Is ecumenism and peace only a dream?

ise buildingRecently there have been two articles in the Belfast Telegraph about the closure of Trinity College Dublin’s Irish School of Ecumenics building on the Antrim Road in North Belfast. The most recent, an opinion piece by Alf McCreary, bore the headline: ‘Is Ecumenism and Peace only a Dream and Nothing More?’

I worked for the Irish School of Ecumenics, in that building, between January 2006-March 2015 before taking up a post at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast.

The building has not closed yet, it is merely for sale and the School simply intends to move to different premises. 

But as I read the coverage of the closure of the building, I couldn’t help but think how apt it is that nobody really notices you until you are gone! McCreary is right to point to the good work that has taken place at 683 Antrim Road, even before the School was established there, in the form of an ecumenical residential community. Maria Power profiles the work of this group, the Columbanus Community, in her book From Ecumenism to Community Relations (Irish Academic Press 2007).

The redoubtable Fr Michael Hurley was involved in establishing both the Columbanus Community and the Irish School of Ecumenics.

And I can attest that all the Master’s students I worked with, from locals to those from all the far-flung corners of the globe, came to the School (and hopefully left!) excited to work for peace. As my former colleague David Tombs (now Chair and Professor of Public Theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand) used to say:

‘A good education leaves a lot to be desired.’

We always aimed to leave our students with a desire not only to learn more, but to inspire others to work for peace. Only a small percentage aspired to become career academics, but all wanted to help make the world a better place.

My Institute at Queen’s is this week welcoming its first cohort of students on a Master’s in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice. I anticipate that they will be just as excited to work for peace as my previous students. The Irish School of Ecumenics is also still running its master’s course. We all still have a lot to learn – lecturers included!

McCreary ends his article with the question:

‘Ecumenism, togetherness, peace – is it only a dream or merely just a topic for academic study and nothing more than that?’

I can say that without people on the ground willing to work for ecumenism, togetherness, and peace, academics like me wouldn’t have much left to study – except that which makes for division and violence, I suppose.

But McCreary also makes the point that maybe ecumenism has gone as far as it can go in the churches, and that it can progress no further till there is shared Eucharist/communion.

I am not sure about that. Initiatives like ‘In Joyful Hope’ are trying to be innovative in this area, and to bring people together around the Lord’s Table.

But I do want to ask: if the selling of the Irish School of Ecumenics building on the Antrim Road, the ending of the Irish Churches Peace Project this past summer, and the ending of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Education for Reconciliation adult education programme a couple of years ago don’t shake local churches out of their complacency about working for peace – what can?

If local congregations view these events as a spur to prioritize peace and reconciliation (and as surveys I conducted while working at the School of Ecumenics back in 2009 indicated, not many prioritize them!), we will be closer to McCreary’s dream becoming reality.



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