Ecumenism in Northern Ireland is in what might be described as a quiet stage. Gone are some of the outrageous events of the 1960s, when the Rev. Ian Paisley and his Free Presbyterians staged regular protests against ecumenism outside the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
But ecumenism hasn’t gone away, you know. In some ways it is taken for granted, in that now there is an easier, more regular sharing of space in the churches throughout Northern Ireland. There’s still a long road to walk, though, to get beyond the hesitant beginnings of mutual understanding to a place of mutually enriching relationships.
As part of my School’s ongoing research project, ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism,’ I’m conducting a case study of the ecumenical Churches Forum in Co. Fermanagh. On Sunday June 6, I was with people involved in the forum in the village of Lisbellaw, where they staged their annual walk around the churches.
These walks have been up and running for the past few years, rotating between the town of Enniskillen and outlying villages. The idea is simple: on a Sunday afternoon, people of all denominations or none are invited to visit each church in the area, where they are greeted by the clergy and/or elders of the parish or congregation.
The clergyperson or elder shares some of the history of the congregation and its building, and there is time to ask questions or share a prayer.
For many along on the walk, it might not have been their first time inside the church building of another denomination, but it was their first time inside those particular buildings.
So we heard about John Wesley’s early visits to the village as Methodism was beginning to take hold. We marvelled at the unusual architecture in the Catholic chapel, speculating about the Presbyterian influences of its Scottish architect. We heard about the destruction that occurred in the Presbyterian church during the Troubles, when there was a bomb explosion outside RUC station beside it. In the Church of Ireland, we discussed the presence of war memorials inside the church.
The event itself was a quiet affair, unremarkable perhaps, fitting with this phase of quiet ecumenism.
But hearing about how people from other denominations had experienced events in the past, and the way those congregations had chosen to remember them, seems to me a gentle way to open people up to new perspectives on Northern Ireland’s shared but divisive history.
It reminded me again that people from the churches can promote the importance of sharing stories, even sharing sacred spaces, in a Northern Ireland that remains divided.
For many in and outside of the churches, there is a wilful amnesia, a desire not to know about the past. This includes not wanting to get to know the old enemy, and a lack of awareness that there must be genuine trust and cooperation in order for there to be a peaceful future.
Even if it is in a quiet way, people involved in the Fermanagh Churches Forum and other similar groups hope that their events keep alive the desire to build better, more meaningful relationships across Northern Ireland’s traditional boundaries.
(Image of painting of St Joseph the carpenter by the artist Dan O’Neill, in the Catholic Church, Lisbellaw, Co. Fermanagh)