This morning’s BBC Radio Ulster edition of Sunday Sequence featured an interview with the newly elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Norman Hamilton. Hamilton had a fairly wide-ranging conversation with presenter William Crawley in the ten minute slot which started the programme.
One of Hamilton’s more memorable lines was that ‘relationships matter,’ to which he added the words, ‘Institutions don’t deliver good relationships.’
Hamilton said he had huge concerns about the lack of vision for a shared future in which people across all levels of society would work against sectarianism and segregation. He added that he was uncertain if our politicians actually have the will to address these problems, preferring rather to ignore them and hope that they will go away.
Hamilton would know as well as anybody that sectarianism and segregation just won’t go away – and that their effects can range from the depressing to the downright dangerous. For the past 22 years, Hamilton has been the minister at Ballysillan Presbyterian Church, which is situated in a tough area of North Belfast. He was prominent as a mediator in the dispute around the Holy Cross school in 2001.
Hamilton linked the lack of progress on a number of political issues to poor relationships – not just between politicians in competing parties but also within civil society. It was in the context of a discussion about the devolution of policing and justice that he drew attention back to the importance of good relationships.
As a social scientist I appreciate the power of robust and healthy institutions, which can serve as helpful structures to guide and goad people into action. But I also see Hamilton’s point about relationships. For me, institutions and good relationships are like two sides of the same coin. We need both.
The problem with building good relationships is that it is not easy. It can cause people who have been hurt in conflict considerable pain, and it takes a lot of emotional energy and time. If Hamilton becomes a moderator that can inspire more people in the Presbyterian Church to commit to the difficult task of building good relationships across the sectarian divide, that would be a lasting achievement.
Hamilton also identified himself as a ‘card-carrying’ progressive evangelical. He said that ecumenism, in the way it has been broadly understood, has ‘run out of steam,’ and he has no regrets about that. He defined ecumenism as church institutions seeking structural unity.
That is not how the institution I work for – the Irish School of Ecumenics (Trinity College Dublin) has defined ecumenism – although our recent surveys of faith leaders and laypeople on this island confirm that ‘structural unity’ has been a common understanding of the term. Rather, we understand ecumenism to be about promoting dialogue, peace and reconciliation. This is with the aim of building good relationships among diverse peoples.
That may be easier said than done. But I was encouraged that Hamilton said that promoting good relationships is a crucial social and political task – for all of us. His moderatorship begins in June.