Address given to the Unitarian Church Dublin

Address to the Unitarian Church Dublin 19th August 2018

You can listen to the recording of my address here, with the full text transcribed below.

I am very grateful for the invitation to address your service this morning. I am glad my contribution was described as an ‘address’ rather than a sermon, as I am nervous crossing over a certain line. The separation between Church and State has served both sides well. One can of course inform the other but both are liberated when they get to operate apart.

I will have to give up being political as I step across the line but hope to share instead a few personal reflections on how the changing nature of faith in Ireland might influence what is happening in the wider world.

A lot of my comments will refer to the Catholic Church for that is the tradition that I come from and know something about. I hope the thoughts might as easily come to someone of any belief and no religion at all, as we look around together in this time of uncertainty, fear and change.


Safe Space

I feel this Unitarian Church is a safe space to speak. I had the honour of addressing a meeting here once before, as part of a series of talks Andy Polack organised on the subject of climate change, in the run up to the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement. I salute the work you have done as an eco congregation and I note your statement that love is the doctrine of this Church, the quest for truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer.
I saw your Reverend Bridget Spain give a talk in UCD where she tried, in as simple terms as possible, explain her understanding of the concept of God. She used a short depiction of God being the mystery of life.

Those simple words resonated with me.



I was raised in a Jesuit school and have a lot of friends from that order who were influenced by the writing of their colleague Pierre Teilhard De Chardain. His work in the first half of the last century was revolutionary in showing how a spiritual view of the world can be compatible with evolutionary thinking. He availed of the scientific method and through his work in paleontology and geology sought to expand his understanding of material substance in space and time. That work helped him express a new theological understanding that the divine was all around us, in every minute particle within the physical world.

The Episcopalian American Bishop Michael Curry described Chardain as one of the greatest minds and spirits of the 20th Century in the sermon he gave at the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He was inspired by Chartains view that ‘Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.’

That spirit burned brightly in the early years of my life when the Beatles sang all you need is love and Martin Luther King shared a dream that this was time to make justice a reality for all god’s children. It was a time of hope when many believed in such a dream. Post Vatican 2, I was told that God was a source that loved me, rather than an object to be feared. Sin was defined to me as the absence of love rather than some original failing, which had to be purged by the obliteration of some internal evil intent.


Kennedy O’Brien

A jesuit teacher Kennedy O’Brien inspired me with this vision of God living in every dappled thing, where there is ‘neither spirit nor matter in the world, the stuff of the universe is spirit matters’.
Kennedy O’Brien was the last full time Jesuit teacher in this country. He was not saddened by that fact, arguing that the Catholic Church had promised in Vatican 2 to hand over power to the Laity but had failed to do
so. Now due to a lack of new clergy it would have no choice in the matter. He hoped that out of the embers of its decline a new fire could be ignited.

He died suddenly in January this year, with the same gospel lines in his funeral missalette that had been his mantra. ‘Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in him or her’


Welcome Decline

I know that there are a lot of people in this country who welcome the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland for its many failings. It is true there can be no forgetting of the institutional and individual abuse and it is equally true that the failure to admit and respond to such abuse was the worst example of failing to practice what is preached.

I did not witness such acts myself but I do regret a lot of the orthodoxy that clung on beyond its time in that era.

I wish I had known my best friend and brother were gay, so we could celebrate the fact that love is the same no matter where it is found.

I wish the girls school had not been behind such an iron curtain, so I could open up more easily to the opposite sex.

I regret that the orders were arranged with such class distinction. The fathers doing the teaching and preaching for the affluent, the brothers and sisters doing the same for the less well to do.

I can remember the dank smell of poverty you could sometimes get at the back of a poorer church. There is no doubt that the power of the institutional church was a contributing factor in the lack of an honest response to the abuse that took place but there is also truth in the fact that we were living in a social and cultural environment which had been shaped by the historic hardships our people had endured for so many years. It was that history which also I think accounted for a culture where individual rights were forgotten about and institutional wrongs were ignored.


Peace and Love

There is another wider truth which I hope we will not ignore. It is the fact that there are also so many people within faith and religious communities who were and still are true champions for peace and love in this world.

I may be biased in that view because I saw it in my beloved uncle, a Dominican priest who followed the path of South American liberation theology in his missionary work.

My educators were inspired and lead by their Superior General Pedro Arrupe, who radically promoted a preferential option for the poor within Catholic Social teaching. It is because Pope Francis is of that same tradition, that I am looking forward to seeing him in Dublin later this week.

It is not just that he has written a new encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ which puts care for our common home at the centre of the church’s mission. He has a broader vision whereby social justice and ecological justice must go hand in hand if we are to take the evolutionary leap we need to make in this world. It is the path I believe we need to take to bring us a safe, sustainable and more fulfilling future.


Field Hospital

He says he wants a ‘field hospital’ church with the ability ‘to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.’

Sure enough, when It comes to caring for those with disabilities, including my own son, who do I meet but people from religious communities.

You find the same thing when you go to the frontline of poverty eradication.

At the most radical environmental protests it is the Sisters of Mercy and members of a dozen other congregations who are leading the charge. Inspired by a new theology which reimagines our relationship with nature.



Where will this all lead too? I have three thoughts that I might share. As well as being a Catholic I also sometimes attend the Church of Ireland parish in Sandyford, to hear the exact same Gospel, to listen to my wife sing and to sit in welcome contemplation with my Protestant neighbours.

The services are lead and sermons given by two female pastors Sonia Giles and Anne-Marie O’Farrell. I see no reason why my own local Catholic church should not be able to follow that example.

I read that the Pope is looking for a new ‘synodal church’ where the Bishop of Rome meets on an equal basis with every other centre of the Church.
Perhaps it is time for a second Synod of Whitby, one thousand three hundred and fifty four years after the last one redefined the working relationship between the Celtic Christian Church and Rome.

Rather than having a Colman who represented us back in 664 maybe we should this time include within our representatives a trinity of present and past presidents: Michael D to consider the philosophical approach, Mary McAleese to make sure women and gay people have a role and Mary Robinson to remind us of the historic truth that ‘We are the first generation to fully understand the seriousness of climate change and the last generation with time to do something about it.’



I am sorry if that is too political a line up and perhaps in reflection we also need to send as our representatives a whole new generation of young people to consider what spiritual future they see unfolding. Diarmuid Martin is right, that is the biggest question for every church in Ireland today. Where are the young people and what will they want to do?

Whatever answer comes I hope it will be ecumenical in nature. If what I mentioned earlier is right and there is a sense of God in every aspect of the material world, then how can that be an exclusive phenomenon.

My Communion host is made of bread which is made of cells, which grew from the power of a plant synthesising the energy of the sun. It is a celebration of life and that celebration can surely belong to everyone no matter whether they are Christian, Athiest, Muslim Ignostic, Buddhist, Hindu or Jew.

I would prefer a broad a Church and as broad a range of Churches as possible. Allowing for difference in belief should not stop us coming together when it comes to living the dream of a Just World which Martin Luther King proclaimed from the hill.


New Economics

Last but not least I hope the Churches and the Political World can inform each other in providing some critical thinking for our critical times. A number of people coming from such different backgrounds came together recently to set out how this could work in a book entitled ‘Dialogue of Hope’

They did so given their view that: ‘We live in an Ireland, and a world, where conventional economic models have failed, politics is fractured, what it means to be human is contested, and opposition between secularists and believers is conducted like some kind of Punch-and-Judy show. The dominant narrative of our time is spent.’

It will not be easy to derive a new story from the fractured Church in Ireland but some things will surely be telling. First among them is a line I heard Kennedy O’Brien gave at a climate gathering we organised in Liberty Hall three years ago when he said: ‘We are Divine beings not economic units.'
Surely that concept might be the foundation stone of a new economics which allows us avoid destroying life on this planet and making poverty history once and for all.

The first assumption that was drilled into us in studying economics was that people were first and foremost interested in maximising their own profit. It always rested uneasily on the mind of a child raised in the 1960’s. We need a new economics which is based on the original meaning of that word which is looking after and managing our own home.

If we see God is in every field we plough and in every utensil we make and use, if God is reflected in every post we send and every bed we make then surely it might help up make the leap we need to make to a better world, where we can live together as ten billion people, in peace and love with each other and with the natural world.