The Covid-19 pandemic and the changes it brought about in how the Church and specifically parishes in Connor Diocese connect with people were the focus of Bishop George Davison’s Presidential Address at Connor Synod 2021.
Held online via the Zoom platform on Thursday afternoon, June 24, Bishop George paid tribute to the ‘remarkable’ way clergy and parishes responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the creative way they had continued to offer worship and serve their communities.
Speaking of those who have lost loved ones to the virus, the bishop said his thoughts and prayers were with all who mourn. He made special reference to the Rev John Anderson, rector of Billy and Derrykeighan, whose death in April from Covid-19 had been such a great shock.
The bishop paid tribute to those members of Connor Diocese who played a part in responding to the crisis and whose professions brought them to the frontline.
And he said that parishes, forced to change routines and learn new skills, had discovered that doing things differently provided new opportunities to reach out with the good news of Christ to a wider range of people.
Covid-19 was not the only challenge, Bishop George told Synod. “Demographic changes and an increasingly secular outlook on the part of wider society bring their own difficulties and sometimes we have struggled to respond effectively. Increasingly the Church is seen as out of touch and irrelevant in the world of today – ‘nice if you like that sort of thing’ at best and ‘a threat to people’s freedom’ at worst!” the bishop said.
But he stressed that when the gospel is proclaimed, lives are changed. “We simply need to discover ways of connecting effectively with the community around us so that people will want to know more of what it is that motivates us and take us seriously when we share our story of life and hope,” the bishop said.
“Perhaps however, the same openness to trying new things that has enabled us to respond to the challenges of Covid will also enable us to consider ways of addressing those challenges too. We have learned that sometimes it is when we have to step out of our comfort zones that we start to see new and exciting things happen!”
Concluding his address, Bishop George spoke of the work of the diocesan staff team, including changes in personnel. Team Connor, however, was not just staff, but every member of the clergy and every parishioner in the diocese, he told Synod.
“It’s my desire as your bishop to nurture a sense of fellowship and belonging across the diocesan family so that we may better support one another as together we hold out ‘the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Please pray for me in that work, as I will pray for you,” Bishop George concluded.
You can read the bishop’s full presidential address below:
Bishop of Connor’s Address to the Diocesan Synod
Held in the Diocesan Offices, Church House, Belfast and by online Zoom meeting at 2pm
– Members of the Diocesan Synod,
– Today, as the Synod of Connor Diocese, we make a little bit of history as our meeting takes place, not in the familiar setting of a church building, or of some hotel or conference centre in the diocese, but for the first time we meet online, using the technology that many of us have become familiar with over the last year or so. Previous generations of synod members could scarcely have imagined such a thing happening and indeed it still seems very strange to many of us to be doing so, but we have had to adapt to many changes during these pandemic times.
– This is the first time that we have met as a diocesan synod since the retirement of Bishop Alan Abernethy. I just discovered yesterday that our meeting today coincides with the 40th anniversary of his ordination to the diaconate. I’m sure that you would want to join with me in expressing our congratulations to Bishop Alan on that anniversary. I also want to acknowledge all that he gave to us over the course of his years as Bishop of Connor and assure him and Liz of our love and best wishes as they continue to enjoy their retirement together in Bangor.
– It is also the first time that I have had the opportunity to speak to you since I assumed the responsibility of being your bishop last September. Although I must confess that I would much prefer to be meeting in person with you, having preached my farewell sermon to the lovely people of St Nicholas’ Carrickfergus online and had my service of consecration streamed online, it seems strangely appropriate that this first address to the diocesan synod is online too!
– The last fifteen months have brought many changes for all of us. In parishes across the diocese church families have had to deal with unprecedented challenges of many kinds. When we first heard of a virus that was causing concern on the other side of the world in China, little did we know the level of disruption it would cause to all our lives in a short space of time.
– For some, Covid has brought the most difficult challenge of all, as precious loved ones have lost the battle with the virus. Homes across the diocese have been touched in this way and our thoughts and prayers are with all those who mourn for someone precious to them. Our thoughts and prayers are with each one. I hope that you’ll understand if I mention one specifically.
– The whole diocese was saddened to hear of the death of the Revd John Anderson, Rector of Billy & Derrykeighan parishes, in April of this year. At just forty-five years of age, the news of his death came as a great shock to all of us, but particularly to the parishioners to whom he had been a much respected Rector for nearly sixteen years. We continue to offer our prayerful and practical support to John’s wife, Eleanor and their children Simon, Hannah & Emma.
– John’s last online talks on the parishes’ Facebook page bore testimony to his faith in the Easter message of hope and resurrection in Jesus Christ. His own proclamation of the gospel continues to sustain us and give hope to all who mourn the loss of this warm, witty, eccentric, devoted servant of the Lord.
– Our challenges may not have been as profound as the burden of personal bereavement, but in every parish and home we have had to make changes as we faced up to the restrictions that have been necessary to counter the pandemic. Our life together has been radically different as we had to close our church buildings for a season and stop meeting together in person.
– There’s a saying that goes “There are no such things as problems, only opportunities!” I’m not sure that I’d want to go that far, but I do want to acknowledge the remarkable way that clergy and parishes across the diocese have responded to the challenges that we have been faced with. Many of you have been a part of the response as parishes looked creatively at how they might continue to offer worship, serve their community and offer help to those who were isolated and in need.
– I’m immensely grateful to all the members of Connor Diocese who have played a part in responding to the crisis of the last year. Those whose professional lives brought them directly to the frontline – NHS and Care staff; those serving in our schools and essential shops; those too, who volunteered with food banks and outreach ministries to the vulnerable and housebound; and of course, those who simply took the crisis as a prompt to renew their call to follow the example of the Good Samaritan and be a thoughtful and caring neighbour to those around them.
– In our response as parishes, we have learned new skills, embraced unfamiliar technology, and looked at new ways of being church when the familiar things were denied to us. Back in 2019, few of us would have imagined that we would be hosting online Bible studies or “dial-in” or “drive-in” worship. Clergy had to swap the normal pastoral routine of calling in parishioner’s homes for an afternoon round of telephone calls or the occasional garden gate visit. We have become experts in Facebook Live and streaming on YouTube and although the path may not always have been a smooth one, there is no doubt that we have learned as we have followed it.
– Some of you have shared stories of the ways that these ways of doing things have brought unexpected results. People connecting with your congregations for the first time, or rejoining after many years away. The discovery that different ways of doing things has given opportunities for our parishes to reach out with the good news of Christ to a wider range of people. (I’m told that Church House in Dublin recently had an email conversation with a gentleman who wanted to know how he could formally become a member of a Church of Ireland parish in the west of Ireland whilst remaining resident in his home in the United States of America!)
– Personally I had a conversation a number of months ago with the husband of a house-bound parishioner In Carrickfergus who told me what a gift the online services were to his wife in allowing her to join in worship again on a Sunday morning. As we finished our conversation and parted company he said to me “I hope you’ll not forget about us when you get back into the church!”
– We are all aware of the limitations of meeting online, and I’m sure that many of you were, like me, thrilled to be able to resume meeting again since Easter this year. Of course we are doing so, still with restrictions and precautions in place, and it doesn’t yet feel as if we are ‘back to normal’, but I hope that as we continue the journey out of lockdown we will be asking ourselves the questions “What lessons have we learned?” and “What will we do differently so that we can serve God’s people more effectively?”
– Of course, the challenges that we face in parishes across the diocese have not all been caused by Covid! Many of them have been a reality for us for some time. Demographic changes and an increasingly secular outlook on the part of wider society bring their own difficulties and sometimes we have struggled to respond effectively. Increasingly the church is seen as out of touch and irrelevant in the world of today – ‘nice if you like that sort of thing’ at best and ‘a threat to people’s freedom’ at worst!
– I have no doubt however, that we have the answer. The gospel of the love of God for a sinful and selfish world; the offer of forgiveness and new life which we receive through faith in his Son Jesus continues to provide hope to men and women today. When the gospel is proclaimed lives are changed! We simply need to discover ways of connecting effectively with the community around us so that people will want to know more of what it is that motivates us and take us seriously when we share our story of life and hope.
– Perhaps however, the same openness to trying new things that has enabled us to respond to the challenges of Covid will also enable us to consider ways of addressing those challenges too. We have learned that sometimes it is when we have to step out of our comfort zones that we start to see new and exciting things happen!
– In Connor Diocese, we have a tremendous resource network of parishes and people with gifts and abilities given to us by God. As we continue to celebrate the ways that they are being used to God’s glory I’d encourage you to support and inspire one another as we try new things for Him.
– Sometimes those new things will be small steps – a new initiative within a parish or a number of local churches working together on a project. At other times they may seem bigger as parishes are invited to consider new ways of working, new partnerships which enable teams of clergy and lay-people to serve a wider area of the diocese than the traditional parish model.
– Whatever those steps may be, large or small, I’d want you to know that the Diocesan Staff Team are here to encourage and support you. Karen Bushby can help share your story through Connor Connections or the Diocesan website or Facebook page. Richard Cotter and Elaine Wright are a ready source of advice and help for you with any administrative queries and the Development Team members Trevor Douglas, Christina Baillie, Victoria Jackson, Karen Webb & Stephen Whitten are available to help with specific matters relating to support with your ministry with young people and children, or evangelism & outreach. My own PA, Lorraine is my indispensable helper and she will be glad to assist you with any queries as requests that you may have for me.
– That team has undergone a number of changes recently and some more are just about to happen. Since the last time we met as a synod, we said good bye to Mrs Audra Irvine our Synod Officer who had been a familiar face and source of wise advice to us all over many years’ service in the Diocesan Office. We had not expected to be losing Audra and but her sudden illness sadly prevented her from returning to work. We’re glad that she has made progress in her recovery and send our good wishes to her as she settles into her new home outside Ballymena.
– After seven years in the role as our Children’s Officer Jill Hamilton recently left us to support her husband Geoff as he took up a new post as Rector of the Parish of Annalong in south Down. Again I’m very grateful for all that Jill gave to the diocese and I know that many of you have appreciated the resources that she made available to you through the Ripple website and the ‘All Aboard’ Sunday school resource that Jill wrote. Just last week, we welcomed Jill’s successor Victoria Jackson who comes to us from the Church Lads’ & Church Girls’ Brigade. I know that you will make her welcome and I’ve no doubt that she will be a wonderful addition to the team. Victoria will introduce herself to you in a short video at the conclusion of this address.
– Anyone who has called at Church House Belfast or who has telephoned the office over the last few years will have met Helen Conville and Margaret Treanor, our reception staff. Within the last few weeks Margaret has indicated to us that she wishes to retire and after many years’ service in Church House in a number of roles, Helen is moving on to a new job closer to her family home. We will miss them both very much and wish them well as they leave us.
– I conclude this address by observing though, that Team Connor is much bigger than the group of people who I have just named. It consists of every member of the clergy and every parishioner of one of our churches! Spread as we are across the length and breadth of the County of Antrim and a little corner of Co. Londonderry, we can often forget that we are a part of something bigger!
– It’s my desire as your bishop to nurture a sense of fellowship and belonging across the diocesan family so that we may better support one another as together we hold out “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36) Please pray for me in that work, as I will pray for you.