The Diocese of Connor said thank you to its much-loved bishop, the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy, at a special Service of Thanksgiving to mark his retirement.
Representatives of all parishes across the diocese were present at this very personal and poignant service held in St Patrick’s Parish Church, Ballymena, on December 19. (See photo gallery below).
Bishop Alan, 62, announced his retirement on health grounds in September, saying it had been ‘an amazing privilege and joy’ to have served Connor as its bishop.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer during a sabbatical in 2018. His treatment began early in November that year, and the bishop has taken part in a clinical trial, knowing this may help others in the future. He announced his retirement on the day he had his final session of treatment.
Despite it being a wet and windy night, St Patrick’s was packed with around 550 of the Bishop’s friends and colleagues from around the diocese, along with a number of special guests, including the Rev Dr Heather Morris, Secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland; the Rt Rev Noel Treanor, Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor; Bishop Sarah Groves, Moravian Church; and the Very Rev Charles McMullan, Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Bishop Alan greeted friends at the doors of the church before the service, and during refreshments later.
The service began with a welcome from the Rev Canon Mark McConnell, rector of Ballymena. Prayers were led by the Rev Emma Carson, with intercessions read by the Rev Denise Acheson and featuring the Benedictine Monks from Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor, who also intoned Psalm 121.
Readings were by Mrs Ann Crawford and Mrs Debbie Crawford. Bishop Alan preached, basing his words on John 12 v 21: “We want to see Jesus. Can you help us?”
Before the sermon, the Bishop revealed that the cancer which had been in his bones in the pelvic area and ribs was no longer there and that his PSA count indicated cancer was not traceable. “It is a miracle of modern medicine,” he said, to warm applause. He expressed his thanks to all those who had supported him, and made particular reference to those who had journeyed with his wife Liz.
“Thank you to God, for His amazing love, and to Jesus. I have never experienced peace as I have this year, and I have never felt so close to Jesus,” he said.
At the close of his sermon, Bishop Alan told the congregation: “I will be praying for you for years to come.”
Before giving the Blessing as the service drew to a close, the Bishop invited clergy from the different denominations to pray for him. Diocesan Development Officer Trevor Douglas and Bishop’s PA Mrs Lorraine Ogilby represented his staff team. Brother David Jardine, who had often sat and prayed with Bishop Alan during his illness, led the prayers.
As the service ended, thanks were extended to the bishop for his ministry over the years by the Archdeacon of Connor, the Ven Dr Stephen McBride, on behalf of the clergy, and by Mrs Pauline High, on behalf of the laity.
Archdeacon McBride said under Bishop Alan’s leadership, Connor Diocese was a ‘lovely place to work.’ Referring to the bishop’s vision for a development team, Archdeacon McBride said: “You didn’t think about cost, but about what the team would bring to our diocese, and you have built a strong leadership team. It has been super to work alongside you.”
He said his overriding memory will be of the fun that Bishop Alan had brought to meetings and retreats. The archdeacon recalled the diocesan pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2011, which came at the end of a period when Bishop Alan had been ill. “I know how much it meant to you to walk in the steps of Jesus,” Archdeacon McBride said. “You led a service of Holy Communion by the Sea of Galilee and at the end you said. ‘I’m back!’ All 85 of us wanted to hug you!
“You have dealt with all that has been thrown at you with great courage. You are an example to us all in the way you have dealt with great uncertainty.
“You leave a diocese that is in such great health and that is a tremendous gift. We are here, not so much to say goodbye, but to say thank you. You are back, laughing and smiling, back to being you, and we say thank you, and give you back to Liz, Peter, Ruth and all the family.”
Mrs High said everyone present would have their own memories of Bishop Alan’s ministry. She said he had all the qualities needed to be a bishop, including hospitality, teaching, and managing family.
“Bishop, thank you for your leadership, humility and the gentle way you have guided us,” Mrs High said.
Referring to Psalm 143, she added: “As this new chapter starts for you, it is as you are starting a new day.”
Bishop Alan will formally retire on December 31. Before then, he will be presiding at the late Christmas Eve Eucharist in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, at 11pm on December 24, and preaching at the Christmas Day all-age worship service in Lisburn Cathedral at 11am.