Address by Dr. Martin Mansergh at Annual Service of Prayer for Christian Unity



I would like to thank Fr. Gerry McCormack, Parish Priest of St. Mary’s, Kingscourt and Rev. William Steacy, Rector of St. Ernan’s, for their invitation to participate in this service marking the Week of Christian Unity. I note that, while Kingscourt is at the southern end of Co. Cavan, and is therefore part of the province of Ulster, it is part of the diocese of Meath or Meath and Kildare. Cavan itself, though once a plantation county, is a proud part of independent Ireland.

My memories go back to the 1950s. In those days, certainly in the country, inter-church relations were based mostly on respect and distance and demarcation. There would only be trouble, if boundaries were crossed. In days before the mass media, for Protestants the Pope was a remote figure. I remember reading in the newspaper as a boy of 11 about the last illness and death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. While the Catholic proportion of the population of this State amounted to an overwhelming 93% at one point, the religious minority was not generally speaking a disadvantaged one. The State did its best to be fair and tolerant, but there was one dominant ethos and no argument about it. As we have learnt since, some of the self-confidence of that era, partly derived from justified pride in Ireland’s spiritual empire, meaning the work abroad of Irish missionaries, was misplaced. The parallel attempt to create a relatively closed economically and culturally self-sufficient society had by the late 1950s showed its limitations, and was not enabling Ireland to hold its own in an increasingly post-war dynamic wider world. Independence was and still is fundamentally about having a national life of our own, but after a generation what that would involve had to be seriously revised.

The election of Pope John XXIII and the calling of the Second Vatican Council was the beginning of a new era. My first encounter with the idea of church unity was at the age of 15, when on a visit to a French family to improve my French I went in on my own to the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. A young priest hurried towards me. When I explained to him that I was a Protestant, he withdrew, saying what I have never forgotten: ‘Alors, il faut prier pour l’unité de l’Église’ (‘Then, we must pray for the unity of the church’).

In the first half of the 1960s, I was at the King’s School in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, normally attending three services every Sunday once I was confirmed, early morning Holy Communion in the Underchapel, which was optional, Mattins in the Quire or Nave, and Evensong. At other times I often used to slip into the chapel of St. Thomas-à-Becket for prayer or contemplation, once an elaborate shrine visited by pilgrims celebrated in Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales. We also studied T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in school. In later life, I often thought that the consequences of Henry II’s angry words, ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ which led to the Archbishop’s martyrdom at the hands of four knights, are an object lesson for those who work for powerful leaders, not to follow or obey arbitrarily expressed whims or instructions that are not right or make no sense or are likely to have dire consequences.

The Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 1960s Dr. Michael Ramsey, mainly based at Lambeth Palace in London of course, and whose enthronement I attended, was a noted ecumenist, who met Pope Paul VI in Rome in 1966, a Pope I tremendously admired for his pioneering engagement with what was then called the Third World. Senior members of my house at school, myself included, had Archbishop Ramsey to coffee one morning.

In Ireland from the late 1960s, on this side of the border, ecumenism was taken up with some enthusiasm at local parish level, with the occasional joint service or combined choral activity. It removed any stiffness in relations, and meant that clergy of different denominations could work together, within certain limits obviously, without drawing down the ire either of their authorities or their parishioners. A leading light in Tipperary was the organist of St. Michael’s Church, Tom McCormack. There is a plaque in memory of his contribution to ecumenism in St. Mary’s Church of Ireland. When he was elderly and retired, I remember a delightful doorstep conversation when I was canvassing, when we discussed for some minutes the respective merits of Bach and Handel.

Across the border, ecumenism did not always go down as well. Opposition to it was led by Rev. Ian Paisley, as it was to North-South détente and cross-community gestures. I first heard him speak at the Oxford Union in 1967, and there is no doubt he was a skilful demagogue. I got to know him in his later years, as his position began to shift. His first meeting with Bertie Ahern in 2001 was ostensibly as a church leader, coming to complain about an arson attack in a Free Presbyterian Church in North Monaghan. He described how firewood had been placed in the pulpit and set alight, adding: ‘Of course, there should always be a fire in the pulpit’. His participation in government with Martin McGuinness, on which you would have got odds of 1000/1 at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, I interpret in part as an attempt by both to find a better way than the extremely destructive roles played in earlier times, but also in Paisley’s case, based, perhaps, on some faint regret expressed by one close member of his circle that Ireland 100 years ago had not found some way of staying together, even if it had meant accepting Dominion status.

It has been my privilege to serve since 2012 under Dr. Maurice Manning as vice-chair of the Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Commemorations at the personal request of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, covering the decade of centenaries, beginning with the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill in 1912 and ending with the admission of the Irish Free State to the League of Nations in September 1923.

The spirit which has inspired this work is very different from that of 50 years ago. Key parts of the Mission Statement of the Group read:

‘*The aim of commemoration should be to    broaden sympathies without having to abandon loyalties and, in particular, to recognize the value of ideals and sacrifices, including their cost.

  • … it is important not to forget the bloodshed and the deep antagonism of these years.
  • We should also be conscious that on this island we have a common history but not a common memory of these shaping events.
  • Commemoration should not ignore differences and divisions. The goal of inclusiveness is best achieved, not by trying for an enforced common interest or universal participation, but by encouraging multiple and plural commemorations which remember the past, while ensuring, as far as possible, that the commemoration does not re-ignite old tensions’.

So far, those aims have been broadly achieved. Until the middle of last year, the Minister in charge of the commemorative programme that was so professionally conducted was one of your own Dáil Deputies, Heather Humphries, whose grandfather signed the Ulster Covenant.

The Ireland of today took shape 100 years ago, though not in a way that anyone had originally wanted. The independent part of Ireland has had to overcome many existential challenges in every generation and in nearly every decade, and they are not going away. While palpably we face some very urgent issues, a lot that is positive has been accomplished.

Partition is nowhere an ideal solution. In Cyprus, where I have twice been in 2008 and 2017 to talk to the Greek and Turkish Cypriot negotiators, the first time in the company of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s adviser, the communities are separated by a peace line. In Ireland, partition, particularly in the nine counties of Ulster, cut through not just the landscape but communities. Peter Leary’s book Unapproved Routes: Histories of the Irish Border 1922-1972 shows all the difficulties of official attempts at disentanglement.

Each part of Ireland strove to be homogenous in culture and ethos and believed in majority rule. For reasons of demography, the much bigger long-term problem was in Northern Ireland. Lord Farnham’s desire for a 9-county Northern Ireland was turned down, because neither community would have a secure majority. Even 6 counties proved too much in the end.

Incidentally, I got to know the 13th Lord Farnham at the end of his life, when he offered Farnham Castle to the State, something which did not in fact come to pass, as it has since become a hotel resort. His wife, Lady Farnham, who bears the wonderful Queen Anne-era title Lady of the Bedchamber, accompanied Queen Elizabeth on her historic visit to Ireland in 2011, and no doubt her local knowledge was an asset in helping to work out the arrangements. When attending his funeral, I slipped across to the older cemetery at Kilmore to pay my respects to Bishop Bedell, who in the 17th century commissioned a translation of the Bible into Irish, and who was so highly regarded by local chiefs that they carried his coffin. There is a wonderful Latin inscription above his tomb, ‘Optimus Anglorum’, ‘the best of the English’. My sister Daphne was the goddaughter of his descendant Professor William Bedell Stanford, latterly chancellor of the University of Dublin, and friend of my father, so I heard about Bishop Bedell from an early age.

After a long and painful conflict in Northern Ireland, which showed that none of the simple solutions, some of them still advocated to this day, would work, a comprehensive peace settlement was arrived at, though not easy to implement or to this day to sustain. I am, however, glad that the most active of the dissident organizations has finally decided to call it a day. We have to proceed from where we are and with what we have, rather than spend too much time lamenting that things did not begin from a different starting-point.

Of course, a looming Brexit has introduced a new complicating factor that had not occurred to anyone when the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated. It took a long time to achieve a virtually seamless border, and there is deep resistance to any idea of reinstating any sort of obstruction to the free movement everyone has been able to benefit from for the best part of the past 20 years. Even unionists understand the benefits that prosperity across the border can bring to the Northern Ireland economy, while we should appreciate the added strength that varying degrees of identification with Ireland as a whole can come from the North. I think, for instance, of two great civil servants from Co. Down, who died in the last 12 months, Ken Whitaker and Maurice Hayes, and the contribution they made to each jurisdiction and the whole island, strong in their tradition, but neither believing that issues could be forced.

When I was young, I could never have envisaged that, with my background, I would be spending some of my most important time, a) in a Redemptorist monastery in Dundalk and b) talking to a leader of the Republican Movement, who at least in part acknowledged he had been an IRA leader. The late Martin McGuinness, who worked in government for almost ten years with three DUP leaders, came to realize that the journey ahead was likely to be a long one. In 2016, he came as Deputy First Minister to what is left of Richmond Barracks in Dublin to unveil a bust of Francis Ledwidge, who, though a soldier on the western front, wrote a famous poem in lament for Thomas McDonagh, the executed 1916 leader, before he himself was killed in action in 1917. As Martin passed me, he commented: ‘We have a lot to learn’.

There are still wide gulfs of understanding, and very different narratives that we find it hard to get to grips with. It is always easier to copper-fasten our own certainties, and to underestimate the equal determination behind an opposing point of view.

I have, as we all have, some favourite passages from the Bible, not only ‘In the beginning was the Word’, or ‘the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb’. When I was young, I was partly looked after by Eleanor McClenaghan from Islandmagee. Often when she came into my bedroom to pull the curtains in the morning, she would say: ‘Rise and shine, for the sun is biting your toenails’. Only much later did I learn that this was a down-to- earth adaptation of Isaiah Ch. 60, Verse 1: ‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come’. I was one Sunday in Tipperary much struck by a reading from Ch. 51, verse 1: ‘look unto the rock whence ye are hewn and to the hole of the pit whence ye are digged’ which I would interpret as ‘draw strength from your roots’. St. Paul in I Corinthians Ch.13 says: ‘For we know in part, and we prophesy in part… For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’.

If I have a political maxim, it is this, taken from a 17th century courtier and statesman, who held office under the later Stuarts, taken from his book The Character of a Trimmer, using a metaphor that will be well understood in Cavan, a county of lakes:

‘That innocent word Trimmer signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a boat, and one part of the company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary; it happeneth there is a third opinion of those, who would conceive it as well, if the boat went even, without endangering the passengers. Now it is hard to imagine by what figure in language, or by what rule in sense, this cometh to be a fault, and it is much more a wonder it should be thought a heresy’.

Then and now, it is very often women who take on that restraining and peacemaking role. It is not to be interpreted as ‘don’t rock the boat’, but rather as ‘don’t capsize it’, and there were a lot of times the ship of state capsized in the 17th century.

Sometimes disappointment is expressed at the slow pace of Church unity, but it also has to respect diversity. In the Irish Times yesterday, the Bishop of Clogher John McDowell argued that it needed an external focus. It should be acknowledged that immense efforts have been made by members of the Irish clergy to overcome the harmful effects and dangers of division and to help find a basis on which to sustain peace and reconciliation in a Christian spirit. Much remains to be resolved in the future, in ways that we may not always be able to foresee or control. We would be very unwise to abandon at this point the strengths provided by the Christian tradition. Church and State have different roles and responsibilities, but this should not stand in the way of mutual respect and co-operation.

In I Samuel 8, the Prophet is displeased that the people of Israel are asking for a king, like the other nations. He prays to the Lord, who tells him: ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them’. For better or for worse, and probably both, the power of the Church is not exercised directly any more, but its influence is still needed and there must be a place for its role.

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