Last night I spoke at a meeting of the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship on the topic of ‘Reconciliation in Post Violence Northern Ireland: Can the Churches Contribute?’
My talk covered a range of topics, which have been explored previously on this blog through a series of posts (see below).
Much of my talk could have been considered bleak news for Christians who are passionate about reconciliation in Northern Ireland and see this as one of the most – or perhaps the most – pressing task for our churches in this generation.
For example, I presented some data from my School’s Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism research project, which included surveys in which we asked faith leaders (clergy, ministers, pastors, etc) and laity how they thought about reconciliation.
The data show that most Christians in Northern Ireland, across all denominations, tend to think of reconciliation in very individualistic terms.
For them, it is something that happens between individuals and God and between individuals. Few think of reconciliation in terms of something that happens, or should happen, between Catholics and Protestants (for further details about the data, see an article I wrote for Shared Space).
I also noted that responses to ‘write in’ questions on our surveys did not demonstrate much awareness or engagement with resources on reconciliation such as those produced by Christian organisations like Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI); or by denominations, such as the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Project or the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking Programme.
Resources produced by these groups focus on social and political forms of reconciliation – especially reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants on this island – but I fear that the surveys indicate that their work has not bedded down in the consciousness of most practising Christians.
This is a pity, because other qualitative research I have done (through in-depth, semi-structured interviews) indicates that these educational programmes have had transformative effects on people’s lives, changing their identities and getting them excited about working for reconciliation in their society.
(Evidence of this can be found in both of my books: Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, and Evangelical Journeys, co-authored with Claire Mitchell)
As inevitably happens when I speak about reconciliation, someone asks – ‘but how do we define reconciliation?’
Thinking as a social scientist, I said that on the surveys we supplied a write-in question where people were invited to define what reconciliation meant to them before they started answering our questions about it. That, of course, led to hundreds of different definitions of reconciliation.
Over tea and coffee with colleagues this morning at the Irish School of Ecumenics, I realized I should have emphasized more strongly that while there is no agreed (sociological) definition of reconciliation, as Christians on this island we have many resources we can draw on when it comes to thinking about what reconciliation means in our context. These are the resources I alluded to when speaking about the work of Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI).
They have helped us see that reconciliation is about transforming relationships at all levels of society (individual, social and political) and the socio-political structures that keep people apart. They have also helped us understand that reconciliation can be helped by a form of repentance that is self-critique – not a demand for the ‘other’ to repent.
I was also asked if there were ‘models’ of reconciliation that could be helpful for our context.
Influenced by a talk I’d heard Alan Roxburgh give at Skainos the week before, I said that I thought we should avoid searching for ‘models’, especially from outside our context. Roxburgh had argued that much of the loss in vitality in Western churches has been down to trying to implement one-size-fits all models that get people to sit in our pews and to (presumably) think just like we do.
I said that what we should rather be looking for are the existing, small-scale examples (models, if you like) of Christian-inspired reconciliation where we are, some of which I named in my talk in my discussion of educational programmes, neo-monastic communities, and liturgical reforms.
The seeming insignificance and small-scale of these examples might be thought to be discouraging. So I was glad that Fr Gerry Reynolds from Clonard said that reconciliation is also about patience and keeping the passion alive, reading from II Corinthians 5:17-19:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
Later on last night, after my talk, I was reading from Brian McLaren’s The Story We Find Ourselves In, a fictional book based on the conversations of friends trying to figure out what their faith means in their context. Neo, a Jamaican scientist and former pastor, asks his friends if they can think of history in a different way.
In light of the Clonard-Fitzroy conversation, I thought that one particular line resonated with our questions and anxieties about how to promote reconciliation and ‘dealing with the past’. McLaren has Neo say (p. 207):
Instead of history being driven by the past, what if history is constantly being invited to receive the gift of the future?
The idea behind this is that God is calling people into the future – a better future, a future in which reconciliation is being realised. By responding to that call, we are helping to fulfil that reconciling future.
If Christ has committed to us the message of reconciliation, ‘receiving the gift of the future’ seems to me an encouraging way to think about the journey.
Series on Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland
Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland: Some Initial Reflections (Part 1) – includes a bibliography of academic research on religion and reconciliation in Northern Ireland
(Image sourced on flickr by jordigll)