In an age when the church agonizes about its seemingly diminishing role in secular society, it is remarkable to read the story of an Anglican church leader whose ministry has played a key role in the political struggles of the day.
Robin Eames, primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, is known to Anglicans around the world for his role in chairing three commissions of the Anglican Communion – one on women in the episcopate (or order of bishop), one on theology and doctrine that led to the publication of the Virginia Report, and most recently the Lambeth Commission on Communion that issued the Windsor Report. In his homeland, however, he is best known for his ability to bring to the table all the various factions of Irish politics. Nobody’s Fool – The Life of Archbishop Robin Eames tells the fascinating story of how a lawyer turned cleric became a confidant of Irish and British prime ministers, a negotiator with the Irish Republican Army and the Loyalist paramilitaries, and a significant contributor to the peace process in Northern Ireland, even as he was pastor to those affected by the bombings of the Troubles.
The award-winning author and journalist Alf McCreary is himself a product of Northern Ireland and might have given a more overall introduction to the issues facing his nation for those not familiar with its history. The details come out as Archbishop Eames’ story unfolds, but there is a good deal of jumping back and forth and some repetition as a result. Yet the anguish of the place, and the personal trauma endured by the people, come through in the account of Archbishop Eames’ own struggle. Outsiders may wonder why the Church of Ireland’s parish of Drumcree hosts an annual service of the Orange Lodge that leads to a notorious march through Catholic areas, tempting violence; Archbishop Eames’ deep commitment to maintain the values and culture of the Protestant community while keeping all sides at the table, help to explain his most tortured decisions.
It is not easy to be a diplomat and a bridge-builder, either in the story of Northern Ireland in the past generation, or presently in the Anglican Communion. That Robin Eames is particularly gifted for this role is clear, and there are many testimonials from his contemporaries in this volume to underline the point. Why he chose the route he did is not always as apparent; in spite of Mr. McCreary’s probing, Archbishop Eames is a private man, and there is little in the early part of the biography as he is growing up, or in the later conversations, to make this a psychological profile. I wish that there were more glimpses of his family life and a stronger read of his wife Christine, who appears here only in a supporting role.
I got a bit annoyed about being told some details several times; the book needed more editing. Some facts are wrong – the Lambeth Commission on Communion, for example, was called by an earlier name, and the Anglican Consultative Council is sometimes called the “Anglican Consultative Committee.” Nevertheless, this is an intriguing tale and an important contribution to Anglican history. The current senior primate of the Anglican Communion comes across as a statesman and as a man of deep faith, without being pretentious or superficially pious. He stands as an example of how church leadership can make a profound contribution to society while maintaining appropriate boundaries between church and state.
Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan is director of faith, worship and ministry of General Synod. She served with Archbishop Eames on the Lambeth Commission on Communion.