Yesterday Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (the Irish School of Ecumenics) hosted a seminar on ‘Faith and Community Relations: Perspectives on Diversity, Dialogue and Reconciliation.’ I presented an update on the progress on my School’s research project, ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism.’ The event was part of Community Relations Week.
I opened the seminar with a powerpoint presentation of the major findings of our surveys of faith leaders and laypeople. These have been in the public domain for some time, having been launched last October with a two-day workshop. As often happens in such seminars, it is the discussion that follows that pushes thinking further, or in new directions altogether.
This was again the case, as those in attendance raised important points about the relevance and value of the research in a context in which the influence of traditional church institutions seems to be waning by the day.
For example, one participant who works with a faith-based organisation in a ‘peace line’ area of Belfast said that his experience is that people on either side of the walls are not really that interested in reconciliation, especially from a Christian perspective.
There are a reliable few, mostly older people, who attend events and work tirelessly for this cause, but he said he struggled to find a vision that inspired people.
He’s not alone. Others joined in with comments that young people, in particular, were turned off by faith-based efforts to encourage good relations between people of different religions or ethnic groups.
I think this is related to a general disillusionment with church institutions and church leaders on the island of Ireland, which is more pronounced in some denominations than in others.
Indeed, one of the most striking findings of the layperson survey is that Catholics are more likely than other denominations to say that the influence of their clergy on their spiritual/religious lives is minimal. Catholics also are more likely than people from the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches to say that personal reflection is important for their faith.
To me, this sounds like some people are maintaining their faith, outside of or despite their church institutions.
At this stage of the research project, we are conducting two case studies of what one might call religious communities or expressions of faith. These are the Fermanagh Churches Forum and the Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor. The case studies involve interviews with people who participate in these groups’ activities. In the case of the monastery, this includes laypeople who do not live at the monastery.
From what people have told me so far, it seems that the churches forum and the monastery both provide examples of how people are gaining meaning, spiritual sustenance, and inspiration from religious sources outside of traditional church structures such as congregations, parishes or denominational bodies.
Could such extra-institutional groups be providing spaces where people can find inspiration or articulate the visions that the peace line worker says we so desperately need?
To see the powerpoint presentation, click here
The next major event in the research project is a conference in Trinity College Dublin featuring many internationally-respected theologians: From World Mission to Interreligious Witness.
The project will proceed to the end of 2011 with theological research and six further case studies of expressions of faith on the island of Ireland.