Belfast Telegraph

Dean Forde’s vow to put church at heart of city is brave, but it may not be easy

By Alf McCreary

Congratulations are in order for Archdeacon Stephen Forde who has been appointed as the new Dean of Belfast, in succession to the Very Reverend John Mann who left earlier this year to take up a post in the Diocese of Salisbury.

The role of Dean of Belfast is a big job and it takes a big man or woman to do it justice.

Archdeacon Forde, rector of Larne and Inver with Glynn and Raloo, has an impressive CV and a wealth of experience for a still-young man of 55.

In the current climate, where important news stories pile on top of one another, the appointment of a new Dean of Belfast might not seem significant to those who do not study, or care about, church affairs.

However, the appointment of a new Dean of Belfast is important not only for the Church of Ireland and St Anne's, but also for the capital city of Northern Ireland.

The main job for any dean is to run the local cathedral as efficiently and as imaginatively as possible, and that applies to places as far apart as Belfast and Dublin, or Cork and Londonderry.

However, Belfast's cathedral is particularly important as it is at the heart of a city which in turn also lies at the heart of some of the most important developments of Church and State in Northern Ireland.

In effect it is a shop window of what the Church in society should be. There was a time when St Anne's Cathedral was firmly planted in the arms of the Church of Ireland but not necessarily in the city of Belfast, where it was perceived to be somewhat apart from the centre of affairs.

When his appointment was announced, Archdeacon Forde made the point when he said: "For many years St Anne's Cathedral was at the edge of city life and now it is at the very centre of the thriving Cathedral Quarter.

"My vision is to see the cathedral as a significant spiritual centre at the heart of the city, a cathedral with doors to pass through, not to pass by. It is a cathedral open to all, for those who are seeking God and faith in the 21st century. Building on the legacy of those who have gone before, the cathedral will continue to offer prayer, praise and service."

These are brave words, but easier said than done. Stephen Forde's predecessor Dean John Mann was a quiet, deeply spiritual and gentle person who brought healing to St Anne's when it was badly needed, but his personal profile in a very public role was not as high as that of some of the deans who went before him.

One of the best-known was Dean Samuel Crooks who had the brilliant idea of taking the Church outside the cathedral, building and starting the famous Black Santa sit-out on the steps of St Anne's.

Sammy Crooks and his successors not only raised huge sums of money for charities at home and overseas, but they also showed that the Church must be part of the daily life of the world in helping the poor and needy - and not just talking to itself in its various and often pompous Synods and General Assemblies.

Dean Houston McKelvey had more than his share of controversies, but he showed leadership in pushing through plans to erect the huge steel spire on the roof of St Anne's and also opening the cathedral for a visit by the Dalai Lama and his many followers.

I remember reporting on that extraordinary event for this newspaper and it was the only occasion - apart from the funeral of Alex 'Hurricane' Higgins - when it was difficult to gain entrance to the building.

I also recall that after the visit there was a lively correspondence in the Church of Ireland Gazette, during which many conservative Anglicans argued that a non-Christian leader should not have been allowed to take part in such an event in a cathedral.

This showed that the Church of Ireland is not nearly as broad-minded as some of its members would like to think. However, I do welcome the initiative at St Anne's in holding a pets' service, a fashion show, and a wide range of concerts.

No doubt Archdeacon Forde will ponder on all such issues as he prepares to take up his new role in a cathedral which could play an even bigger role in Belfast than it has done so far. I wish him well.

Belfast Telegraph

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