The week of prayer for Christian Unity begins next week, 18-25 January 2010, with activities planned throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland. Christian unity and ecumenism have always been touchy subjects on this island, given the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland’s recent Troubles. The most recent book on the history of ecumenism in Northern Ireland, Maria Power’s From Ecumenism to Community Relations: Inter-Church Relationships in Northern Ireland, 1980-2005 (2007, Irish Academic Press) serves as a valuable starting point for taking stock of the last 25 years and generating discussion about how the churches in Northern Ireland might approach their relationships with each other in the years ahead.
The title of Power’s book summarises her main thesis: that as the churches in Northern Ireland have negotiated the Troubles and the current post-conflict transition, their emphasis has shifted from elite, high-level theological discussion to the grassroots-orientated social work strategies of community relations. She says that this has been characterised by a ‘lowest common denominator approach’ (p. 80), arguing that it ignores or conceals real divisions that – presumably – will not be able to be swept under the peace-line forever.
A historian by training, Power is a lecturer in Irish Studies at Liverpool University. The main strength of the book lies in its overarching history of church relations at a number of levels, including national-level ecumenical dialogue (focusing on the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM)), local churches (clergy fellowships, church fora and social action projects), ecumenical communities (Corrymeela, the Christian Renewal Centre, the Lamb of God Community, and the Cornerstone, Columba, Columbanus and Curragh communities), and peace and reconciliation education initiatives (the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE), the Faith and Politics Group, Youth Link, and Mediation Northern Ireland).
Power also identifies two of the most significant challenges facing Northern Ireland’s ecumenical movement:
- that Protestants and Catholics have different understandings of what ecumenism means; and
- open hostility to ecumenism on the part of some evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.
In my School’s 2009 surveys of faith on the island of Ireland, we detected similar patterns.
Power’s work is based on extensive archival and interview material, which is recorded in the references section. This includes denominations’ annual reports, other denominational documents, Community Relations Council reports and directories, conference proceedings, and publications of the IICM and ISE. Power also conducted 76 group and individual interviews, including a veritable who’s who of ecumenism in Northern Ireland.
It is in her evaluation of the work of inter-church groups and initiatives that Power provokes the most controversy. Here, she is critical of the national-level (particularly IICM), arguing that its attempts at theological dialogue have been ‘comprehensively unsuccessful,’ and that they have ‘failed to address the situation in Northern Ireland from a theological perspective as one would expect of the churches or indeed, consider their own role in the conflict from a theological perspective’ (p. 71). She identifies a genuine disconnect between the national level, and what filters down to the proverbial punters in the pews.
Power also compares national-level ecumenism in Northern Ireland unfavourably with that in South Africa, which she sees as providing a theological basis and justification for the struggle against apartheid. However, this is perhaps an unfair comparison, given that conflicting groups in South Africa were organised along racial rather than religious lines. A more valid comparison would be to another context in which there has been tension or conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
Power offers a softer critique of the on-the-ground initiatives of local churches and peace and reconciliation education programmes. She presents evidence that this has had a positive impact on individual identities and local communities, noting that it has developed in interaction with a broader ‘cross community’ movement within civil society.
Here, Power highlights two issues that should be on the agenda for the churches’ consideration in the years ahead:
- the extent that a focus on ‘community relations’ diverts attention from national-level ecumenical dialogue; and
- the possibilities that ‘local’ or ‘contextual’ theologies of reconciliation can be developed.
Although Power questions the viability of a contextual theology for Northern Ireland, she argues that grassroots theologies of reconciliation are emerging. This finding has been confirmed in my own research and that of sociologists John Brewer (the University of Aberdeen) and Claire Mitchell (Queen’s University), theologian Patrick Mitchel (Irish Bible Institute), and others.
Whether or not national-level dialogue and emerging local theologies can inform and enrich each other, remains to be seen. At its best, the week of prayer for Christian Unity could be part of that process.