Friday, 14 February 2020

Look out for the pollinators

An early flowering cherry promises good things to come
My early flowering cherry (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) has been delighting the eye with its shocking pink flowers since early February. Storms Ciara and Dennis have battered the side exposed to south west winds, but in the shelter it remains glorious. Every year I see it as a promise of all the good things to come as the days lengthen and grow warm, in the same way that the ancient Israelites saw the rainbow as a promise that rain and floods would never last for long.

This tree is a favourite early source of nectar and pollen for honeybees, and on mild days it buzzes with busy harvesters from the hive my friend and neighbour has placed in my garden. I hope it will give them a good start to the season, allowing the colony to thrive and yield a good honey crop later in the year.
A honeybee harvesting nectar & pollen
Pollinating insects are critically important to the health of our environment - not just bees, but also a legion of other species, including hoverflies, butterflies and moths. Pollinators, flowering plants and animals engage in a wonderful three-cornered dance in God’s creation. The insects pollinate the plants and are fed in return with nectar and pollen. The plants produce fruit and seeds which feed mammals and birds. Mammals and birds in turn eat and distribute the seeds, and in the case of humans plant orchards of fruit trees. The dance would stop without the pollinators.

So it is disturbing that there are indications of a large decline in the biomass and the number of insects in many parts of the world, including Ireland. People my age remember well the days when you could not drive more than a few miles without having to clean the splatted insects from the windscreen of the car, which is unnecessary now. This decline is probably one of the reasons why so many of our native bird species are also in decline.

If you want some ideas on what you can do about this, whether as an individual or as part of a parish eco group, do have a look at the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan website.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Symbols of hope

Single snowdrops reaching for the light

The snowdrops have been pushing up their delicate flowers in the garden for a couple of weeks now. How delicate they are, yet tough enough to force themselves up through soil and leaf-litter, multiplying and competing with other, later plants under trees and shrubs.

There are innumerable different snowdrop species, hybrids and cultivars, of which I grow four – the common single and double forms of the species Galanthus nivalis, the large single species G. elwesei, and the double G. nivalis cultivar ‘Hill Poe’. The latter is a local plant, first discovered by the wife of the Rev James Hill Poe in her Nenagh Rectory garden. The passion of ‘galanthophiles’ – snowdrop collectors - leads them to grow hundreds of different snowdrops, and pay immense sums for a single rare bulb. There are fine collections open to the public in the gardens of Primrose Hill, Lucan, Co Dublin and Altamont, Tullow, Co Carlow. Now is the time to go to see them – but be careful you don’t catch ‘galanthophilia’, which is a disease with no known cure!

Snowdrops are not the only spring flower making an appearance. The first to bloom was the Christmas rose Helleborus niger, of which I picked a small bunch on Christmas morning. Others following on include a particularly early green H. orientalis, the lovely purple Primula vulgaris ssp sibthorpii (a close cousin of our native primrose from the Balkans) and the charming but invasive white periwinkle Vinca major ‘Alba’.

For me all these flowers are symbols of hope in the cold dark days of winter. They remind me that by the grace of God the cycle of life continues to turn. They promise a future cornucopia of beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables as the days lengthen and grow warm. And we need symbols of hope this year more than ever, as we begin to experience the magnitude of the climate crisis.

Christmas roses bloomed on Christmas Day

An early green hellebore

Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii flowers reliably in January

Vincas major 'Alba' is good groundcover, but invasive

Friday, 22 November 2019

What future for rural parishes in the Church of Ireland?

As I see it our rural parishes face two significant challenges:

1. The present model of one incumbent for each group or union of parishes is no longer fit for purpose in many places:

  • Fewer parishioners and falling sustentation is increasingly leading to the appointment of part time clergy.
  • At the same time administrative pressures on incumbents are growing, eg for safeguarding trust, GDPR etc.
  • The work of a singleton incumbent is increasingly stressful and far too many succumb to the pressure.

2. We need to ride two horses if the church is to flourish in the future. We must both develop fresh ministries for new younger and hopefully growing congregations, at the same time as we continue to provide traditional ministry for existing dwindling and aging congregations:

  • Small aging congregations fear their churches may be closed. They are suspicious and often resistant to change, while often recognising change is inevitable.
  • There is unlikely to be sufficient critical mass and resource in most groups and unions of parishes to support the development of new ministries and fresh expressions of church to build the church of the future.

One pathway to the future could be clustering existing groups and unions into wider ministry areas. Each might consist of up to 4 or 5 existing groups and unions, with a ministry team consisting of several full- and part-time stipendiary clergy with additional NSM, OLM and Reader support.

  • Ministry teams would provide mutual support and absence cover for individuals, so reducing stress on incumbents.
  • Administrative support would be shared across the ministry area.
  • The pooled resources would both provide ministry to traditional congregations and release resources to develop new ministries and expressions of church.

To be successful such a clustering approach is likely to require:

  • Sufficient full- and part-time resource to allow mutual support.
  • Ministers comfortable with working as part of a team with clearly defined lines of authority.
  • Geographical and cultural coherence.
  • Reassurance to small congregations. Can we promise them that their churches will not be shut unless they ask for it, provided they can both maintain the building and raise up a reader to lead worship when necessary?

I think it is urgent to explore the implications, pros and cons of such a clustering approach, and if it makes sense to try it out. And we should also explore other pathways. But if we do nothing, the future will surely be one of continued decline punctuated with ministry crises.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

A Prayer of Bishop Jeremy Taylor

O God, whose days are without end,
and whose mercies cannot be numbered;
make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible
of the shortness and uncertainty of human life;
and let thy Holy Spirit lead us
in holiness and righteousness all our days:
that, when we shall have served thee in our generation,
we may be gathered unto our fathers,
having the testimony of a good conscience;
in the communion of the Catholic Church;
in the confidence of a certain faith;
in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope;
in favour with thee our God,
and in perfect charity with the world.
All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This lovely prayer by Jeremy Taylor 1613-1667, Bishop of Down, Connor & Dromore, is included in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, for Visitation of the Sick. He is commemorated in the Church of Ireland on 13th August.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Autumn glory

The view down the Lime Alley to Kilteelagh gates

The leaves in the garden are falling fast now after the first frosts, but they were still glorious in yesterday's sunshine. It was dry enough to take the mower out at a high cut to gather up the fallen leaves, which have been put in piles to make leafmould. The cycle of life continues as nutrients return to the soil to give it the fertility on which all life depends. Thanks be to God!

Thursday, 17 October 2019

General Thanksgiving

Giving thanks for all the good things we have received by God’s grace must be a central part of Christian worship. It is very right and proper, therefor, that the old Book of Common Prayer of 1662 included the prayer entitled the General Thanksgiving, written by Bishop Edward Reynolds of Norwich. This prayer has been included in every subsequent edition, including that for the Church of Ireland of 2004 (page 99). A modern language version was included in the Church of Ireland Alternative Prayer Book of 1984 (page 91), but sadly not in the 2004 prayer book, nor the new services of Morning and Evening Prayer for use on Sundays.

Traditional language prayers will probably be forgotten in the course of time as we use traditional language less and less in worship. What a pity it would be to lose this beautiful and much loved prayer.

We have imported the American Halloween but not Thanksgiving, which is also a pity. The American Thanksgiving is a lovely festival. It is a time for families and friends to gather together, to feast and to celebrate all that was good in the previous year, with traditional foods like turkey with cranberry sauce, sweet corn, squash and green bean casserole, and sweet pies – a bit like Christmas for us. Although now a secular festival, celebrated by people of all faiths and none, its origin lies in Christian communities giving thanks to God for all his blessings. Even today it is a tradition in many American families to begin the Thanksgiving dinner with a grace, and for each person at the table to tell one special reason they give thanks to God this year. In the United States Thanksgiving is a national holiday, observed on the 4th Thursday in November – the 28th November in 2019 - while in Canada it is observed on the 2nd Monday of October.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Bees & the Gardener

"If bees could talk, and we came across them busy in a flower garden and enquired what they were doing, their reply might be: ‘Gathering nectar to make honey.’  But if we asked the gardener, he would most certainly answer: ‘They are cross pollinating my flowers.’  In carrying out their manifest function to make food, the bees were performing a latent function of fertilizing flowers.  The mutual dependence of bees and flowers is an analogue of churches and society."
Bruce D Reed, quoted in a lecture : 'Redeeming Evangelism: Authentic Mission in the Church of England', by Very Rev Prof Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, at Salisbury Cathedral on Saturday 13 July 2019 - very well worth reading!