I was the keynote speaker at today’s Annual General Meeting of the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) at Belfast Central Mission. My address was titled, ‘Do the Churches have a Place in a Post-Catholic Ireland? The Sociological Reasons for Hope.’
I have reproduced the introduction to my address below. You can read the full text here: ICC talk
Do the Churches have a Place in a Post-Catholic Ireland? The Sociological Reasons for Hope – Introduction
I’ve recently written a book called Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. My purpose today is not to promote or summarise the book. But I want to capture your attention with this phrase: ‘Post-Catholic Ireland.’ For many Christians the phrase ‘post-Catholic’ or – to use a term that might resonate more widely with the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) – ‘post-Christian’ – conjures up feelings of sadness, loss, even despair.
Post-Catholic (or Post-Christian) conveys a sense that the churches have lost their political influence and their social importance. ‘Secularisation’ appears to be winning out over the life of faith– whatever winning might mean. People no longer trust institutions, especially church institutions.
I am certain that people in this audience think that Christianity has something meaningful to offer individuals, and that Christianity can provide strong foundations for promoting the common good. Perhaps you have turned to prayer, theology, or relationships with other people of faith to sustain your hope.
I’m a sociologist of religion. It’s a profession not usually associated with bringing hope to people of faith. But today, I want to talk about some sociological reasons why Christians should have reasons for hope at this present juncture in Irish history.
In other words, there are sociological reasons why contemporary trends like secularisation and anti-institutionalism should not be lamented. Rather, they should be seized as opportunities by Christians, churches, and organisations like the ICC – opportunities for the churches to serve the island of Ireland even better than when they wielded more so-called social and political influence.
My remarks will proceed as follows: First, I’ll identify the sociological reasons why secularisation and anti-institutionalism should be seen as opportunities for the churches to flourish, not threats for them to overcome. Next, I’ll suggest ways that Christians can grasp these opportunities. Finally, I’ll argue that Christians must understand that the choices they make about how they respond to secularisation and anti-institutionalism will determine the future of the Irish churches in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. In some sense, this has been true of every generation: the choices one generation makes cannot help but impact on the next. But it seems clear to me that churches that refuse to change in meaningful ways will be choosing their own extinction. Having raised the spectre of extinction, I’m convinced that the churches have life in them yet. The churches can help make this island a better place to live. If the churches make good choices, they may be able to witness to Christ’s love much more effectively than they have in the past.
 Gladys Ganiel (2016) Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland: Religious Practice in Late Modernity, Oxford: Oxford University Press