The Usual Suspects (or, a practical theology of receptive ecumenism in Cork)

The usual suspects,

plus a few.

We smile.


It is another way of saying

we are among friends,

(which with our history

is no small thing).


Methodists in blue skirts,

make room at the back.

The C of I in linen and beads

provide a table of home baking.


Collars set in grey and pink and blue;

a gentle enquiry;

a meeting of minds;

worn light.


David pulls the curtain.

The setting sun

spills in

on either side.


(It can’t be fixed

and Seán is in the limelight.

Florence provides the shade.)


Welcomed, we

reach for our glasses.

Varifocal, we

sing the hymns.


The cotton of a summer evening;

hibiscus in the churchyard.

The usual suspects

settle down to word.

The 8th.

We are a small country.  Generally we get along well together, and we’re funny and loving but ten days before the referendum on the eighth amendment (regarding the right to life of unborn babies) it’s getting hot in here.  If there are people outside the jurisdiction willing to say a prayer for us, now would be a good time.

The yeses are convinced of their rightness.  They had a hashtag on Twitter #myyesisfor where people dedicated their ‘yes’ to a particular person or group. These tweets were passionate and poetic in their love for women, wronged by the state, who have had to undergo suffering and degradation and even death at the hands of the eighth amendment.

They did not mention the loss of life of the unborn child, or the fact that very sad things often happen during pregnancy and prospective parents have to take the hit. They see carrying an unintended child to full term as a life and dignity-threatening prospect. Their emphasis on the mother means there is no place for the child in the argument.  The father is also excluded. They are cheery campaigners, in the spirit of the marriage referendum, urging Ireland to arrive into the civilised twenty first century.

The no’s are equally convinced. They seem to be older, male-er and less cool. They are not cheery and will tend to remind people of the ghoulish reality of the dismemberment of the foetus.  They say a ‘yes’ vote will give a blank cheque to legislators for abortion on demand. Using the hashtag #loveboth they advocate state support for families rather than liberal abortion services.  They say that no woman ever lost her life because of the eighth amendment.

Although they claim to feel compassion for mothers in difficult circumstances it can be hard to feel it. They seem to like the high moral ground. A bishop confidently announced that abortion was worse than rape for women.  Other bishops released statements to be read at Masses – by men to silent congregations.  Some of the more seasoned ‘no’ side are up to their old tricks sending plastic foetuses to TD’s and others campaigning for a ‘yes.’

Ireland is weary of this fight. It is dividing us. Good people on both sides are suffering from the strain.  Respect has been an early casualty and people are forgetting what kind of mending will be necessary afterwards. Female ‘no’ voters feel the contempt of other feminists.  They feel shouted down and misjudged.  ‘Yes’ voters feel that they are fighting the patriarchy, often represented by the Catholic Church and that their families or communities will judge them for their position.  My son says it’s a dirty fight.

If you pray, please pray for us.  And pray without intent.  We don’t need your advice, however well meant.  Don’t even advise God.  Just pray for our people – our mothers, fathers, babies, politicians, doctors, midwives, nurses, grannies and granddads. Pray for the mums and dads of the future who will have to live with this constitution, this law, this bitterness and come to terms with it all in their own families and futures.

Come in and go out?


What is a practising Christian?  We know the usual answers.  One who goes to church on Sunday; pays in to the collection; who may attend a bible or prayer meeting during the week; gets involved with the mission of the church, whether by baking, singing, looking after the children’s faith development or heading up the finance committee.  We most often assess the nature of the disciple by the level of their participation in church functions.

I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly
. (Jn 10)

Jesus did not talk about the Church.  His focus was on the Kingdom or Reign of God.  In this passage in John’s gospel he describes himself as the Gate.  This image is related to that of the Good Shepherd which follows soon after.  He is the gate of the sheepfold. What kind of gate is he?  He keeps safe those who enter, he nurtures life to the full and the sheep can come in and go out.  We are familiar with the invitation to come in, but less so with the freedom to go out.  In my tradition we expect people once in to stay put.  Going out isn’t an option.  Jesus is talking here as if the gate swings both ways.

I had a conversation with a priest recently where he expressed frustration with people who don’t come most Sundays and then expect the priest to be available on a bank holiday weekend for a baptism.  It’s understandable. We have all heard complaints from church people about those who come at Christmas or for weddings and funerals and are never seen the rest of the year.

What if these sisters and brothers were not seen as blameworthy in this regard?  What if this approach were seen as equally ‘practising.’  What if practising their freedom to come and go were seen as holy in itself?  What if Christ himself is the gate through which they pass, finding pasture and fullness of life as they can in the circumstances of their own particular lives?  What if Christ doesn’t call everyone to committed attendance but these irregular attenders are the birds who come and shelter in the branches of the Kingdom tree, only to fly off and live most of their lives elsewhere?

Let’s go easy.  Some of us are nourished by loving the Church and working for God’s Kingdom or Reign within its walls or by going out from its doors to serve the world.  Good for us. What if we are called to a radical  hospitality to those who, at Christ’s invitation and through his very being, come and go?  What if they have something to teach us about discipleship but we have never really listened?







Triduum Liturgies and our lavish, lavish God

On Holy Thursday night and Good Friday morning social media was full of pictures of the foot washing ceremony in churches.  In so many pictures only one foot per person was being washed. Who ever washes one foot without the other?  This meagre-ing of the symbol makes it almost comical. This gesture of service is halved.  This symbol of the depth of Christ’s love becomes measured, counted, and token.

I notice how perfectly this mirrors the other Last Supper action of Eucharist.  In so many churches in Ireland and elsewhere, when Holy Communion is distributed only the Eucharistic bread is shared.  The presider and the Eucharistic ministers – ironically those responsible for feeding the people – keep the wine for themselves.  We, the Faithful, taste only the bread of the everyday, and not the wine of the festival.  Sometimes it is deemed that we do not have enough time to share the cup – sometimes that we don’t have enough money to pay for it.  Either way – a theology and praxis of paucity is enacted in the celebration of magnificent generosity and gracious gift.

The Good Friday liturgy is an invitation to people to place their suffering and the suffering of the world at the cross of Jesus.  Let people see it.  Let them touch it.  Give them time.  The Easter fire is the main focus of the Christian announcement of resurrection – have a roaring one which crackles and gives out proper heat which people can gather around and hear and smell.  Let it still be going when they come out after the Vigil Mass.  Let the children’s group make an Easter garden; decorate the font; give the children Easter goodies; after the dawn service provide a mighty breakfast so that many of them are still making rounds of tea and cementing friendships hours later.

A little emphasised part of the Holy Week story is the anointing of Jesus by a woman.  She pours a costly ointment on the head of Jesus.   Bystanders complain at the waste but Jesus says:

“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.  For     you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you     wish; but you will not always have me.   She has done what she could; she has anointed     my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is      proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. (Mtt 14: 3-9)

In memory of her and her generosity let us waste time and money on the Lord and one another.  Let us keep our cutbacks for other times and seasons.

Our God is extravagant.  This is the God of the paschal mystery.  The God who brings life in abundance.  The God who did not spare or hold back his son.  In our celebrations, especially those to which we welcome occasional attenders, let’s not obscure and misrepresent this God by giving people an experience of a minimal God who measures and preserves.  Instead let us celebrate with the ‘full measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…’ (Luke 6:38)


One goes hungry and another becomes drunk..

Today is Holy Thursday.  The Chrism Mass will take place at cathedrals all over the world.  The sacramental oils will be blessed and distributed.  It is also the day when priests renew their commitment to their ministry.  For this reason the sanctuary will be filled with concelebrating priests present with their bishop.  The lay faithful present will pray for priests and express their support for their ministries. All of this is very good.

There is also something else happening at Catholic Chrism Masses all over the world.  The priests in the sanctuary will all be men.  In the pews, among the lay faithful, will be women who have heard a call to priesthood and who will come on Holy Thursday to renew their commitment to answering it.  I know some of these women.  They live with a life-limiting condition in that God has called them to ordained ministry but the Church has not recognised their call and does not send them into ordained roles. Many of them have given a lifetime of commitment to Christian service without ever feeling that their real purpose has been fulfilled.  They did not ask for their call.  Many of them resisted it.  Most consider themselves to be traditional Catholics who do not wish to rock the boat.   For them, this is the defining factor of their discipleship and of their invitation to ‘life to the full.’

This morning, praying for these women as I always do on Holy Thursday, the following text came to me from 1 Corinthians (11: 20-21).

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.

Here Paul famously questions the authenticity of the Corinthian community’s celebration of the Eucharist because of their refusal to share what they have equally.  In this way their celebration becomes the opposite of what is intended.  Today I see a parallel between this challenge and the gathering at the Chrism Mass.  If the gathered ordained men use their power to refuse to admit  women to their number does it reduce the authenticity of their own priesthood?  Does it compromise our identity as the Church of Christ?

At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening the verses which follow this text (1 Cor 11:23-26), written in the context of the Corinthian non-Eucharist, will be proclaimed as a summary of the Church’s understanding of Eucharist.  Then we will hear the reading of John’s account of the final meal of Jesus – not of bread and wine but of the washing of the disciples’ feet.

An honest reflection on these texts can give us a refreshed understanding of Eucharist which can only be authentically celebrated in communities of inclusion and service.  This understanding of the Eucharist can also extend to our understanding of the priest who presides at it.   Where the priesthood excludes women is it really the priesthood at all?

What does our bubble say about us?

I follow Christian Twitter from diverse sources, around pastoral, theological and church themes.  I notice that Irish Catholic Twitter is much about our bubble.  By this I don’t mean personal snippets of information about family and friends, I mean our ecclesial bubble.  Bishops tweet about Confirmations and pastoral visits.  They quote other bishops giving statements or mention the World Meeting of Families and now the Pope’s visit. Other Irish Catholic tweeters are for or against things which happen in the bubble of Irish or world Catholicism.  Photo’s appear of clerics dressed up as clerics performing church functions.  Saint days are observed.  Prayer is shared.  Tweeters from Catholic religious congregations tweet about the activities of their or other religious orders.  Feminist Catholics tweet about the role of women in the Church.

This is all fine.  It is natural for us all to share about our daily concerns.  (Tweeters from the Church of England are preoccupied with gin and trains alongside their ecclesial concerns!)  The thing to ask ourselves in our theological reflection is whether our daily concerns mirror our true aims for our Church or Christian mission.

In the context of our daily concerns Jesus tells us to strive first for the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).  Do our daily concerns fall into the category of the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, or are they more easily found in the realm of ‘these things?’

I think the answer to this is ‘a bit of both.’  Would it be fair to take the Realm of God to be about the Beatitudes and the praxis of Jesus?  In this case our daily ecclesial concerns would be about the ‘least’ in the world; the oppressed, the grieving and the poor.  They would be about speaking truth to power and eschewing religious observance for its own sake.  Observing the life and death of Jesus we would be occupied with the sick and the excluded.   We would also be occupied with the issue of religious hypocrisy, especially where this places burdens on those without status or power.   We would be tweeting about how to develop spiritualities of surrender and resistance.

Our concerns would be less about how many people came to church and the niceties of receiving Holy Communion in the hand, than the provision of housing; the treatment of asylum seekers and the inclusion of all voices in the leadership of the Church.  If we are theologians we would struggle with the issues raised by theologies from the ‘other’ especially when they challenge our views where these are privileged.  If we are leaders of prayer and liturgy we would be occupied with making room for diverse expressions which reflect God’s fidelity to all God’s people.

These concerns are certainly present in in-Church concerns with Trócaire; the young people’s pre-synod gathering in Rome; the debate about women’s roles; liturgical events around healing and many other contexts.   It is, though, worth our while to reflect on how we spend our time and energy – often revealed in our social media contributions – and asking where the balance lies. As a Church we should might remind ourselves that the Realm of God is not the Church and is most truly found in the Church when we look beyond ourselves to the wider community we claim to serve.

The Global Church: Arusha and Co Cork

We live in a lovely village.  Nestled in the Bandon river valley between Kinsale and Bandon we are the only village on the main route from Cork City to West Cork which does not have a bypass, due to the river.  You have to slow down.  When you get through you are rewarded with beautiful views of the river and thousands of trees which line the route.

This is a place of prayer.  Its tradition is Christian, though there are a very few people of other faiths here too. Our prayer can be found in our greetings and farewells; in our churches; in the hearts of women out for their walks along the hedgerows; in our schools and homes; with children at bedtime; at Station Masses and funerals; in sickness, on farms and at exam time.  It is part of our goodness. It is part of sharing life with one another and belongs to all of us.  It runs through us like the river.

Like the river it did not begin with us and does not end with us.  It extends with the journeys of emigrants and travellers.  A candle lit on a windowsill here prays in Sydney, Paris, Capetown or Quebec.  Healing words breathed on a misty morning bringing in the cows are carried on the Texan heat to a grandchild’s hospital room. We are no strangers to the global Church.

Here, on the side of the valley, I followed the World Council of Churches conference on mission and evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania.  Thanks to the tweeters I could see a beautiful landscape with exotic birds, lush plants, purple flowers and avocado trees. I watched as colleagues arrived from all over the world and greeted one another.  I saw colourful and passionate worship and read about ideas, challenges and mission.  Themes like transformation, moving in the Spirit, justice and mentoring, and images of the planting of trees and the sharing of peace found their way into my prayer and my days in this valley.  The cultures and colours of Arusha drew me into a deeper connection with the prophetic global Church.

This morning, as the light begins to look like spring in Ireland, and as St Patrick’s day comes, I am re-reading the Arusha ‘Call to Discipleship.’  From the particularity of African contexts it laments economic injustice, violence, climate change and the idolisation of the market.  It remembers our call to discipleship and  theosis and to proclamation of the Gospel in service of those on the margins.  It calls for transforming discipleship realised in prayerful obedience to the Spirit.  This is a global call for all disciples in all countries.  It can be heard and heeded here.

Here’s a link to the ‘Call to Discipleship,’ Arusha, March 2018.


The Women in Ministry in Ireland Project – Some personal reflections on International Women’s Day 2018.

It seems like an appropriate day to reflect on my research with women in ministry in Ireland, which has occupied my thoughts for over a year now. The final phase of the project is just days away and will involve a twenty four hour session with women in ministry from around the country who will reflect with me on the findings in the WMI report.  So far there are nineteen women coming and they come from five Christian denominations.  Already they have volunteered to lead prayer and worship, and are in touch about car -pooling.  They tell me they are looking forward to the gathering and I am so looking forward to getting to know them over our time together.

These participants are each ministers in their own traditions, whether religious sisters, spiritual directors, ordained ministers, liturgists, educators, preachers or theologians. They are giving their precious time to respond to my report which emerged from questionnaires and interviews with female ministers across the denominations and from four corners of Ireland.  An article about the report and a link to the report itself can be found on the Irish Council of Churches website, .

Reflecting on the last year I feel quite overwhelmed by the privilege it has been for me to meet women in ministry through receiving the questionnaires and interviewing women for the project.  In researching the experience of female ministers I have depended on them to entrust to me their very personal experiences of God’s call; their journey to ministry; their hopes and disappointments; their spiritual life and the joys and challenges of their day to day ministries and other aspects of their lives.  In each woman’s reflections there is a unique expression of discipleship and ministry.  There is a unique expression of the fruitfulness of a particular relationship between God and a faithful person.  Encountering this in my travels has given me a sense of the depth of what is possible when people respond to God’s call.

The findings are now on public record, but I am personally both moved and challenged by this experience.  These ministers are kind and gracious.  They responded with thought and good humour to my questions.  They are humble and uncomplaining; prayerful, sincere and gifted.  They see the Church as it is with all its problems and speak constructively about growth and reform – the ‘truth in love,’ (Eph 4:15).

A vision for Church emerges from this experience.  Reading and meeting these women makes me feel that the endeavour of Church can be successful.  They spoke about the joy of the Gospel; collaboration, inclusivity and service. They are firmly located in their denominations and traditions but all are open to share and learn with others. Many are active in ecumenism.  In my encounters with them I recognise a Church with discipleship at its core and with a theology and praxis of love.  This is a Church which gets its sleeves rolled up in communities and recognises the privilege of presence with God’s people.  It is a Church which takes humanity as it is and cherishes it. It is a Church which can laugh at itself and be serious about mission and grace.  It is not caught up in itself but oriented in wisdom toward transformation in the Spirit.  I hope it is the Church we are growing into in Ireland.

How do we, as ministers, meet our worth to God and ourselves?

An experienced minister coming for pastoral supervision over a period of time discovered that the fundamental question which she brought to her reflection was ‘am I letting God down?’  A secondary one was ‘am I good enough for God?’  The answer to the first was often intuitively ‘yes,’ or at least ‘probably,’ and the answer to the second was often intuitively ‘no.’ This led to a destructive cycle in her heart not only as a minister but as a disciple. The question she now most often brings to reflection is ‘what is God inviting me to?’  ‘What is God’s invitation to me at this time?  The move from the first set of questions to the second reflects a changed view of her purpose and expectations for herself as a minister.

Another experienced minister has been told he must give up driving.  He has been retired for some time but has been helping out in parishes and realises that this will mean less opportunity to minister in this way and generally less independence.  He  says that now, instead of being a help, he will be a ‘burden’ on colleagues and friends.  He sees his ministry as ‘basically over’ and feels as though he will ‘sink without a trace.’  What does this tell him about his model of ministry and his personal worth in God’s eyes?

I have met trainee ministers in a spectrum of Christian traditions  –evangelical, charismatic, liberal, conservative, catholic and so on.  And they are perfect.  They love God.  They have heard and responded to God’s call.  They are full of faith and enthusiasm.  But some can be hard to convince about reflection.  I put to them that the reflective tools are for the dark day: for the day when you feel you’ve let yourself down; when the Church has let you down; when you’re under pressure;  prayer has dried up; when you can’t remember why you said ‘yes’ in the first place and you’re too tired to think.  Perhaps it will never happen to them.

All of us, at one time or another, have to come to terms with who we are and what we think we’re about in ministry; what the cost is and what we hope for in the long term.  Many of us do this many times over, prayerfully discerning – and many of us find ourselves facing these questions only when crises come.

What is the fundamental question we ask of ourselves at the end of a day, at the end of a decade or a lifetime?  Where are we coming from?  How are we sustained in the long term?  What theologies influence us?  How do circumstances affect us?  How does our personality,  gender, faith and flaws, disability or sexuality come into it?   How do we meet our worth to God and ourselves?  What is our operant model of ministry in the light of who we really are?

Theological reflection, supervision, regular checking in with colleagues or spiritual directors all help us to discern, process and heal.  If it doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen often enough, why not make it a Lenten resolution?

This post was part of a  recent talk I gave to a group of professed Religious men and women (AMRI).

What about not canonising each other, at least for a while?

There have been several announcements recently about the progress of canonisation for Catholic saints.  The Trappist monks killed at Tibhirine have been beatified; the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has approved the second miracle needed for the canonisation of  Pope Paul VI, and the remains of  Fr Patrick Peyton are to be exhumed as part of the canonisation process.

I have no objection to these men being recognised and raised as examples to the Church, but would ask whether theirs are the only stories worth lionising.  It is perfectly acceptable to canonise holy priests, but is it acceptable to do so without canonising a proportionate number of holy others, that is, the other 99.6% of the Church?  The habitual aggrandisement of the contribution of ordained men gives the strong message that priests are holier and more worthy than the rest of us, and this is not true.  In Ireland, particularly, it has been painfully shown to be untrue. The canonisation of a disproportionate numbers of priests, bishops and popes demonstrates a myopia regarding the holiness of the whole Church and a misunderstanding of what the Church, or sainthood, truly is.

I recently saw a tweet from a member of the Association of Catholic Priests (Ireland) which read:  Excellent meeting today of the #ACP Advisory Board in Athlone. Great traction towards reform in the Church, building on the promising meeting with @ArchbishopEamon and Archbishop of @DublinDiocese..

I had to read this several times to understand it.  The writer believed that there had been traction towards Church reform because a number of ordained men had met together without reference to or inclusion of anyone else.  It is perfectly acceptable for the ACP to represent the interests of clergy and to wish to bring about Church reform. (To be clear – these are two separate objectives which may sometimes be connected.)  Is it, though, realistic for them to believe that they represent the Church or that they can bring about reform of any value without reference to the majority of the Church membership?

Clericalism is killing the Catholic Church.  Priests, bishops and cardinals, are not the centre of the Church but many believe they are.  These men admire one another; educate and house one another; fill theological institutions with one another and promote and pay one another at the expense of the rest of the Church.  Some of them seem to view the Faithful as an audience trained to applaud.  They have not found themselves able to recognise nor acknowledge the prophetic actions, words and presence of others and this inability has had a profound impact on the Church’s capacity to be itself.

Many members of the clergy say they support the greater inclusion of others.  This will mean allowing the Church to be bigger, more diverse and holier than the clerical world alone.  It will mean a new lens which reveals the presence of grace and holiness in all expressions of the Church’s life.  It will mean that the spotlight for so long trained on the procession of sainted priests becomes a searchlight which illuminates God’s presence in all the Faithful.