The Feast of Saint Patrick
17 March 2000
I am delighted to be with you for this weekend and I thank your Archbishop for his welcome and indeed for his remarkable ministry, not only in this country and the United Kingdom generally, but for his outstanding leadership in the Anglican Communion.
I come to you this weekend primarily as a pastor among pastors; a priest among priests; a servant among servants; a missionary among missionaries.
Indeed, throughout my ministry as Archbishop the image of 'missionary' has been dominant, not only because the first Archbishop of Canterbury was such, but also because every Christian church is now in a missionary situation. And this is not a fact to terrify, but a realisation to challenge and spur us into prayer and action.
Missionaries. It seems only fitting, here in Armagh on this day on which we remember and give thanks to God for the life and mission of Saint Patrick, to reflect on the ministry of mission which has been entrusted to us.
And that magnificent hymn traditionally attributed to him is a statement of commitment:
I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.
This is the image of God that I want to hold up before you this evening, of a God who holds us safe in our calling and who leads us forward in mission. Indeed, in any effective ministry there is the going out in mission and the returning to the heart of God, in prayer, silence and rest.
Here in this Cathedral, depicted in stained glass, is a splendid image of St Patrick carrying a shepherd's crook in his left hand, with his feet planted firmly in a bed of shamrock. Grounded in his past, his heritage - but leading his people forward as a shepherd guiding his flock.
Grounded in the past, I said. Yes, we extol the glories of a great Saint, but we also thank God for the long heritage of mission for which the Church of Ireland is so renowned. And we thank God, too, for the integrity and fortitude with which the Church of Ireland has struggled to articulate and maintain its own identity in the face of substantial challenge. Above all, tonight we celebrate the ongoing journey of the Church of Ireland to witness to the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus.
And what an astonishing journey it has been: like many an Irish lane, there have been plenty of twists and turns along the way. You know better than I that the past of this country and the history of the Church in Northern Ireland have been fraught with as much pain as glory. But I am reminded here of the words of poet Maya Angelou, who wrote that
"History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again."
No, the history of conflict and sectarian violence in this country cannot, in fact, be 'unlived', but with courage and, I would add, with faith in the compassionate guidance of God, it need not be lived again. Rather, we must all look forward to the future with hope and the promise of peace - even at difficult times like the present.
But how are we to go about shaping this new and promising future? And where are we to find our hope and guidance along the way?
According to the prophet Isaiah, we find our future by first doing precisely what we're about this evening - acknowledging and transcending our past.
"Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were hewn,"
the prophet declares. "Look to Abraham your
father and to Sarah who bore you."
Yes, we must remember the legacy of our forebears. Were it not for St Patrick and his successors, many of us might not be here this evening. You may have heard the well-known definition of the difference between 'tradition' and traditionalism'. 'Tradition' is the living voice of the dead, and 'traditionalism' is the dead voice of the living.
Traditionalism becomes an enemy of the Gospel when it imprisons us in the past. And those who live there are often locked into its conflicts, bitternesses and emotions. However, those who live with thankfulness to God's mercies in the past and who seek to translate those truths in the present are bound in a living stream (tradition) with the rock from which we were hewn. And, of course, it is living stream, not only of history and doctrine, but also of spirituality infused with the love of God and devotion to his will. It is a going out and a returning home, embraced by the love of God and embracing others with the hopefulness of the Gospel.
That is why Christians are - or should be - optimistic people, always looking for God's miracles in the lives of others.
So, Isaiah proclaims:
"Listen to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation for a law will go forth from me and my justice for a light to the peoples."
And Isaiah was optimistic too. He knew that with God all things were possible. And we go out with the highest ideals. A law that seeks a genuine pluralism which respects all people and resists intolerance, racism and bigotry in any shape or form. A light, which seeks to bring children and young people nearer to God. A love which goes out the marginalised and those who live on the fringes of society.
And that kind of caring and loving is integrally related to the message of evangelism that is the heartbeat of the Christian faith.
And, as each one of us knows so well, mission is exhausting work! Indeed, devoted service to our congregations and to those in our communities is not only time-consuming but, often, is so demanding upon us emotionally, spiritually and physically.
And that takes us to the returning home which is part and parcel of the rhythm of mission. Just as St Patrick's enthusiastic faith flowed from his love of God, his feeding upon scripture and the sacraments of the Church, so our ministries must flow from our spirituality and our waiting upon God.
Of course this does not mean there is a causal connection between one's spirituality and success in ministry! Some of the most heroic of saints have had to put up with sad circumstances, disagreeable and small congregations and vile conditions and have never known the great rewards of success. God's promise that he will bless and use us in his service demands our 'yes', our faith to his call to follow. Bishop Ian Ramsey once defined faith as "precisely that ability to live with uncertainty", because true Christian faith is that steady trust on God which knows that wherever we go we are in the centre of his will.
That means Ireland, too, and this Church of Ireland! We may look at the problems that continue to daunt and trouble us but we know that with God all things are possible. Indeed, all people and all places are redeemable.
And that is why the words of a more contemporary Ulster poet, George Russell (known as 'AE') come with a particular relevance:
"We hold the Ireland in the heart
More than the land our eyes have seen,
And love the place for which we start
More than the tale of what has been."
Missionaries. Not door to door salesmen and women who go out with the latest gimmick- but men and women who go out with the great hope which Isaiah expressed so long ago about the true community of God: that "joy and gladness with be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song."