David Stevens, Leader of the Corrymeela Community, died from cancer on Sunday at the age of 62. A founding member of the Community Relations Council, Stevens also worked for 25 years in the Inter Church Centre in Belfast, serving for 12 years as General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches and Executive Secretary of the Irish Inter Church Meeting.
Stevens’ book, The Land of Unlikeness: Explorations into Reconciliation (Columba, 2004) is essential reading for students on our Master’s in Reconciliation Studies. It is a theological work, grounded in the context of Northern Ireland. In it, Stevens asks Christians to honestly examine the past and reflect on what they might bring to the search for reconciliation.
Corrymeela has created a memorial website where people can leave personal messages for his family.
Stevens was one of the people who was instrumental in putting the much more demanding task of reconciliation (as opposed to co-existence or ‘benign’ apartheid) in Northern Ireland’s public realm.
As Duncan Morrow, the Chief Executive of the Community Relations Council, says in today’s Belfast Telegraph,
"In some ways the theme of reconciliation has become the predominant theme of our times."
Stevens knew there is still much to be done to heal Northern Ireland’s troubled past. He frequently called on the churches to contribute constructively to this conversation. Below is Stevens’ summary, compiled in 2006, about what the churches could do to contribute to a ‘Shared Future.’
- The fundamental challenge we have to face is what sort of society do we want to move towards?
- The issue is not whether the future will be shared – it will be. The issue is whether we share division and conflict, or whether we share a positive future together.
- Relationships matter and attention needs to be given to them.
- We can and need to distinguish between what is essential in pursuing a positive shared future as neighbours and issues around shared worship and matters of church unity, which remain stumbling blocks for many church members.
- Building friendships are of key importance. Discussion of difficult issues, shared work on social needs, etc can all proceed from this, but the reality of our situation is that there are still far too few friendships across religious, political and social divides. Rather than scoffed at as being insignificant, small steps should be valued.
- Training clergy (and lay people) for ministering in a divided society needs to be given greater urgency both in our theological colleges and in our ‘in-service’ training programmes.
- There is a need to create liturgies that reflect where the community is: hurt, pain, healing, celebration, etc.
- We need to be putting good relations and the healing of a broken society at the heart of our ministry.
- The spiritual renewal of the church is linked to investing ourselves in peacebuilding.
- Peacemaking is absolutely central to the church’s mission: It is a family trait of those who follow Jesus Christ. Therefore, peacemaking is central to the Christian vocation.
- We need to ask: What does it mean to present the gospel (good news) in the context of a broken society?
- Reconciliation of this divided society is the single greatest priority for our ministry at this time. A question for the churches; Are we up to it?
- The churches need to begin putting their money where their mouths are. (In terms of providing human and other resources for the task of peacebuiding.)
- Getting the questions right is more important than having the answers.
- Conversation is needed among the churches about how we perceive justice.
- Fear of our own people inhibits us from engaging adequately with the task ofreconciliation.
- There is a need both for articulated leadership and local implementation of the churches’ contribution to improving relations in Northern Ireland.
- There is more cross-community activity being carried out by churches than ever before.
Four years on, and Northern Ireland’s Shared Future debate/agenda has not moved on much, making Stevens’ analysis just as important today as it was then.
A fitting way to honour Stevens’ memory is to renew our own commitments to reconciliation, wherever we are. As the concluding paragraph in The Land of Unlikeness reads,
God works in the world too and linguistic signals – the increasing use of words like reconciliation and forgiveness in the political sphere – may indicate his presence, and that he is telling us something: it is time we Christians were more attentive to the ministry of reconciliation.