Forty years ago

On this day 40 years ago, I was ordained priest.  We are within an Ember week, traditionally the time for ordinations.  They occur four times a year.  I had been made deacon on 21st December 1979, so it was a little over the year which is normal for the time-space between the two ordinations.  However, we were both young and the man priested with me was not quite of canonical age - one needs to be 23 to be a deacon, 24 to be a priest - so the time was extended a little, and perhaps the diocese didn’t want another ordination on top of Christmas.  It was a Sunday evening; Sexagesima actually: so it was still prior to Lent, as Easter was late that year.

Both churches of our ordination services were in the inner city, in flashpoint areas of Belfast that had seen huge change in the previous fifteen years, with the mass migration of households caused by the onset of the Troubles.  The Church of St James, Belfast, where that service of 40 years ago took place, had itself had a traumatic recent history.  In the Belfast Blitz it had been destroyed, all but the tower, but in the years after the War it had been painstakingly rebuilt to the exact design of the original.  It was to this Church that we gathered on that February Sunday night, and, with little fuss, but with a cup of tea afterwards, two new priests were ordained.

The bible that I use day by day is that given that night at my ordination.  Helen re-covered it for me some years ago.  There is spilt ink on a page of Matthew that happened during a confirmation class some years ago - when confirmation classes of twenty young people and fountain pens were not uncommon.  The inscribed page in the front has been done in calligraphy, with a design of shamrocks carefully hand painted around it.  It was the Church of Ireland.

This fine Church of St James was closed twenty years ago as the large Church of the Ireland population of the area had almost completely gone, and it happened quickly.  It was occurring all over Belfast.  At the end of this period of aligning each area politically and religiously, only 10% of the City of Belfast remained truly integrated.  This century, due to an influx of people from Eastern Europe and North-east Africa, various Orthodox Christian communities have become established.  The Antiochene Orthodox Church took over the old St James’ and used it for some years.  Now it has changed again, and I am not sure what into.  A neighbouring school had wanted it for a long time, and I hope that it has it now, and children are using it for a library or IT suite, or simply as an assembly hall.   To know that it is filled with young people is a comforting thought - or will be again when we can actively meet again.

John Mann