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Church of Ireland General Synod 2021 gets underway

Archbishop of Armagh delivers Presidential Address
Church of Ireland General Synod 2021 gets underway - Archbishop of Armagh delivers Presidential Address
Archbishop John McDowell

The Church of Ireland General Synod 2021 got underway online this morning (Thursday September 30). Prior to the commencement of business, a pre–recorded Synod Service was made available on the Synod website. You can view the service here. The preacher was the Rt Revd Andrew Forster, Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. You can read his sermon here.

Synod proceedings opened with a reading from Scripture and prayer by Canon Aisling Shine. The Most Revd John McDowell, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland remembered members of Synod who had died over the past year. The list of members of General Synod and reports of the committees of the Synod were laid on the table by Canon Gillian Wharton.

Archbishop McDowell delivered his Presidential Address to the 2021 meeting of the Church of Ireland General Synod shortly after the start of its business today.

In his remarks, Archbishop McDowell recorded his heartfelt thanks to all who at parish level across the Church have worked to keep people safe and to continue to offer unceasing worship to Almighty God over the course of the last year.

On relationships and reconciliation, the Archbishop expressed his continued concern at the potential for wider diplomatic and political developments to undermine many of the gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland – and emphasised the importance of good Anglo–Irish relations and respectful reflection on the centenaries of 1921. He also announced a research project to examine and make recommendations on how the Church of Ireland can become a place of welcome for people from every ethnic background.

Archbishop McDowell welcomed the forthcoming divestment by the Church from the extraction of fossil fuels by the end of 2021 and stated that environmental sustainability will need to be integrated into the everyday life of the Church in order to maintain its credibility with the current generation of young people. 

In conclusion, he reflected on the deeper question of “What way do we want to live?” and drew on remarks by Eamon De Valera in 1943 regarding a vision for the island that he and his generation had dreamed of.  The Archbishop noted: “To live in an integrated society of men and women, living at peace with themselves and their neighbours, and who have had their humanity deepened and not stunted by living the life that God desires. Why, as a Church, would we not move heaven and earth to play our part in achieving these things?

You can read the full text of Archbishop McDowell’s presidential address below.

The Archbishop welcomed visitors from other traditions. The Assessor, Lyndon McCann, was nominated by the President. The Honorary Secretaries were elected: Canon Gillian Wharton, the Revd Malcolm Kingston, Hazel Corrigan and Ken Gibson.

Elections took place to the Standing Orders Committee, Petitions Committee, Elections Committee, Record Committee, Bills Committee and Legislation Committee. The report of the Election to Standing Committee and the report of the Bills Committee were received.

General Synod 2021: Presidential Address

The Most Revd John McDowell

Archbishop of Armagh & Primate of All Ireland




Brothers and sisters in Christ,


Well here we are again. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are not here again; here being wherever the General Synod was meant to meet. I’m afraid I’m losing track. However, at least this year I can come off the “not enthroned” list, and now can sit on the most comfortable seat in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, with a clear conscience.


When we met as a General Synod online in December of last year, I believe very few of us thought that we’d be doing so again in 2021. But the Cassandra’s were right. Covid–19 was not an aberration to be managed or got around. It has turned out to be a much longer term symptom or manifestation of a deep seated dislocation in our relationship with the created order and now also with one another as take baby steps on making physical human connections again.


If we were ever tempted to forget it, social distancing and the poverty of physical closeness has reminded us that to be human is to be with other people in close connection. To be human is to be in community. The sheer joy which I have encountered as people have been returning to Church worship has been wonderful to see, and was almost worth the wait.


Last year I had said that the response of Church of Ireland parishes and people to the very severe early lockdown had made me proud to be Church of Ireland.  This year, the way people knuckled down for the longer haul has made me no less so. Our opening up will necessarily be gradual, and there may well be another winter in this virus, but what we have been doing has been sensible, painstaking and gradual. 


In all that we have done to both keep people safe and also to continue to offer the unceasing worship of Almighty God we have been scrupulous in our planning at parish level. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all those in parishes who have donned the high viz vests, or the old clothes to steward, clean, direct, cajole and encourage people who have returned to worship and to other parish functions. You have my heartfelt thanks.


We have worked as closely as we have been able with public health authorities in both jurisdictions as we have either had to close down or restrict in church worship, and now to cautiously open up again. I know that in both jurisdictions we are regarded by such authorities as responsive and responsible partners in the work we do.


The impression I have is that the partnership and liaison which was established between the Northern Ireland Executive, the public health agencies and the Churches was a little more systematic and regular and helped iron out the inevitable supplementary issues which inevitably arise. It may simply be a difference in polity and culture but I think it is worth raising the question if another look at how this sort of liaison is handled (this will not be the last public health crisis) in the Republic of Ireland might be helpful all round?


Regardless of what may happen in this regard, this has been a torrid time to be in government especially for the complex Coalition governments as we have on this island. No doubt there will be reviews and commissions and Inquiries to come, but I don’t think there is any doubt that politicians have been subjected to unprecedented pressures and demands. They should be able to look to us in the Churches as encouragers and be completely assured of our prayers.


Relationships and reconciliation


I said last year that I was concerned about certain currents and developments in diplomacy and politics in and between these islands which had the potential to eat away at many of the gains, particularly in Northern Ireland, secured, for instance, by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and agreements on Legacy. Those pressures remain and have, if anything intensified. And they will continue to do so as long as Northern Ireland is governed by policies which primarily respond to the needs of places other than Northern Ireland, wherever they may be. Indeed the whole of Ireland is beginning to be redolent of how it was in the seventeenth century, with the warring super–powers of Europe slugging it out for supremacy, but leaving behind social and political divisions which will be found difficult to heal.


Nowadays the weapons are not made of iron and steel but of bitter words and the manipulation of facts and emotions. Sometimes opposing sides can pull so hard at either end of the diplomatic rope that the knot becomes so tight that it is very difficult to untie. This matters to those whose primary allegiance is to the God of Peace whose Apostle urges us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in this island we inhabit.


I hope the Synod won’t mind, if at this point, and in the spirit of what I have just said, if I pay a public tribute to the late Pat Hume, who died at the beginning of this month. Her quiet, utterly unseen, steely, consistent and life long work for peace and good relationships on this island and between these islands was of incalculable value and I thank God for every remembrance of the work she did and the influence she had and, pass on our deepest sympathy and the assurance of our prayers to her family.


In public discourse on these islands we have been in danger of reverting to a situation where we look on someone with whom we disagree as (to borrow a phrase) “an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh”. Strong feelings are inevitable, they well up in us. Strong and misleading words are not; we can control them and be careful with them. In God’s creation words are ordered to truth. And the truth always ages well.


Above all, good Anglo–Irish relations matter more than ever before. It has not been unusual for me in episcopal ministry to have been in a parish in Northern Ireland in the morning praying for Her Majesty the Queen and in a parish in the Republic of Ireland in the afternoon praying for the President. Indeed it is one of the great privileges of ministering in an all–island Church to do so. But if it is to mean anything and have any integrity, then I must not just pray, but also work for the good of both places.


However, the Covid–19 pandemic has, I think broadened our horizons. It is a world–wide crisis; a global pandemic. And the Church of Jesus Christ is a world religion. “For God so loved the world…” gives some faint indication of the breadth and depth of His love.


We are now called as citizens, and as Christians to respond to the challenges of creating a new world based on a new set of relationships. Relationships matter. The path which Jesus Christ opened up for us to enter into a new relationship with his Father, and the implications that has for all other relationships.


Over eighteen hundred years ago a Christian writer summed it up this way:


For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines.


But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.


As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers… They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.


They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil–doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life… yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. (Epistle to Dionetes)


Perhaps our relationships with one another in church are a good place to begin to reclaim that life.  A life of simplicity and truth and forbearance which is a life of service in the places where we live.  We are a family, and as I never tire of saying, families get their vigour and interest from where brothers and sisters differ from one another, rather than where they are similar.


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