Churches and Reconciliation: Challenges for Christian Leadership?

welcome back sundayIn a comment on yesterday’s post, in which I introduced what will become a series on ‘Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland,’ Fr Martin Magill, the parish priest at St Oliver Plunkett’s in Lenadoon, Belfast, wrote:

“I very much welcome your commitment to be specific and to look at how reconciliation can be achieved at grass roots level.  I trust you will comment on the difficulty which many clergy face which is around the commitment to their local parish, which can be all consuming versus the Biblical imperative to reconciliation.”

I appreciate Fr Magill’s comment, because I know that most ordained faith leaders are over-stretched and over-burdened.

It’s easier for someone like me, an academic working at the Irish School of Ecumenics – of which one of its founding principles was working for reconciliation among the churches – to advocate all-out efforts for reconciliation. I don’t have to conduct weddings, funerals and baptisms, and provide all manner of other pastoral care for people, in a context where vocations in most denominations are declining!

Before continuing with my series, I want to point out that Fr Magill’s comment resonates with results from the Irish School of Ecumenics’ surveys of faith leaders from 2009.

In those surveys, we asked faith leaders (which included clergy and ministers from all Christian denominations as well as Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc) how much time they spent preaching and teaching on reconciliation, and how much time they spent on ‘ecumenical activities.’ We also asked them how much time they thought it was appropriate to spend on preaching and teaching on reconciliation, and on ‘ecumenical activities.’

In many cases, faith leaders said that they were not able to devote the time they thought necessary both to reconciliation and to ecumenism.

So before presenting you with some of the data from the surveys, I want to emphasise that when I am talking and writing about religion, reconciliation and reconstruction in Northern Ireland, I am definitely not implying that pursuing these goals are primarily the task of ordained faith leaders.

On the contrary, I think so-called ‘lay’ Christians should be just as involved as ordained leaders, and should take their own initiative to drive reconciliation and reconstruction efforts in their own localities.

I think this is especially important within the Irish Catholic Church, where there is a long-standing culture of passivity among laypeople.

(For those interested in changing this culture of passivity, Dr Richard Gaillardetz, McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, will be presenting a public lecture on ‘The Future for Lay People in the Church’ on Sunday 16 September at 7 pm in Clonard Monastery, Belfast. Please RSVP by 12 September: reception@clonard.com).

The Surveys

If you want more details about how the surveys were conducted, consult our full reports on Faith Leaders and Laypeople. The faith leaders survey generated 710 usable responses, with a response rate of 18%.

Also keep in mind that in those surveys we gave people a chance to define both reconciliation and ecumenism, telling us what it means to them.

In particular, most people thought of reconciliation in individual terms – between individuals and God and between individuals – rather than in socio-political terms, like reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants on the island of Ireland. That means that when you read the results about reconciliation, you should bear in mind that not that many faith leaders are thinking about it in socio-political terms, as I advocate.

Reconciliation

We asked how much time (as a percentage per year) clergy thought was appropriate to preach and teach about reconciliation. The most commonly chosen category on the whole island was 11-25% of their time, with 30% choosing this option (30% in the Republic and 31% in Northern Ireland). 11-25% was the most popular category for Methodists (46%), Other Christians (35%), Roman Catholics (31%) and Church of Ireland (29%). Other Religions and Presbyterians said it was appropriate to spend more time preaching and teaching about reconciliation. For Other Religions, 38% said it was appropriate to spend more than 75% of their time preaching and teaching about reconciliation. For Presbyterians, 21% chose 26-50%, with 18% each choosing more than 75% and 11-25%. However, the most popular category among Presbyterians was ‘unsure’ (23%).

We followed this with a question about how much time clergy actually spend preaching and teaching about reconciliation. On the island as a whole, in the Republic, and for most denominations, clergy spend less time preaching and teaching about reconciliation than they think is appropriate. For example, on the island as a whole the most popular category was less than 10% (32%), with 36% in the Republic choosing this category. On the island as whole, 28% said they preached and taught on reconciliation 11-25% of the time, lower than the 30% who thought this was the appropriate figure. In the Republic, 27%, said they preached and taught on reconciliation 11-25% of the time, lower than the 30% who thought this was the appropriate figure.

In Northern Ireland, the most popular category for actually preaching and teaching on reconciliation was 11-25%, with 31% choosing this option. 31% thought this was the appropriate amount of time.

Other Religions and Presbyterians, reported preaching and teaching on this topic more frequently than others – but again not as much as they hoped. While 21% of Presbyterians thought it was appropriate to preach and teach on reconciliation 26-50% of the time, 17% actually did so. While 18% thought it was appropriate more than 75% of the time, 13% actually did so. And while 18% thought it was appropriate 11-25% of the time, 23% chose this (lower) figure for the time they actually did so.

These results were further confirmed when we isolated the clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders who said that they thought it was appropriate to spend 11-25% of their time preaching and teaching on reconciliation, and calculated how many actually spent that much time on reconciliation. Of those 162, 100 reported that this was the actual amount of time spent preaching and teaching on reconciliation. So, 62% of all clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders on the island as whole were able to match the 11-25% figure that they thought was appropriate with what they actually did, while 38% were not (32% reported spending less than 10% of their time on preaching and teaching about reconciliation).

Ecumenical Activities

We asked how much time, as a percentage per year, clergy thought was appropriate to devote to ecumenical activities. The most popular category here was less than 10%, with 40% of clergy on the whole island choosing this option (38% in the Republic and 45% in Northern Ireland). The only denomination to stray from this trend was the Church of Ireland, in which the most popular category was 11-25%, selected by 34% of its clergy. While the most popular categories among Methodists were less than 10% (31%) and 11-25% (26%), they were more likely than other denominations to select 26-50% (15%), 51-75% (13%) and more than 75% (8%).

We followed this with a question about how much time, as a percentage per year, clergy actually devote to ecumenical activities. Again, the most frequently chosen option was less than 10%, with 68% on the island as a whole (68% in the Republic and 67% in Northern Ireland) choosing it. However, there is a contrast between the 40% who think it is appropriate to spend less than 10% on ecumenical activities and the 68% who actually spend that amount of time on them – some clergy are not spending as much time on ecumenical activities as they think is appropriate. This is the case for all denominational categories.

We double checked this by isolating the clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders who said it was appropriate to spend the higher figure of 11-25% of time on ecumenical activities. Of these 145 people, 55 or 38% said that was how much time they actually spent on ecumenical activities. Most of them – 82 or 57% — actually spent less than 10% of time on ecumenical activities.

Methodists and Church of Ireland ministers were more likely than other denominations to say that they spent more than 10% of their time on ecumenical activities. Methodists chose all of the other options (except unsure) more frequently than the others, with 27% choosing 11-25%, 14% choosing 26-50%, 5% choosing 51-75%, and 3% choosing more than 75%. Church of Ireland ministers chose the 11-25% category 23% of the time, and the 26-50% category 11% of the time.

(Image: Fr Martin Magill and parishioners from St Oliver Plunkett’s, promoting the parish’s Welcome Back Sunday, set for 30 September.)

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