Belfast’s Peace Prayer Vigil – How are Churches Speaking to the Wider Community?

pray for the cityEarlier in the week, I asked ‘What’s the point of the peace rallies?’ on the Slugger O’Toole blog. The post had a particular focus on Christian activists’ involvement in organising the Saturday morning prayer vigil.

In that post, I wrote:

“For me, the non-violent, public action of the prayer rally is an example of Christian activists (finally) giving up on assuming moral authority and instead using more humble and therefore appropriate methods. Such methods implicitly assume cooperation with secular allies and carry no expectation that religious voices will be privileged over any others in the public sphere.”

As I wrote the last sentence in that quote, I was conscious of a comment that Caroline Orr had posted previously on this blog. She wrote:

“I thought that the event was very dignified and powerful. A few friends of mine showed interest but felt excluded by the language used in the description of the event. They would not describe themselves as people of faith but the idea of silent prayer appealed. I wonder if they may have a point here. Perhaps the church needs to look at how it speaks to the wider community? Phrases like “heart of Christ” and words like “prophetic” sound strange to many people. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.”

With a reaction like this to the publicity about the prayer vigil, could I rightly claim that the “religious voices” who had called for the event had no expectation that their voices would be privileged over others?

I had a look back at the language the organisers had used to describe the event. I’ve highlighted any phrases mentioned by Orr or that upon closer inspection might sound alienating to those who don’t identify with the Christian faith:

For 2012 the Northern Ireland Tourist Board slogan has been ‘NI 2012 our time our place’. As the body of Christ across the land throughout the last year we have witnessed many examples of the God’s kingdom coming amongst us and we have recognised these words ‘our time our place’ as a prophetic statement and wake-up call for the church. Unfortunately the events of the last week have been disturbing and disappointing to say the least and we really don’t want the year to end like this! With the permission and cooperation of the police we have planned ‘prayer for peace’ at 8.30am on Saturday morning outside Belfast City Hall. We are hoping to form a unbroken chain of people right around the city hall who together will take 5 minutes to pray for our leaders, the city and ultimately for peace in our land. We also feel that this non-threatening and humble prayerful approach would be a wonderful show of church unity and a powerful declaration to the nation of the heart of Christ reflected through His body. We would love as many people as possible to join us and form a wall of prayer around the city hall!

I agree with Orr that the phrases could be considered a form of “church speak.” I don’t think using “church speak” necessarily implies that those who wrote them believe that the voices of the churches or Christian activists should be privileged over others.

But the fact that Orr has encountered people who found the language alienating – and therefore chose not to participate in the event – should give Christian activists pause for thought.

I certainly don’t want to disparage the prayer vigil, which I attended and considered a moving and positive event. Rev Steve Stockman, the minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian, has even gone so far as to call it ‘the most important Christian gathering I had attended’:

I couldn’t help thinking that this was the most important Christian gathering I had attended. We have so many Conferences and Festivals in Northern Ireland Christendom, all with very noble causes and yet here was one with no denominational politics that united the Christian denominations with a real purpose of Kingdom bringing intent.

If Stockman is right, and the prayer vigil can be considered the start of a turning point for new forms of united Christian activism in Northern Ireland, then I think those involved (and I would count myself among them) need to be attentive to Orr’s questions about language.

For example, I don’t know if Stockman’s phrase in the above quote – “a real purpose of Kingdom bringing intent” – would pass muster with those who feel alienated by “church speak.”

The ability of Christians to be open to all is especially important in light of the first 4 Corners Belfast Festival, planned for the new year.

One of the central points of contemporary theologies that focus on the action of God through the “kingdom” (rather than church structures) is that Christians are meant to be out there in the world, loving and serving alongside those who may never set foot inside a church building.

That means that the way Christians talk should move away from language that implies we are the ones with the “keys to the kingdom”, bringing all the answers and the “right” perspectives on every situation. 

Looking back at the words that were used to publicise the prayer vigil, I am not sure to what extent I would recommend changing the language. But could a simple sentence to say that people of “all faiths and none” were specifically welcome to join in the event have gone some way towards alleviating the concerns of people unused, uncomfortable, or even suspicious of what Christians are up to?

In their seminal study of religion during the Troubles, sociologists John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney lament the inability of churches and Christian activists to collaborate effectively with other groups within civil society in a widespread peace movement. The events of the last three weeks have demonstrated that our society is still troubled, and in need of vision for a better future.

If Christian activists want to be part of a wider process of healing and reconciliation, more than ever they will need to collaborate with those outside the church walls. Can Northern Irish Christians develop an appropriate vocabulary for that kind of engagement?

2 thoughts on “Belfast’s Peace Prayer Vigil – How are Churches Speaking to the Wider Community?”

  1. Hi Gladys,

    Long time reader of your pieces on SOT, first time commentator here (sorry, very cliched).

    I think that you have raised a number of interesting points above specifically concerning the language the Churches in the North should use to try and make events such as the prayer vigil as inclusive and open to all as possible. Indeed, it is a question of ‘marketing’ and figuring out what language you need to use in order to get the demographic you want to engage. So, yes, if you want people who are practicing or lay or agnostic or atheist, then they really need to change their wording.

    However, the very fact that it is a ‘prayer vigil’ means that you have immediately limited the number of people who will go as they will automatically think of it as something that is overtly religious, and that’s ok if that is what you want. However, if you want some kind of gathering with quiet reflection then I would suggest that the event itself would need to be renamed in order to try and reach out to those uncomfortable or unwilling to join in with overtly (perceived) religious gatherings.

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