcomers to churches must be recognised.

Like many parts of society, we are facing increasing administrative burdens in the parishes. It is easy to write it off as simply a burden placed on us by those who love bureaucratic demands – but it is more important than that.  For example the administration of safeguarding trust is essential because of experience of what happens when the vulnerable, especially children are not cared for and protected. And in this context, may I urge that the audits and training opportunities be taken very seriously in each parish. Similarly the new Charities Legislation is essential to prevent the misuse of funds raised for specific charitable purposes, and so the list could continue. However one of the results has not only been an increased workload on parishes, but in some cases on the parochial clergy. Some may be fortunate as serving in parishes with the resources, human and financial, to remove much of this burden. Other clergy may have particular skills and cope easily with administrative responsibilities. The fact is that many either find the burden overwhelming, or else spend so much time fulfilling such duties that they have little time to do what they were ordained to do, and what indeed parishes have a right to expect.  This is bound to lead to incredible stress, and there are many signs of such stress among clergy throughout the Church of Ireland. Incidentally this stress tends to quickly have an effect on the spouse as well, and my wife recently organised a very well supported residential conference for clergy spouses, similar to those occasionally provided for clergy. I mention this subject because serious stress is something that I have detected as increasing among clergy across the years. Stress leads to a lack of morale and spiritual aridity.

But to return to the positive features of life in the diocese for which we thank God. I have remarked several times recently on the numbers and quality of those presenting for ordination from these United Dioceses. We are producing well over a third of the ordinands in the whole Church of Ireland, fifteen of the present forty candidates in training. I am encouraged by this, but also by what is a real factor in it. The clergy, whatever the pressures to which I have already referred, are setting an example, and the parishes themselves are definitely becoming more mission orientated. It is remarkable to compare the Diocesan Council on which I served perhaps thirty years ago with the Council today. Whilst still the list of decisions taken may look as if the work of the Council is chiefly about matters of administration, but the longest and fullest discussions at the Council are not about money nor buildings, they are about mission - be that mission among the young, or outreach to the international community, or communications, or developing new forms of ministry. This is really a turnaround for any committee charged with the administration of a diocese. But this is happening because out there in the parishes, such matters are high on the agenda, as we look at the number of youth workers now employed by parishes, the mission links developing with the church overseas, and an exciting venture like that of a ministry of outreach in a new mode in Rathmines sponsored by a rector and a parish with a vision for mission.

But we have to face other aspects too of the life of the diocese, indeed reflecting that of the wider church. The issues surrounding Confirmation – the age of candidates and the continuing membership of the Church following Confirmation – are simply not resolved. I am impressed by the preparation in many parishes, the support and initiatives of 3Rock Youth in this process, the time given by clergy and laity in the parishes to Confirmation preparation – but at the end of the day, there are many young people that go through all this and for whom it is a “passing-out parade”. This remains for me a great concern, even though I give very high priority to Confirmations. I am interested to see how the developments in some parishes to admit children to Holy Communion prior to Confirmation, and I have given permission for pilot schemes in several parishes. The separation of Confirmation from admission to Holy Communion (for those already baptised) may indeed result in fewer Confirmation candidates and those who are seeking Confirmation being older, but it may also mean that seeking Confirmation will involve a more mature declaration of faith. But a word of caution is necessary too - the confession of faith is not all that Confirmation is about, but there is a real ministry of God’s grace given through the laying-on of hands to all those who come to Confirmation.


When it comes to matters ecumenical, I can point to many good things at the Diocesan and at the Parish level.  I point to the fact that Dublin now has a Council of Churches including not only Anglican and Protestant Churches, but also Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. I point to the real friendship of Archbishop Martin, and to endless local parish friendships that occur. For example the other day, a parish priest was leaving to go elsewhere, but before he went he was invited to come and preach at the morning service in the local Church of Ireland parish church.  In accepting such an invitation, it showed just how far we have come. In a real way it is the local parish sharing in projects that probably has more appeal these days than the big united services that were so important some thirty years ago in launching an ecumenical spirit. Equally relationships with the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church and with many of the newer Churches have developed, and there is a sense about that there is more common commitment to serving God’s purposes rather than merely asserting our own particular take on Christian faith.

I wish I could say such positive things about the international ecumenical scene. There was a time when I felt very optimistic. In those decades after the Second Vatican Council, the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church were on what my distinguished predecessor, Henry McAdoo, called convergent paths. He never suggested that the two Churches were the same, but as they journeyed in faithfulness to what they shared in common, they found that their paths were converging. It was in this spirit that Pope Paul VI was able to speak of us a “Sister Church”. But that sort of hope has disappeared of recent years – not only are we not described in Vatican documents as a sister church, but it is doubtful whether we can be called more than an “ecclesial body”. Any hope of sharing, even on occasion, on the basis of the agreement of the Eucharist was also rubbished in that very sad document in these islands entitled “One Bread, one Body”.  

Relationships beyond this island have gone seriously backwards. Some would blame the fact that Anglicans ordain women to the priesthood, but that is certainly not the whole story. My appeal is to those many, indeed very many, Roman Catholic laity, priests and bishops, who have a real ecumenical commitment, who see a bigger picture, to make their voices heard more clearly, and at the highest possible level. The negative message towards other Christians from the Vatican is not what we are experiencing at the local level in most cases – but nevertheless it is very confusing. Whatever the setbacks, there is no opting out of the call to Unity, and whatever the disappointments, hope must not be quenched.


Churches do not exist in a vacuum, and we in this Diocese are placed at the centre of Ireland in our capital city. We cannot ignore what is happening around us. The agony of the financial collapse and the banking crisis is now reaching into every part of Irish life. There is a sense in which everybody is so overwhelmed that any sense of security and any modicum of certainty of any kind are gone from the lives of most people, and indeed from parishes too. The fact that there has not only been corruption in the financial world but also downright dishonesty has undermined any remaining sense of confidence. There is a serious sense of disillusionment with politics in general; there are seldom resignations when corruption is exposed unless such are forced for purely political reasons.  

With the crisis of confidence in the majority church, many of the stabilising influences in society are undermined, and it seems as if the media is becoming increasingly the power in the land. This is not to attack the media, but it is to make the point that when by far the largest religious body in this country is undermined, there is a void to be filled.   

We rightly pride ourselves on our democratic system, but this too can be undermined in the pursuit of power as we know all too well.  Democracy will be ill served in the next General Election if the parties do not give the voters a clear choice.  Disillusionment can only increase if parties signal in advance that certain alliances are out of the question in a future government and then rush headlong into such alliances simply because of the prospect of power. People are entitled to know what they are voting for.


There remain major concerns in the areas of health and education. With regard to health, in my first address to this Synod in October 2002, I said: 
“We have excellent doctors and nurses in the health service, both from Ireland and overseas. Yet among these very people there is a sense of powerlessness and even alienation from the vocation to which they have committed themselves.  The health services are not in trouble because of industrial unrest, but this unrest is a symptom of a service that is seriously in need of total overhaul. The layers of administration in between the Department of Health and those delivering healthcare are not proving effective, and an unwieldy administration is preventing many from receiving the very best of care.”

The story has only worsened since then. That was said in the context of industrial unrest, but though matters have passed beyond that, the situation is actually worse – constant sniping by politicians and the Health Service Executive at the medical practitioners, and a total failure to address the wasteful bureaucracy of the system and the outrageous salaries and bonuses paid to bureaucrats, paling even the money paid to politicians. 

Last year I had occasion to deal with the issue of the Protestant Schools and the sudden reclassifying of them without any warning in the middle of a year, when as they were under obligation to do, they had already fixed their budgets.


Across the years of my ministry I have been conscious of being part of a State which was becoming increasingly aware of the needs of the Protestant minority, ready to consult and to listen. This was the message that we spent much time conveying to our fellow church members in Northern Ireland who frequently displayed a distorted perception of the Republic, and of the place of Protestant interests in this part of the island. Over the last couple of years, for the first time for generations, major changes have been implemented without a hint of prior consultation. I discern a sense of alienation beginning to grow. It was very embarrassing for Protestants in this part of the world to see those of a completely different political outlook – members of the Orange Order from Northern Ireland – pleading on behalf of Protestant schools in the Republic. This was compounded by a Minister constantly speaking about having met them without seeing exactly what that means about the perception of this Republic. 

The fact of the matter is that in this country there is a denominational educational system, in which the vast majority of second level schools have a Roman Catholic ethos, and this has always involved special provision for those of another tradition, and this is essential if there is not to be a bias towards any one religious tradition. The State cannot dismantle this overnight if that is what it wishes to do – but to remove suddenly the provision that it had made for one sector, the weaker sector – is not credible. More dialogue was necessary and if this had taken place, then the sense of alienation could have been avoided and real issues addressed.  I am aware that this dialogue is now taking place, but much damage has already been done to the future of several schools, and at a time when the economic pressure on families is almost out of hand in many cases. 

It must also be recognised that there are anomalies in the educational system that have to be addressed. The provision for Protestant schools which was made in the middle of the last century had within it certain dangers. Schools could too easily adopt a business model and begin to develop in an upmarket direction with all the cost implications involved.  Some of the Protestant schools have lost their own particular raison d’être and have become so expensive that they are beyond the reach of many members of the community which they exist to serve. This is not true of all these schools, but it is a serious problem that has to be addressed. I urge that the complexity of the situation in Irish education be addressed, and that inevitable change take place with proper consultation as was the experience with previous governments, whatever the particular make-up of those governments.


Cuts are with us and more cuts are coming, and that is an economic fact, but if there is one plea that I would make to the Government with regard to cuts, please, please, do not cut the provision for those children with special needs which is already seriously undermined by existing cuts. A society is surely judged not by its wealth or by its poverty, but by its care of the most vulnerable, the young and the old, and especially those with special needs.


There is tremendous suffering in Ireland at present directly attributable to the policy of the banks and the implications for all of us. There is an ever increasing number of unemployed, there are countless, until now, good businesses going to the wall, and there are thousands of young people leaving our shores. What must be avoided at all costs is a sense of despair growing and spreading in Irish society. Hope is not primarily about being out and about looking for the “green shoots” of a recovery – it is an attitude of mind, and indeed an attitude of faith. 

Hope is something we can each contribute towards – by our standing alongside one another, by our willingness to go that extra mile of which Jesus spoke. Hope is found too as we build on values that abide-by placing our faith not in ourselves, nor in any remaining wealth that may be about, but in the One who calls us to a set of values that we have as a people perhaps lost our hold upon. Hope is linked in the scriptures to faith and love – and somehow hope collapses when that faith in God, and that love for God and for one another fades.  We can be a community of hope in an apparently hopeless situation if we are also a community of living faith and meaningful love.


Among the clergy, there have been several changes during the year, though I will not list those who have simply moved within the United Dioceses. We welcome by Ordination, the Reverends Terence Lilburn, Paul Arbuthnot, Martha Waller and Ken Rue, each in fact selected for training from this diocese. Further we welcome the Revd Garth Bunting as Residential Priest Vicar in the Cathedral. In January, the Revd JP Kavanagh is coming as Chaplain to DIT. Among curates, the Revd Elaine Dunne completed her curacy in Castleknock and the Revd Pat Taylor completed her curacy in Wicklow and is now a team Vicar in England. The Very Revd Katharine Poulton is now the Dean of Ossory and the Revd Ian Poulton is rector of Clonenagh in the same United Dioceses. The Revd Neal Phair is now a rector in the diocese of Oxford.


Among those who have died in the past year, we mention first the death in service of the Revd Wilbert Gourley, Rector of Zion, a much loved Rector, and, among the retired clergy, Archdeacon Donald Keegan and the Revd Douglas Slator – to the widows and families of each, I extend our sympathy.


I already paid tribute last year to our then outgoing Diocesan secretary, Keith Dungan, but the changeover has now taken place and we welcome Scott Hayes to be in charge of the Diocesan Office. However, we heard with regret of the death of Mary Linton, a former and much loved Assistant Secretary.


I cannot let today pass without mentioning an important milestone reached very recently by my distinguished predecessor, Archbishop Donald Caird – sixty years in holy orders, forty years a bishop. Donald Caird became Archbishop of Dublin twenty five years ago and served for eleven years.  We send warm greetings to him and to Nancy.


At this stage of my Presidential Address to the Synods, I normally say thank you to the many people who serve our dioceses.  Today I am not going to list names other than of those who work most closely with me.  I have been privileged in this diocese to serve and lead a church which is supportive of my ministry, encouraging of my efforts when they are worthwhile and forgiving of my failures which I readily admit. However, as I look back over a period of over eight years as Archbishop, and twenty five years as a bishop in the Church of Ireland, I realise that everything worthwhile has been achieved with the help and encouragement of others.

I think first of the staff with whom I have worked, and I thank them each – Garrett Casey, our Dublin Communications Officer, serving both the diocese and my work as Archbishop – now on study leave and replaced by Órla Ryan. I think too of the Diocesan Office Staff, Keith Dungan, Scott Hayes, the late Mary Linton and Sylvia Heggie. My own Personal Assistants, Helen O’Neill, Judy Lee and of recent years Lucy Connolly have put up with me day by day and interpreted my handwriting! The Chancellor, Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness has kept me the right side of civil and canon law.  The senior clergy team, David Pierpoint, Ricky Rountree, and Dermot Dunne, and previously Gordon Linney, Edgar Swann and the late John Paterson and the late Desmond Harman – what a marvellous group of people, friends, colleagues and team players – these have been my sounding board and close advisors. I need hardly tell you that none of my work could have been undertaken without the totally dedicated commitment to it, and loving support to me, provided by my wife, Betty.  She has given a lifetime of voluntary service to the Church of Ireland, and put up with me for going on five decades!


May the Holy Spirit bless the work of the Diocesan Synods here today and tomorrow and make our time together worthwhile to God’s Honour and Glory, and may God inspire those who in coming months must meet to select a new Chief Pastor for this United Dioceses, and beyond the diocese to serve the wider Church as Metropolitan and Primate of Ireland.


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