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Eamon Delaney: In Swiftian tradition dean fires parting shot

It is often said of a man or a woman in a key position, that nothing became them like the leaving of it. Well, in the tradition of his illustrious predecessor, Jonathan Swift, the latest outgoing Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin has pulled no punches in his farewell sermon. As one letter-writer put it last week, 'light blue touch paper and retire'.

The Very Rev Robert MacCarthy, 71, fired off a few salvoes at the Catholic Church, his own authorities in the Church of Ireland, the board of the cathedral and even the board of the Rotunda hospital where he found himself in a minority of one in wanting to retain a maternity hospital with a Protestant ethos.

You can be sure that the irrepressible reverend is often in a minority of one, but his insights are a revelation about just how moribund the churches have become in these times of economic upheaval and social change.

Sitting in his study at the Deanery near Patrick Street, the departing dean showed no regrets for his evensong broadside and the summary of his 12 years at the helm.

But he is in a good tradition. After all, the position of Dean of St Patrick's is an unusual one in the church structure, and in national life, and effectively he is answerable to no one. It was, as he says, "a special position".

When he was appointed in 1999, a bishop remarked that it would be interesting to see how an iconoclast did as an icon and the Tipperary-born MacCarthy has not disappointed.

His most interesting comments concern the Catholic Church and its lack of co-operation in terms of ecumenism. He believes that the demoralised state of Catholicism may have something to do with it, whereas one would have thought, and hoped, it might be the opposite.

Happy to welcome the present Catholic Archbishop of Dublin as a preacher to St Patrick's, there has been no reciprocal invitation to the Pro-Cathedral. Irish ecumenism, says MacCarthy, was "equated to fellowship between the two archbishops, whereas this should merely be the first step".

He is quite right too. Despite all the progress made in breaking down sectarianism and building links between the churches, there has been little broad-based co-operation, beyond a few social visits and exchanged blessings by opposing prelates. And they are still "opposing", instead of working together.

Indeed, in terms of modern Christianity, there is nothing more depressing than the way the Catholic Church -- besieged, unreformed, blinkered -- seems to have just battened down the hatches. Or "circled the wagons", as the dean puts it.

The Protestant minority is seen as so small, he argues, that serious co-operation is not bothered with by the Catholic hierarchy. One would have thought that, in an age of secularism and spiritual hunger, all of the churches would pull together, but this is not the case.

The fact that the Church of Ireland is the biggest Protestant church in Northern Ireland, for example, seems to have made no difference.

"This is a 26-country matter," says MacCarthy. "Partition has created two different churches north and south, both for the Catholic faith and in the Church of Ireland." For the latter, it seems that the southern version is avowedly liberal, broad-based and in favour of married clergy, whereas in the North, it has become increasingly evangelical and conservative, and crucially led by actual northerners as opposed to, formerly, southerners with "good degrees and good minds". As a result we have "a projection of all their blue-collar values", he says in a sort of philosophical despair. MacCarthy believes that the structure of the Catholic Church is actually quite sound, and at a local level the parish priest is still acceptable and often very much supported, doing things at ground level, and creating finance committees, but "further up the candle", the problems arise.

Nothing is being done at diocesan level. Diarmuid Martin has done well, he says, and has handled the sexual abuse scandals as best he could, but he doesn't appear interested in broader church relations, and has taken on too much personally. It was a mistake to abolish the auxiliary bishops, who could have helped him.

But the real problem with the Catholic Church is the continuing lack of audience participation, says MacCarthy. Decades after the change to vernacular worship, little has changed.

Women are not fully involved and the church is still led by the same remote figures and suffers, as does Protestantism, from a suffocating clericalism, which he describes as the defence of the institution against all others, no matter how constructive their view. As for the Catholic Church not allowing their clergy to marry, this is "bonkers" and such an outdated law could be changed easily and with little fuss.

However, he doesn't necessarily agree that such a ban was linked to the incidence of sexual abuse. On the contrary, he points out a number of cases of sexual abuse in his own church which all involved married, family men. This was one of the more contentious points in MacCarthy's evensong sermon: that his own church, were it to properly investigate, would find itself guilty of similar abuses. But they were hushed up and the offending clergy moved.

On most issues, the Church of Ireland, and especially the dean himself, is considerably more liberal than the Catholic church. Civil partnership is available to gays but MacCarthy (who is himself unmarried) thinks that the traditional concept of marriage should be redefined: it used to be "for procreation" and now it is "for mutual help and comfort". The law, and Christian teaching, should reflect this. On abortion, he is also surprisingly flexible, and believes that it is a human right. He does not believe that life begins at conception, but at some stage thereafter. It is the question of "what stage" -- that is the contentious issue.

However, despite this liberalism, MacCarthy created quite a stir in 2001 when he refused to attend a reception in Dublin Castle to mark Cardinal Desmond Connell getting the red hat, "since the invitation was in the names of the then Taoiseach and his then mistress". But far from this being knee-jerk conservatism, it was more a case of the straight-talking dean forcing the Irish authorities, and the Catholic Church, to confront their own hypocrisy. Ahern, a devout Catholic, would not divorce his wife Miriam. The Irish people, like Ahern himself, like to have it both ways. Interestingly, he got great support from Irish Catholics for his stand and received over 300 letters, many of them saying "it was great to see the Protestants standing up for what we once believed in".

And on the subject of Protestants standing up for themselves, MacCarthy found himself at odds with the board of the Rotunda, when he wanted to fight for a continuing Protestant ethos for the hospital. "Ah, but these upper and middle-class Protestants," he says, with a sigh. "They want to keep their heads below the parapet and not be seen as being pushy." And he mimics the voices of the board: "Oh, but we can't be pushy. The State are our paymasters now. Oh, we can't offend the Government or the powers that be." He rolls his eyes.

But far from being tribal, MacCarthy has backed his calls for ecumenism by offering to give St Patrick's to the State as a national cathedral to be shared by all the churches, a proposal which must have given many of his Protestant faithful a virtual heart attack. The Catholic Church should pursue this idea now, he says mischievously. No wonder the outgoing dean's own board once voted a motion of no confidence in him and "attempted to muzzle my public utterances". But he is not bitter, and peppers his utterances with an impish grin.

Surrounded by the ageing portraits of former deans and theologians, he knows that time and history are on his side. One is reminded of the line about Thomas a Becket, "who will rid me of this turbulent priest", but also of a latter day Martin Luther, nailing his protesting theses to the church door and heading off into a hopefully active retirement.

Sunday Independent