In a previous review of Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile: Alternative Models of Church for Ireland in the 21st Century, I promised to note some of her most compelling challenges for the churches in Ireland.
Higgins’ challenges are present in every chapter in the book. Indeed, the discussion or reflection questions at the end of each chapter are challenging.
But for me chapter 4 on ‘Models of Church in the Christian Testament’ contained some of the most striking challenges.
For example, in sections on ‘An Equality Model of Church in Galatia,’ and ‘A Just Economic Model of Church in Corinth,’ Higgins discusses how baptism and Eucharist were seen as sacraments of ‘radical equality’ (p. 73). In the case of the church in Corinth, Higgins notes that the Apostle Paul chastises the wealthier people in the community for perpetuating economic divisions in the way they were practising Eucharist: ‘Eucharistic sharing without economic sharing and inclusivity missed the point’ (p. 79). She goes on to say (p. 80):
‘Paul challenged the Corinthians to consider their poor and contribute to the well-being of the poor in other places, like Jerusalem by sending financial support. How can the churches in Ireland gauge whether they are responding to the challenge of Eucharist in both local and international contexts?’
Higgins returns to baptism in chapter 6 on the Peace Churches, noting that there is a link between baptism, equality and non-violence that the churches in Ireland have often missed. Drawing on Enda McDonagh’s Between Chaos and New Creation (Gill & Macmillan, 1986), she writes (p. 125-126):
‘Churches in Ireland might also learn from the Peace Churches’ perspective that baptism into Christ is a stance against violence. Enda McDonagh, an Irish theologian and Catholic priest, advised churches in Northern Ireland to stop baptising during the Troubles. He recognised that, in a context where the churches had become captive to tribal politics and nationalism, baptising people into communities that lived off violence create ambivalence regarding the relationship between religion and violence. A moratorium on baptism would, he suggested, be one way of underlining the contradiction between baptism into the non-violent kingdom of God and community violence.’
In a discussion of the church in Phillippi, Higgins writes about the exercise and abuse of power and authority, then relates this to practices in the churches in Ireland. Higgins suggests that churches can undertake ‘audits’ to gauge how power is being exercised within them, providing a helpful list of possible questions for a survey in a footnote on page 84:
- In church, what is happening beneath the surface?
- Where is the intellectual power?
- Who tells people what truth is?
- How is power mediated – by a dominant person or a group?
- How does the class system operate?
- How do groups within the church relate?
- Where is the economic power?
- How is it managed?
- Who holds political power?
- Who is involved in decision making?
Higgins adds that churches in Ireland should own up to ‘their own abuses of power,’ especially cases of ‘clerical abuses and “cover up”’ (p. 84).
Near the end of the chapter, Higgins asks if the churches in Ireland have been committed to the ‘core kingdom values’ of ‘mercy, justice, truth and peace’ (p. 89). Her words provide a good starting point for further reflection (p. 89):
‘In the sectarian context that is Northern Ireland [I would extend this to the entire island of Ireland – Gladys’ note] there is a particular onus on churches to learn together how best to respond to this shared Christian mission. The challenge for the Catholic Church, at the present time, is to move beyond institutionalism and, with the help of the wider community, recover the centrality of the kingdom values. The challenge for those Protestant churches who have interpreted mission as evangelism is to recognise that the Spirit of God is at work in all spheres of life, and God’s kingdom is broader than any churches and includes ‘all things in heaven and earth’ (Eph 1:10).’
I am sure readers will find much to ponder in these excerpts, and other chapters offer similar challenges. In previous posts on this blog, I have emphasised the potential for churches in Ireland to promote unity and reconciliation through liturgical reforms, which is why I think Higgins’ focus on baptism and Eucharist are especially pertinent.