On this island, the conventional wisdom south of the border has been that ‘sectarianism’ is a problem in Northern Ireland, but not in the Republic. I encountered this perspective during the five years that I lived in Dublin, where it was customary for some Christians to paint a rosy picture about relationships between different Christian denominations in the Republic, while condemning or shaking their heads in pity at the volatile north.
While this sort of anti-Northern sentiment might be considered a kind of sectarianism in and of itself, that’s not my main concern in this post. Rather, I want to commend Anglican Archbishop Michael Jackson’s remarks on sectarianism at last week’s Dublin and Glendalough synod. Jackson, who hails from Fermanagh, arrived in Dublin in 2011 and said he had learned of sectarianism in the south through ‘bitter experience.’ He was quoted in the Irish Times as saying:
“Sectarianism itself is alive and well not least in the Church of Ireland community”. He referred also to what he called a “deeply dug-in antagonism to difference on the part of those who trumpet pluralism”.
Jackson’s comments have been met with varying degrees of surprise, shock, anger and dismay. For me, recent interventions by two previous Archbishops of Dublin – strenuously proclaiming that the Church of Ireland is not sectarian – only seem to illustrate Jackson’s point about denial.
In today’s Irish Times, Jackson offers a more sustained reflection on ‘Failings in Church of Ireland’s view of the Other.’
Jackson shares that he has encountered ‘pejorative’ views among people from the Church of Ireland about the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion, as well as prejudice against Church of Ireland people who have married Catholics.
He also says there has been a failure even to welcome people who have recently joined the Church of Ireland as immigrants or as ‘Anglicans by conviction’ who were ‘formerly … members of other Christian traditions or world faiths.’
Jackson relates that these ‘Anglicans by conviction’ are dismissively referred to as Polyester Protestants – the term capturing a view that these newcomers and their faith are cheap and synthetic. Then there is the somewhat sinister phrase that they ‘are not one of our own.’
Jackson’s observations come as no surprise to me, as they confirm many of the findings of survey research I conducted in 2009 as part of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism’ research project.
The surveys, one of clergy and one of laypeople, revealed that such views are not limited to the Church of Ireland in the Republic, but rather remain endemic in most of our Christian denominations island-wide.
For example, one conclusion that could be drawn from the surveys is that most Christians on this island either overlook or deny sectarianism. While we did not ask specifically about sectarianism, we included questions about ‘reconciliation.’ As many Christians on this island are aware, ‘reconciliation’ work has often been advanced as a mechanism to overcome sectarianism.
But overwhelmingly, both clergy and laity thought of reconciliation in very individual terms (between individuals and God or between individuals), with most failing to see ‘social’ forms of reconciliation (between Catholics and Protests, between people of other religions, and between people of different ethnicities) as important.
Further, while most churches (especially in the Republic of Ireland) reported ethnic minorities and immigrants in their congregations, 44% of clergy said that they had never done something to accommodate them.
There are of course sterling exceptions to these trends in individual parishes and congregations.
But I agree with Jackson that there are underlying patterns of exclusion and (at best) a systematic failure to see diversity as a gift rather than a burden.
What can we do and with whom to improve things, to help alleviate distrust and an apparent unwillingness on the part of some in our community to welcome newcomers to our churches and our institutions? Is there not scope for a further Hard Gospel initiative in the Church of Ireland in areas insufficiently touched by the initial study?
The Hard Gospel, which wound down around 2009, focused on overcoming sectarianism and approaching diversity positively.
In terms of its quality of content and its reach, the Hard Gospel is the most impressive such programme ever attempted by a denomination on this island.
But since the initiative has ended, it is unclear that champions of anti-sectarianism and embracing diversity have emerged among clergy and laypeople in local parishes to carry the vision forward. From informal conversations, I have also gathered that some people think the project unintentionally replicated the stereotypical view that sectarianism is a ‘Northern Problem’ and diversity is a ‘Southern Problem.’
Even more concerning were the answers in our survey when we asked clergy whether their denomination or wider religious community had provided them with adequate training or resources for promoting reconciliation.
While 52% of clergy overall said that they had received adequate training for promoting reconciliation, the least likely to say that they had were from the Church of Ireland, at just 31%. While this finding requires further investigation, I wonder did the Hard Gospel alert Church of Ireland clergy to just how challenging it is to overcome sectarianism and handle diversity positively – making them realize that they need more help?
If so, a sequel to the Hard Gospel would not be a bad place to start.