This week I participated in a panel discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence which asked – in light of the 50th anniversary of the Corrymeela Community – if faith-based reconciliation efforts have contributed to peace in Northern Ireland.
Corrymeela was founded as a place set apart to overcome religious differences and has seen thousands of people from the island of Ireland and abroad pass through its centre doors in Ballycastle on the North Antrim Coast.
Presenter Roisin McAuley facilitated the discussion, which also included Corrymeela’s development director Susan McEwen, journalist Liam Clarke, and Fr Martin Magill, a parish priest in North Belfast.
You can listen to the full conversation, which lasts about 14 minutes, below.
McEwen said that Corrymeela’s faith-based focus was certainly important, although she ‘would be nervous to say it’s essential. … It’s something that brings a tone, it brings a sense, it brings a new way of being together, it brings a permission to engage at a deeper level. … it’s part of our [Corrymeela’s] DNA.’
McAuley asked me, as a sociologist, whether it was possible to measure the success of Corrymeela and similar groups.
I said yes – and the best way is through face-to-face, in-depth qualitative interviews with people who have participated in such programmes. I noted that in my own research I have found:
… stories of individual personal transformation that has been sparked by people’s participation in groups such as Corrymeela. Quite often that involves encounter with someone form the other side.
But I also noted:
… the limitation of that is when you try to scale that up from the micro level, individual level … it’s very difficult to measure the impact that these individual transformations have on wider society. That’s where it becomes more difficult to gague and you have to go on a very long time scale to measure that. It can take a generation for the individual changes to trickle down.
Later in the discussion McEwen added that she had witnessed significant transformations in her work at Corrymeela over the last decade, confessing ‘I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t see something happening. … I do see change … in how people relate to each other and how their hope is nurtured.’
Clarke pointed out that he has attended secular and Buddhist events at Corrymeela, and he doesn’t think faith – in particular Christianity – is necessary for reconciliation. He added that religion ‘needs to be careful about claiming some special place in a society where it is actually a diminishing force.’
When McAuley asked McEwen if Corrymeela was getting the ‘right people’, or merely preaching to the choir, McEwen shared that the centre receives between 10,000 and 11,000 people each year of varying ages and backgrounds. She added that ‘participants set the conversation, we provide the space.’
Magill had earlier pointed out the that the setting and ethos of a place like Corrymeela or the Drumalis retreat centre is especially conducive for uncomfortable conversations. He added that these uncomfortable conversations are also taking place outside Corrymeela, including this week at the West Belfast Festival.
[Alan Meban, AKA ‘Alan in Belfast’ on the Slugger O’Toole blog has provided excellent coverage of a number of the discussions and lectures where such conversations have been happening this past week.]
Magill also related how the Irish word ‘croi’, which means heart, has been important at Corrymeela.
Corrymeela’s worship space is called An Croi and is in the shape of a human heart. Magill said that part of the success of Corrymeela has been in ‘looking at the heart issues … moving beyond the mind and moving into something else, that’s where transformation really takes place.’
McAuley also fielded comments via text message during the discussion, with some listeners complaining that religion had been part of the problem. So I also addressed that, noting that while my own work had found evidence of religion contributing to conflict transformation, other research had found evidence of religion functioning as a barrier to reconciliation. Some examples of this can be found in John Brewer, David Mitchell and Gerard Leavey’s book, Religion and Ex-Combatants in Northern Ireland.
But as far as Corrymeela has been concerned, its ability to work outside mainstream or traditional Christian institutions has allowed it to be one of those places where transformations of the heart – an croi – have taken place.
(Image from Corrymeela website)