Churches and the Challenges of Reconciliation – Keith Hamilton from the Irish Churches Peace Project: Do Christians have time for reconciliation?

icppFifteen years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, our cities and towns are still divided and sectarianism is alive and well.

(The fact that I have written the ‘Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,’ in part because in general Protestants prefer to call it ‘Belfast’ and Catholics prefer to call it ‘Good Friday,’ illustrates our continuing divisions in a depressingly familiar way.)

Recently on this blog and in various other venues, there’s been a good deal of discussion about how the churches in particular might contribute to reconciliation. The catalyst for this discussion has been the disturbances over the 12th, the Orange Order’s insistence that it is a ‘Christian’ organisation, and a general confusion about what churches are doing or should be doing.

Last week I attended a seminar on ‘The Role of the Church in Peacebuilding,’ at Mossley Mill in Newtownabbey, organised by the CAN (Carrickfergus, Antrim and Newtownabbey) Peace III network, which includes the Carrickfergus Churches Forum. Among the speakers was Keith Hamilton, director of the new Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP).

I noted recently that while the project is very new, we’ve heard very little about what it is actually doing. It has been up and running for a few months and doesn’t have a website yet – which to me seems remarkable (and unfortunate) in an age when so much communication and networking takes place online.

Hamilton outlined the details of the project, which is funded to the tune of £1.3 million from Europe for the next 2 ¼ years. While seen primarily as an initiative of the four largest denominations, Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, and Methodist, the involvement of the Irish Council of Churches means that 15 different church traditions are represented. ICPP staff includes Hamilton, two administrators, and six development officers in strategic locations in Northern Ireland and the border counties – some of whom were only starting in their posts last week.

From what I can gather from Hamilton’s presentation (and also from hearing Catholic Bishop Donal McKeown speak with a group of students today at the Irish Studies Summer School at Queen’s University), the ICPP hopes to work alongside grassroots communities and projects that are already ongoing, as well as identifying new needs and gaps in services.

Hamilton actually described the ICPP as ‘a faith-based project doing secular work,’ which might include partnering in projects on drugs, poverty and suicide. He pointed out that there are people with a lot of leadership skills and resources in the churches, and part of the project will be to encourage those people to get involved in peacebuilding, reconciliation and other social issues. Citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, Hamilton said:

‘If you call yourself a Christian and you’re not a peacemaker, think again about what you call yourself. … The [example of] the Good Samaritan – crossing boundaries to help the traditional enemy – is the baseline for our project.’

But Hamilton also pointed out that the project – and other faith-based organisations for that matter – face significant challenges.

One such challenge is the high expectations placed on clergy and ministers and the lack of time they have to fulfil their duties. In contexts where many clergy are the only staff member at their church and are engaged in emotionally draining 50-60 hour work weeks (including burials and counselling people suffering trauma), devoting extra time to peace and reconciliation mightn’t be a top priority.

Indeed, surveys conducted by my School, the Irish School of Ecumenics, in 2010 bear this out. We asked clergy, pastors, ministers and faith leaders on the island of Ireland how much time they thought it was appropriate to spend on preaching and teaching on reconciliation. The most commonly chosen category on the whole island was 11-25%, with 30% choosing this option (30% in the Republic and 31% in Northern Ireland).

Up to 25% may seem a generous amount, but given that conceptions of reconciliation in the survey included reconciliation between individuals and God, and reconciliation between individuals (not just reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants), peacebuilding may not be as significant a priority as it might appear.

We then 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 said they 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).

I think 38% not reaching their target goal (bearing in mind that reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants may be a low priority) is a significant figure and gives pause for thought.

In the next days or weeks, I’ll blog more about the data that shows the relative lack of enthusiasm for prioritising reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants.

The 38% figure also confirms Hamilton’s point about the lack of time and pressure that clergy are under – and makes me ask how the people in the pews might be better mobilised to work on peacebuilding and reconciliation?

A few days ago, I blogged about William Scholes’ suggestion that the churches could assume a leadership role in debate about the Maze prison. Responding to that post in a comment on Facebook, Rev Arlene Moore from the Church of the Good Shepherd in Monkstown said:

I think a more helpful approach generally is not the finger-pointing ‘what have the Churches to do with X, or what are the churches going to do about Y’ but to look at what they’re already doing (often in the ordinary daily grind and in their unsung long term community service). Then celebrate, encourage, resource and promote that. It’s far too easy for people to get hyped up (Martha style) to feel guilty and think that ‘we should be doing something’ about everything. Especially with limited resources of time, money, and manpower.

Jesus only did what He saw his Father doing. He was focussed and secure in His vision and didn’t get distracted by other causes, even if worthy. The Church is not here to bolster a political or cultural project and be used to give weight to its promotion. (When do political agents publically promote, resource and support projects that denominational Churches are doing, separately or together?) But some churches may already feel called to support and promote this particular venture [debate about the Maze]. So be it. There have been a number of articles recently listing how churches can get involved in reconciliation in the now. Let’s not lose or gloss over them too soon with yet another ‘challenge to the churches to be doing’ in yet another new area.

Moore raises some valid concerns here, which echo Hamilton’s claim about the lack of time and also a lack of recognition of ongoing work.  She sounds a cautionary note about wisdom, discernment, and trying to do too much.

Like Moore, I think the last reason for getting people excited about faith-based reconciliation work should be a sense of guilt.

But do these challenges indicate that Christians on this island feel they just don’t have time for reconciliation?

The ICPP, and others who they are working with, face huge challenges if they are to alleviate the time pressure on clergy – not present them with yet another burden in their ministries. For me, the hope is the ICPP will find ways to mobilise people in the pews to live out its vision of the Good Samaritan.

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