Last week the Ballymena Borough Church Members’ Forum hosted an evening with Archbishop Eamon Martin, coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh, and Rev Dr Heather Morris, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland. Martin’s address has been covered by a range of secular and religious media, with most reports focusing on Martin’s assertions that all are not equally to blame for what happened in the past, that peace and reconciliation are a choice, and that Christians and church leaders should take responsibility for “modelling positive relationships and challenging sectarianism.”
At that end of this post, I’ve reproduced some of his key statements around these areas, because I think they are important. But something else that he said struck me, which has not received as much attention as his other words.
This was Martin’s recommendation to establish “covenants of friendship.” The paragraph where he talks about such covenants reads:
… I want to lend my full support to the statement issued by the four Church Leaders and the Irish Council of Churches following the Haass talks. I think we in the Churches have a particular responsibility to lead the way in transforming relationships and in healing the pain of the past. Perhaps one way in which we could do this would be to develop a ‘covenant of friendship’ between our Churches at leadership level and offer support to our local congregations and parishes in developing similar ‘covenants’ at local level. Making a solemn Christian commitment to friendship and good relations, to treat each other with dignity, respect, understanding, tolerance and friendship compromises no doctrinal principle. It simply draws on the values of the Gospel of Christ and on the powerful principles of good neighbourliness, decency and generosity that are the leaven of peace that Jesus calls each of us to be in the world.
For me, it’s significant that Martin – a Catholic Archbishop – uses the word “covenant,” which on this island is so often associated with Protestant Unionism. The concept of the covenant is emphasised in Reformed Calvinism, the Christian tradition that has been most influential among Protestants in Ulster. That tradition is reflected in the Ulster Covenant (1912), with its pledge to prevent Home Rule by “using all means which may be found necessary.”
With a history like that, one could be forgiven for thinking that the word “covenant” could be tainted, or too contentious to use in peace and reconciliation initiatives.
But when I hear a Catholic Archbishop use that word, it is not just an invitation for greater cooperation. Using the word “covenant” acknowledges the value that the Protestant tradition brings to the public sphere. It invites further reflection on the potential richness of mutual covenantal relationships among Christian traditions on this island, rather than locking us into exclusive covenantal relationships.
With his use of the word “covenant”, Archbishop Martin is speaking the “Other’s” language in a constructive way.
I remain undecided about the extent that the term “covenant” can be de-constructed, re-constructed and evenly redeemed in our public sphere. I am not sure that everyone has heard or will hear Archbishop Martin the way that I do.
And after all, a covenant is just words if we don’t act on the sentiments behind them.
Key quotes from Archbishop Martin’s Address:
I welcome the assertion in the final Haass document that everyone in our society “was not equally to blame” for the violent conflict of the Troubles. We should not be afraid to question the creeping narrative that “we are all equally to blame” [for what happened in the past] and to challenge any attempts to ‘revise’ or ‘control’ the narrative about the past. The vast majority of citizens across this island and on all sides of the community rejected paramilitary violence.
One of the concerns we expressed as a Church in our submission to Dr Haass was that the search for peace and reconciliation in our society tends to be left almost exclusively to politicians. We suggested that civic society, voluntary organisations, schools and Churches also have a responsibility to inject new momentum and creativity by modelling positive relationships and challenging sectarianism.
Peace is a choice, forgiveness is a choice, reconciliation, tolerance and respect – each of these are a choice.