On the main road between Belfast and Londonderry lie the grouped parishes of Maghera and Killelagh. Those of us familiar with that busy road will know that a significant marker is the Glenshane Pass. These parishes lie at the bottom of that Pass and are in the southern part of the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe.
Nestled as they are at the foot of the beautiful Sperrin Mountains these parishes are centred around Maghera and Swatragh. They represent a place that is rich in history and spiritual legacy but that is working hard to live that out in a way that is engaging and relevant to life at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
A Thin Place
The town of Maghera is a site of religious significance right from ancient Celtic times its name meaning the field of the solemn vespers. It ranked highly as a place of pilgrimage by people looking for an encounter with God.
Using a phrase familiar in Celtic Christianity it was known as a thin place. Not taking anything away from the truth that God is everywhere the term a thin place has been described as a place “where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It's a place where we can sense the divine more readily".
The church in Maghera is named after St Lurach. It is said that Lurach's family were possibly evangelised by St Patrick himself. The present day church is situated near to the centre of this bustling town.
The ruins of an earlier St. Lurach's (or Lowry's) Church date back to the 10th Century which stands on the 6th Century monastery founded by St. Lurach, the patron saint of Maghera. St Lurach was of Royal descent, dominating Mid-Ulster in the early Christian period.
Lurach was nicknamed "Lurach of the poems" and was bishop of Derrygloran, County Derry. He was of the family of Colla Uais, King of Ireland. He founded a monastery in the 6th century, around which the settlement of Maghera developed. St Lurach's headstone has a cross-inscribed upright slab and the earthen ramparts of his rath can still be seen today in the adjoining graveyard.
Contained within the ruins is a sculpture of the crucifixion, which is thought to date from the 10th Century.
Killelagh Parish is centred around the village of Swatragh, on the main road from Maghera to Coleraine. Killelagh Old Church is associated with St. Ciarán. Its name in Irish is Cill a' Locha, 'the church of the lough'. Its name arises from being positioned near the small lough of the same name nearby.
Another, more fanciful, story gives the name in Irish as Cill a' Lacha, 'the church of the duck'. This legend tells how the holy man began to build his church on a site near Killelagh Lough but that a duck started to carry the mortar away in its beak to another location; St. Ciarán took this as a sign of God's will and built the church where the old church now stands.
The parishes of Maghera and Killelagh have a past that is both rich and deep. The challenge, as with any church that spans over many generations is to find an expression of faith that engages the people alive today, rather than alone to pay homage to those to have gone before.
The present Rector, Rev Isaac Hanna, sees the past as a place from which to draw rich inspiration. However, it is all with a purpose. It is about ensuring that church life in the present in some way captures the hope of being a thin place. He is generous in his tribute to previous Rectors, his staff team and his parishioners for helping to shape the life of the parish.
Isaac Hanna is originally from Kilkeel in Co Down. With his background in a country town he is well suited to being Rector in Maghera and Killelagh. Describing how his vision for church in the here and now is enriched by the roots of the past he points to a number of priorities that the parishes in his charge have now. They owe much to the spirit and values of Christian pioneers such as St Lurach.
To build a Missional Community: The sense here is of a church life that is constantly outwardly focused but that demonstrates itself as a place where it is possible to encounter God in real and relevant ways.
Mission in a relevant way: Isaac Hanna's path to ordination began by going to England to train as a Church Army officer. The Church Army is an Anglican Mission organisation. He says that during this time he was introduced “to a contemporary form of Christianity and of doing mission that was reaching out in a relevant way.
During his training in England he describes observing the decline of the Church. He shares the observation of many that since the ending of The Troubles more and more people are disengaging from the church in Northern Ireland. This has deepened a belief in him that we cannot keep doing church as we have always done it without understanding the changing context in which we live. This is a view shared by the diocese of Derry and Raphoe.
The result of this is a commitment to what he describes as “finding innovative ways of tapping into people's spiritual seeking". The end result is for church to be a thin place where people get to meet with God and deepen friendship with other Christians. The destination of all this is that church “equips you to live life to its fullness wherever it is you happen to live your life".
Environment: Drawing inspiration from the belief that creation is an expression of God's life means having a concern for the place you are in and its environment. Interestingly this is soon going to find practical expression. The parish owns an old Walled Garden, adjacent to The Rectory. It is shortly to begin a process of opening up and developing these grounds as a green space for use by the whole community.
Companions for the Journey: In St Lurach's time, and indeed in Celtic Christian tradition there was what became known as soul friends. These were practical and spiritual companions for points in life's journey. One of the ways the parish is living this has been through the setting up of a counselling service that offers a listening ear in confidence. This is possible through the provision of a trained counsellor.
Reconciliation: The commitment to the work of reconciliation comes from simply recognising that there has been much hurt in our recent history in Northern Ireland. Along with the wounds it can leave a suspicion that any engagement with those with whom we disagree leads to surrender. The parish is committed to reconciliation that is worked out by facilitating dialogue in the local area around issues of mutual concern and that have the possibility of creating community tensions.
Isaac Hanna describes himself as “having grown up as a child of the Troubles" and saw at first hand the impact of violence. He says that during his time in England he “saw how abnormal it was for a community to be at war and for people to be killed as a result" and was challenged by a belief that there must be “a better way". This, along with inspiration of previous Rectors and the support of his parish encourages the commitment in the parish to this work.
In recent years the parish has created a 'vehicle' to live out some of its practical witness. This has come in the formation of the Maghera Parish Caring Association (MCPA). Again, drawing on ancient roots, Isaac Hanna says it is founded on a belief that “in areas of mutual concern the church can partner with others to improve life in the community, without having to surrender its tenets of faith.
The MPCA in recent years has overseen the redevelopment of its parish hall, now called The Lurach Centre. This provides a base from much of its work. It is built on the foundation of living out faith practically where you find yourself.
The work facilitated by the MPCA ranges from counselling, after schools drop-in for teenagers, luncheon and craft club for senior citizens to encouraging positive leadership in local community organizations.
The life and work of these parishes is rooted in faith. Obviously central to that is worship.
Rev Hanna describes worship in the churches as being liturgical, as per the traditions of the Church of Ireland. The parish is also looking at alternative ways of worshipping God. This has included the development of informal Praise Services. These are designed to help those unfamiliar with Church of Ireland services to easily engage with worship.
Transforming Community Radiating Christ
The diocesan vision in Derry and Raphoe, Transforming Community Radiating Christ, has been significant in the developing life of Maghera and Killelagh. Isaac Hanna describes it as having “released a lot of energy in the parish. It is encouraging us to look at how we do things as a church – to experiment and in the process draw from ancient roots".
Back to the Future
So what is the hope for the future? What does Isaac Hanna hope to see in his parishes in five years time? He puts his priorities simply:
- A variety in expressions of worship, where both tradition and diversity live in unity.
- Ever increasing parish engagement with the wider community and helping to make our localities better places to live.
- That people would trust Christ enough to give Him more of their lives.
In essence it is about the church being a thin place – doing whatever it takes to see that as a reality.