The future of ministry in Ireland

All Christian traditions need to offer something quite different to become attractive writes Rev. Robert MacCarthy

A lot of Catholics believe that all would be well if the Catholic Church throughout the world allowed priests to marry and allowed women to become priests.

Without dissenting at all from that view, I would have to say that there is more to it than that. All Christian traditions in Ireland need to offer something quite different to what they do at present if organised religion is to become attractive once more.

First, a few facts about the Church of Ireland: there are 444 full time priests (194 in the Republic and 250 in the North). There are about 50 ‘vacant’ parishes. There are 97 priests who serve without stipend and therefore continue with their lay occupations.

The full-timers receive a minimum annual stipend of €36,219 and unvouched expenses of on average €10,500. Women have been ordained since 1990 and there are now 64 women in post as parish priests and 48 as part-timers. Clergy brought up as Catholics and who subsequently changed to the Church of Ireland number 16. In spite of all that, and in spite of minimal training in comparison with priests, it would seem that becoming a clergyperson is no longer attractive in either Church and that both Churches are scraping the barrel to keep the present system going.


At disestablishment in 1870, a measure of democracy was introduced into the Church of Ireland – 12 parishioners elected at the annual meeting form a select vestry chaired by the parish priest which is charged with all matters relating to fabric and finance.

I recall that when I was rector of Castlecomer, a local building contractor who had done work for us was amazed that I could not sign a cheque. But there is a great deal more to pastoral ministry than can come under the heading of fabric and finance, and we now have a situation where the Catholic Church’s parish pastoral councils (where they exist) are far more democratic than anything the Church of Ireland has to offer.

Writing in The Furrow some months ago, a pastoral worker in west Clare describes how a parish council came to realise that practically all the ministries in the parish currently centred on the priest were ministries in which lay people might fruitfully be involved.

With its multiplicity of churches and declining numbers of priests, the Church of Ireland should have been able to give a lead in this situation. In fact, it has not. It has chosen instead to prop up the medieval system by the use of lay readers.

These are lay men and women dressed up to look like clergy who drive long distances to take services when the priest is engaged elsewhere.

They are not usually local – in fact, diocesan lay readers are discouraged from officiating in their own parish and in some dioceses the lowest rank of parish reader (confined to their own parish) are actually being phased out.


The system of ëset apartí solo ministry

At the moment, both Churches are trying to operate the system of ëset apartí solo ministry to be found all over Europe. In the Irish context, it had its origin in the synod of R·th Breasail and it made perfect sense in the medieval world. But it does not do so any longer. Both Churches need to move back to a model of collaborative ministry which is that prescribed in the New Testament and which was the model of ministry in the early Irish Church.

There is a wonderful picture of St Fiac at Slety on the banks of the River Barrow surrounded by his familia and all of them going out from there to evangelise the surrounding countryside.

Fr Donal Dorr relates how he went out to Africa very much as a ëlone rangerí, and then found himself in charge of a parish of 26 Christian communities covering hundreds of square miles. He had virtually no administration to do ñ this was looked after by the parish council, the womenís organisation and youth leaders. His job was to celebrate the Eucharist with each community about once a month, usually on a weekday.

On Sundays, each community would have gathered for a service of the word conducted by locals. With its tradition of non-Eucharistic worship, this is where the Church of Irleand could have given a lead in the Irish context. But it has not.

Fr Aidan Ryan writing from the perspective of ëthe last monk of Clonmacnoiseí, acknowledges that Ireland is at the end of the era of ìcommon Catholicismî ñ that the tide is running against faith of any kind; that it has already swept away almost all the seminaries and many religious houses as well as the numerical strength of the priesthood.

In this context, he suggests that the last monk might focus on the idea of communion or community. He would urge that newer, smaller and stronger forms of community and of communal faith-sharing should be explored.

It is a radical recipe but it is one which both Churches in Ireland will ignore at their peril.

Dr Robert MacCarthy is a Church of Ireland clergyman and was Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, from 1999 until his retirement in January 2012.