Friday, October 31, 2014
Beating the Odds
Last evening saw the first talk in the current session of the excellent Patrick Finn Lecture Series in St. Mary's church, Haddington Road, Dublin. I have blogged some of the earlier talks in this series, which was started in 2006 by the then parish priest. The series was named in his honour after his death. Speakers have ranged through bishops, priests, nuns, politicians, academics and philosophers. The standard has been high and the contents no-holds-barred.
This talk was a piece of history of itself. The first mainstream female bishop on these islands talking about her life, hopes and faith in one of the most prestigious Roman Catholic churches in town.
And Bishop Pat Storey didn't disappoint. She recounted her story to a very enthusiastic audience who all clearly appreciated the significance of the occasion.
She originally wanted to be an air hostess like her glamorous aunt, but then she married Rev Earl Storey, vicar of Crinken in Bray, became an Anglican priest herself, commuting to Ballymena, and ended up ministering and living in Derry which she grew to love.
Then she got elected Bishop of Meath and, as she related it, was the only such electee to ever ask for time to consider the offer. It was a big wrench for the family. She would be moving to Maynooth with her husband and they would be leaving their, now adult, children behind in Derry. She took the job and hasn't looked back during the year since she joined "the management" of the Church of Ireland.
She sees herself as an ordinary person devoid of pomposity and dedicated to helping to reverse the church's decline in fortunes and fall in attendances. This is not an end in itself, but she sees it as a necessary element in bringing Jesus's message into people's lives and improving their lot.
She asks the question: why have a church at all? What does it bring to the table? Her answer goes back to basics, to the early church and even that of her own youth. Community. And that is the challenge for today's church - to foster real communities across all age groups.
She gave examples of particular programmes that have been successful in attracting new members, or bringing back lapsed members, to the church. Some of them are based on sharing activities which are not necessarily religious or spiritual as such, but they bring people together in a conducive atmosphere. Spiritual growth can then come further along the road.
The talk was followed by a vigorous Q&A session in which she was asked her views on the appeal of Islam, the training of young clerics, the need for equal participation of women in the power structures of the church, and the lack of protest by Western Christian hierarchies at the legality of burning the Bible in Malaya. Her answers were generally to the point but nonetheless diplomatic.
I was almost tempted to sponsor her for membership of the Association of Catholic Priests, but that would be a bit cheeky coming from someone who, at the age of four, had aspirations to becoming a bishop but now finds himself in the ranks of the unbelievers.