“Th’ whole worl’ is in a terrible state o’ chassis”. I wasn’t exactly expecting that immortal line from ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle in Sean O’Casey’s famous play Juno and the Paycock to be intoned with gusto by Alan Abernethy, the 62-year-old Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, when we spoke at his home in south Belfast.
“That is one of my very favourite lines in all of literature,” the bishop recalled.
Bishop Abernethy, a committed ecumenist, is currently on extended sick leave undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.
He had previously spoken candidly about his struggle with and treatment for depression, which was diagnosed in 2010, just three years after his appointment as bishop in 2007.
Connor, comprising all of Co. Antrim, the area west of the river Lagan in Belfast and a small part of Co. Derry is one of the largest Church of Ireland dioceses.
Anyone who spends time in Alan Abernethy’s company or who has read his latest and courageously frank book, The Jewel in the Mess, will know why that line in O’Casey’s masterpiece strikes a chord.
In the play. Juno Boyle, married to Jack, a lazy wastrel, is the heroine matriarch who keeps her impoverished family together amid the “chassis” – chaos – and tragedy of Civil War Dublin.
For Juno Boyle, read Alan’s mother, Madge Abernethy (née Sloan), who heroically provided for the future bishop and his brother Colin when their father, Walter, who had a secret gambling problem, lost a huge family inheritance and deserted them, leaving the family when Alan was just six, in east Belfast in the early 60s.
Bishop Alan, who is married to Liz, and has two grown up children, writes in the book: “ One of the very important lessons my mum taught me was that she found Jesus in the mess of the chaos she found herself dealing with, through no fault of her own, but because of my dad’s gambling addiction.”
The Jewel in the Mess is the bishop’s third book, following Fulfilment and Frustration (2002) and Shadows on the Journey (2011), both – like his latest work – Columba publications.
There seems little doubt in Alan Abernethy’s mind that that the depression he suffered can be traced to the trauma he experienced as a young child in the wake of his father’s flight resulting in his mum and brother having to leave their home overnight and moving in with their beloved maternal grandparents.
“There is no doubt that whatever happened as a child left a profound influence on me, [affected] me very deeply and you realise that only years later,” he says.
The depression was picked up after surgery for gallstones in October 2010 and it kept him on sick leave for seven months until Easter 2011.
“I was worn out and tired. The ‘sick line’ said depression but both my GP and psychiatrist said it was absolute ‘burnout’”.
Clearly, nearly 18 years of working as rector of Ballyholme near Bangor in Co. Down, one of the largest parishes in the diocese, had taken its toll.
“Sometimes we had up to 40 funerals a year plus baptisms and weddings. Pastorally, I gave of my utmost to people. When I do a funeral, I have nothing left, I leave a lot of myself behind.”
Then suddenly, out of the blue, be became a bishop, “a complete shock”.
He found himself “an ordinary guy holding high office”, one where “the buck stops” and where he feels he “has authority but not power”.
He remarks that there are “no formal support structures” for a bishop although there is the informal and valuable support of fellow bishops.
On the training of Church of Ireland priests and of lay people he calls for “much more fluid, flexible ministry, it’s very static at the moment, you are either a priest or you are not.”
Returning to the treatment for his depression, Bishop Alan says a programme of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or talking therapy “helped enormously” although like so many who have experienced depression, he is under no illusion that it may return.
Three years ago, Bishop Abernethy received “a phenomenal response” in letters and messages when as a bishop he broke new ground by publicly addressing the issue of his own mental health in a ‘live’ BBC Radio 4 Morning Service from St Peter’s, one of his churches, in north Belfast.
The story made newspaper headlines.
In his sermon the bishop recalled: “My brother and I had set out for school as normal, assuming we would return to our home that evening. I was never to see the inside of that house again.
“That particular morning the bailiffs arrived to inform my mum that we had lost our home because of my father’s debts.”
During his depression he experienced “a desire to hide and be left alone” just as when “as a child after my dad left and strangers came to the house I would hide behind the settee”.
Absolutely central to Bishop Abernathy’s worldview is what he sees as the infinite significance of the fact of the Incarnation: of God becoming flesh and thus entering the mess, chaos and suffering of this life on earth.
For him, Jesus is “the jewel in the mess”.
He was brought up in a Church which seemed to promise people that they would be lifted out of the mess of their lives by “the life jacket of salvation and all would be fine.”
But rather than “the life jacket” he stresses: “Jesus came into the mess and He didn’t fix it but somehow by His presence He brought blessing and that is our calling. He blessed not the mess, but the people in the mess.
He didn’t heal everyone but those He touched He brought great healing in their mess.
“Sometimes the Church tries to fix people rather than being with them in the mess of their lives.”
The euphemistically termed Troubles and their aftermath are of course very much part of “the mess” that people must contend with in Northern Ireland.
For Alan Abernethy, one event during those dark years, which he witnessed as a young teenager in the early 70s “will disturb and shape me for the rest of my life”.
He refers in the book to “a very angry mob vying for blood” which attacked a police station and then desecrated a Catholic Church, St Anthony’s Willowfield, in east Belfast, within spitting distance of his home.
He recalls that the priest had to lock himself in the upper part of his house and that only the intervention of the British Army averted possible tragedy.
Speaking with passion he told me: “I was a Protestant in east Belfast. This was meant to be for God and Ulster. It was nothing to do with God as I saw it…reconciliation is key to Christian discipleship in Northern Ireland. If you are not a reconciler in Northern Ireland, you are not being very Christian.”
A few years later, as a student at Queen’s University Belfast, he recalls “my best friend at Queen’s was Brendan McAllister”.
Mr McAllister, a Catholic from Newry, is now a senior mediation adviser with the United Nations, after serving as a Victims Commissioner and as director of Mediation NI.
In the experience of this writer such close friendships “across the divide” would have been unusual in Queen’s at that time.
Bishop Abernethy said: “Brendan changed my life. I went to Mass with Brendan on Ash Wednesday and he came with me to the Christian Union at Queen’s.
“Suddenly we learned to journey in faith together, to expose to each other all the good [ in our respective traditions.] He questioned me, I questioned him, it was just great and very helpful.”
That friendship prefigured friendships later between Bishop Alan and numerous other Catholics.
The bishop, an enthusiastic ecumenist and member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, speaks warmly of his friendships with Catholic bishops in the North, such as Donal McKeown, Tony Farquhar and Noel Treanor.
He fondly recalls his first Lambeth Conference in 2008 when Bishop Farquhar was the Vatican’s observer.
He says that some English bishops found it hard to believe him when he told them of his friendship with Catholic bishops, given the situation here.
They were confounded when suddenly on the way to lunch Bishop Farquhar “came across the room and gave me a big hug”.
Bishop Alan feels strongly that while the Good Friday Agreement “was wonderful”, the failure to find an agreement on how to contend with the past is a major obstacle to political stability and progress in Northern Ireland.
“Until we deal with the past, we will find it very hard to find the future. My prayer is that we will find mechanisms to deal with that past.”
He described the spectacle of Catholic priest Fr Martin Magill speaking in his Cathedral, St Anne’s in Belfast, at the recent funeral of the murdered journalist, Lyra McKee, as “a great symbol of what the Church can and does do constantly in this community and we have done it for years.”
In the book Bishop Alan says: “We have to find grace to recognise the hurt we have caused each other and how a lack of grace has damaged the future possibilities.”
Questioned about this he describes grace as “a God-given gift that Jesus gives us allowing us to live in a mess with hope, purpose and peace.”
In May 2018 Bishop Alan commenced a three-month sabbatical to write his latest book.
He had lots to say, things that are “in his soul” such as stressing the critical importance of the Incarnation, “which the Church seems to have lost sight of” and putting into book form some of his teaching messages from the open forums he regularly conducts with parishioners throughout his diocese during Lent, “which I love doing”.
Wrestling with the paradox that God “seems to be more present in pain than in joy” was another thing he wanted to do in the book, he said.
“I love writing, I find it a great way to articulate what is deep within and to recover from the cut and thrust of ministry.
“Writing the book is part of my discipleship, this is my life, and this is what it is to journey with Jesus.”
He had sent the script to Columba, whom he says, “were absolutely superb” and was preparing to return to work when he experienced symptoms, including difficulty in passing water, that resulted in tests and confirmation that he had prostate cancer.
“There was both good and bad news. It was not the worst type of tumour, but it had spread beyond the prostate, but not too far. “
By November 2018 he was on sick leave and commencing “a most unpleasant” chemotherapy programme that continued until Easter, as well as hormone therapy.
When Bishop Alan spoke to The Irish Catholic, he was about to commence an intensive eight-week course of radiotherapy and more injections to target the cancer.
“I have experienced God in my mess in the most profound way, even in this cancer journey. I have never experienced as much peace in my life,” he said.