The latest Church of Ireland Gazette (22 October 2010) carries a front page story with the headline: ‘Reconciliation Church’s ‘number one priority’ – Archbishop Harper tells Diocesan Synod.’
The article, written by Aonghus Mayes, references Harper’s presidential address to members of the Armagh Diocesan Synod on 12 October. Harper also commented on the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s (OFMDFM) Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) document.
I’m encouraged by Harper’s remarks for two main reasons.
First, Harper’s words echo those of the Presbyterian moderator, Norman Hamilton, who used his first speech as moderator back in June to lament the divisions in Northern Irish society and call on the churches and the politicians to promote a shared future.
I think it’s vital that church leaders champion the cause of reconciliation. But this should also be tempered with healthy dose of humility that includes admitting that the churches have contributed to sectarianism and division within Northern Ireland.
Both Harper and Hamilton have said as much. For example, the Gazette quotes Harper as saying that the ‘first condition leading to reconciliation’ is
“the open recognition that we have, in fact, allowed ourselves, in our various denominations, to be instruments of division … apologists for actions and attitudes incompatible with the teachings of God in Jesus Christ.”
In my School’s surveys of faith leaders and laypeople in Ireland, conducted last year, we found that the type of reconciliation Harper and Hamilton are talking about – between Catholics and Protestants – was not top of the agenda for most people. Both leaders and laypeople rated reconciliation between individuals and between individuals and God as the most important forms of reconciliation.
We also found that reconciliation, in practice, doesn’t get the priority that Harper and Hamilton are advocating.
For example, we asked leaders how much time, as a percentage per year, they thought appropriate to spend teaching and preaching on reconciliation.
The choices were less than 10%, 11-25%, 26-50%, 51-75%, More than 75%, and Unsure. The most popular category chosen for leaders in Northern Ireland was 11-25%, with 31% choosing it. This also was the most popular category for laypeople, with 25% selecting it. A close second for laypeople was ‘unsure’, with 22% selecting it.
Leaders also were asked how much time they actually spent teaching and preaching on reconciliation, and again, 31% chose this category. Further, we found that in Northern Ireland, only 35% of laypeople believe that their denomination has provided them with adequate training for promoting reconciliation.
It seems there is quite some work to be done – notwithstanding the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel project and the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking Programme – before reconciliation becomes the churches’ number one priority.
Second, I was glad Harper placed his comments in the context of the CSI document. He was critical of the document (as I have been on this blog), saying that the report was ‘predicated on division’ and calling on ‘churches, community and politicians’ to
“seek solutions which focus on the hard work of reconciliation as the foundation of one united community.”
I think CSI falls far short of the previous Shared Future document, which while recognising Northern Ireland’s deep divisions, conceived of reconciliation as a worthy process and a goal. CSI settles for a fatalistic acceptance of polarisation and lacks a vision or concrete plans for a better future.
Another area in which CSI differs from the Shared Future is that it does not specifically mention the churches as agents that can contribute constructively to a wider reconciliation process. The Shared Future document did, saying churches had a particular responsibility in this area.
It should go without saying that the churches don’t need politicians to tell them that they should promote reconciliation.
I hope that the people in the pews can catch the vision that Harper and Hamilton are advocating, and come up with some creative ideas for improving relationships on the ground – with or without the blessing of the OFMDFM.