LAST Sunday week I was in the Church of Saint Brendan the Navigator in Crookhaven on the Mizen Peninsula to inaugurate the annual summer series of evening Church Services (8.30pm each Sunday in July and August!)
I took the opportunity to reflect on the challenges facing the Church in sparsely populated rural areas in Ireland.
Crookhaven, a place I’ve known well for decades and where I first preached as a 21-year-old in 1981, feels very much on the edge of our island home. It’s a spectacular edge and, like so much of West Cork, a special place: the coast, the Fastnet, the islands, the Mizen, Mount Gabriel, the villages and its people.
It is no secret that in places like this, including in our Diocese, as well as the Church of Ireland as a whole, indeed other churches too, and not only religious institutions, but also other organisations, we are reflecting about how best to support the sustainability of rural Ireland.
An important starting affirmation from a Christian perspective is to underline that where the people of God are in a particular place in the sparsely populated areas such as this they are ‘the Church’ as much as the big city and suburban parishes in Cork, Dublin or in the North East of Ireland are ‘the Church’.
I am not talking about church buildings or the deployment of clergy; those are challenges in themselves. I am referring to what the Church really is: communities of disciples and followers of Jesus Christ doing their best to be faithful to the Christian way where they find themselves.
As the population of Ireland continues to grow and lurch towards the east coast, the sustainability of rural Ireland must be a national concern. In this particular time, every day, not least as people are fearful about Brexit in farming communities throughout this Diocese, people mention their anxieties to me as their bishop. At the most recent meeting of our Diocesan Council in Cork, rural isolation was tabled as a concern.
At the last census in 2016 in the entire electoral division of Crookhaven, there were 17 members of the Church of Ireland. That is a small number. In populous places some might dismiss it, but it represents 7.6% of the total population. The neighbouring electoral area of Goleen had 8 (3.5% of the total).
Beyond that Toormore had 22, or 11.8% of the entire population. All of those percentages are greater than the national percentage of the Church of Ireland which is 2.65%. That, however, is not really the main point. The main point is that, the total population of these areas is small and, as a Church, we need to recognise that these small numbers have their own importance and relativities.
More important is the theological affirmation that each person is a child of God and a follower of Jesus Christ in a sparsely populated area is as much a member of the Church of Ireland as one in the big population centres. This is the pattern of belonging to the Church of Ireland on these iconic peninsulas in south-west Ireland and in other parts of rural Ireland too.
That is why, if we take being the Church seriously, including the message of Saint Paul about the variety and different parts of ‘the Body’ (the Church), the message of Jesus about the importance of each one, and, the responsibility he gave to the disciples to go out into every place proclaiming the kingdom of God.
Concern for the Church in rural areas is not new. The 26th day of this month marks the 150th anniversary – 26th July 1869 – of the royal assent being given to the Irish Church Act. It would result in the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland from 1st January 1871. The 1860s were a period of heated debate about the future of the Church of Ireland.
Gladstone, when he came to power, was determined to bring about the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, whereby it would no longer be the Church of the State in Ireland. The 1861 Irish census, in any case, showed that the Church of Ireland accounted for less than one-eighth of the total population of Ireland.
The Archdeacon of Dublin, William Lee, was one of those vigorously opposed to what was being proposed in Parliament. Preaching in St Patrick’s Cathedral on October 22nd 1867, Lee said ‘What is to become of the members of the Church, especially in the outlying districts of Ireland, if the Church Establishment is overthrown?’
We surely know that church affiliation and loyalty nurtured by State legislation is not the best model for Christian discipleship and fellowship. Undoubtedly he and others feared the loss of funding and State supports. 150 years on, we are inheritors of the faithfulness of countless people who, in the decades since, have voluntarily sustained the life of the Church in the far-flung parts of the Church of Ireland.
Here in Cork, Cloyne and Ross, we are channeling our reflections about all of this into our ongoing Diocesan programme Charting a Future with Confidence. That work is, however, best done in partnership with other agencies, and ecumenically with other churches. The Church of Ireland does not exist in isolation. In recent days I received a report from the Church in Wales about rural issues. It struck a chord and, substituting churches for ‘Church in Wales’, and Ireland for “Wales’, it seems to me the same can be said of here, and of churches here too:
‘With its network of parish churches and universal coverage of every part of Ireland, the churches are in a privileged position to offer ministry to rural communities. Ministry in the countryside goes far beyond offering Sunday services and occasional offices but involves a close connection with the joys and sorrows of rural life, a keen awareness of the pressures on farming and rural businesses and becoming an advocate – alongside specialists like the farming unions, countryside organisations and Community Councils – for the maintenance of vibrant, viable, all-age rural communities.’
Bandon Co-Op is delighted to be involved with and supporting many local community groups all over West Cork. This video encapsulates some of the wonderful people that we have the pleasure of dealing with #TogetherStrongerWestCork