Today this blog features a guest post from Peter McDowell, a Good Relations Officer for the Irish Churches Peace Project. McDowell is responding to a chapter I wrote titled, ‘Can Churches Contribute to Post-Violence Reconciliation and Reconstruction? Insights and Applications from Northern Ireland’ in a recent book edited by John Wolffe, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims: Irish “Religious” Conflict in Comparative Perspective (2014).
I’m delighted McDowell has taken the time to read the chapter and respond so thoughtfully and critically.
Irish Churches Peace Project’s Peter McDowell — Is Joint Worship Necessary for Reconciliation?
In her chapter in Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims: Irish “Religious” Conflict in Comparative Perspective (Wolffe 2014) Gladys Ganiel asks if churches in Northern Ireland can contribute to post-violence reconciliation and reconstruction. She cites the Irish Churches Peace Project, set up by the four biggest denominations in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches, as a ‘tentative sign’ that the institutional churches are contributing to peace-building. She goes on to argue that Christian activists should seek to create spaces outside ‘sectarian socio-political systems … in which other forms of work, life and leisure are possible.’ This, she suggests, could be done through educational programmes, adopting the principles of neo-monastic living and through liturgical reforms.
Having worked with the Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) I found much to agree with in what Gladys has written. However, her proposals for reconciliation between the churches are predicated on building on a recognition that “the people from the ‘other’ tradition are also in fact Christians, not enemies.” Related to this is the suggestion that ‘Christians spend a significant percentage of their time in worship and service with Christians from a tradition other than their own.’
The experience of the ICPP, working with churches in various areas in Northern Ireland, is that many do have serious problems in recognising people from the other tradition as Christians, and therefore joint worship is not possible for them. This is often true from those from a conservative evangelical background, although some Catholic people hold similar views.
We have found that when bringing a group of church leaders, or people from churches, together, some will very quickly propose some form of joint- worship to build relationships and express unity. However, as soon as joint-worship is mentioned a lot of people are excluded, or exercise self-inclusion.
It is very hard for those who are more ‘open minded’ to understand the more ‘closed minded’. It is often assumed that they cannot be included in reconciliation work until they are willing to engage in joint worship (basically until they become like the ecumenical ‘us’). Or, another way of putting it, is that there is often no conception of reconciliation between churches that does not include joint worship.
The problem is that for the conservative evangelicals truth claims are very important. Truth claims are obviously at the heart of all religious belief, but hold a particular place within evangelicalism. So, for genuine reasons, good and sensitive evangelical people believe that the differences between the churches mean that they cannot in good conscience engage in joint worship. In our project I have had one such minister say that he has engaged with several ‘ecumenical’ groups of clergy, but, as he put it, all that clergy know how to do is to organise services. When they started doing that he felt that he either had to object or withdraw. He chose the latter option because he did not want to create a fuss or prevent something everyone else wanted to do from happening.
We have found that when church leaders and lay people meet together regularly, with a semi-formal structure to the meetings, relationships can be built that allow for honest sharing and increased understanding.
An honest conversation about the appropriate level of engagement (including the question of joint worship) ensures that each person and church feels secure and un-compromised in their engagement. We have found that within this setting discussions about faith and practice is possible, which often correct misunderstandings and prejudices. We have also found that when relationships are built in this way churches which retain significant theological differences find they are able to cooperate on practical projects within their communities.
The interesting theological question is whether reconciliation between the churches requires joint worship.
At the most obvious level the answer would appear to be that it must. Yet, to insist upon it may be to subtly insist that the ‘other’ change to become like ‘us’; whether it is the ecumenically minded insisting that conservative evangelicals become ecumenical, or conservative evangelicals insisting that Catholics convert to evangelicalism.