The Eucharist/communion service could be considered an enactment of reconciliation – a ritual in which the sharing of bread and wine binds together diverse people with each other and with their God.
That the Christian churches are unable to fully share in Eucharistic fellowship is, therefore, a scandal that mocks our claim (if, indeed, we are among the Christians who claim it) to be true sisters and brothers in Christ.
Churches in and around Belfast have been drawing attention to the pain that is felt due to their broken communion in an initiative called ‘In Joyful Hope.’
On Wednesday, one of their events took place at Fitzroy Presbyterian.
The liturgy was devised by Fitzroy’s minister, Rev Steve Stockman, and music director, Chris Blake, and included participants from Northern Ireland’s largest Christian denominations. The initiative now winds down for the summer, with the next event scheduled for Thursday 27 September at St Oliver Plunkett’s church in Lenadoon.
For me, there were two main and related themes highlighted in the service:
- Our Christian mandate to ‘seek the welfare of the city’ in which we find ourselves;
- And what seeking the welfare of the city means in a divided city like Belfast.
I had the privilege of reading one of the scripture passages on the evening, Jeremiah 29:4-7, the very ‘welfare of the city’ passage:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
The service returned to this theme during the communion ritual, when Stockman read an original passage describing a new and transformed Belfast – a vision of the city reminiscent of scripture’s New Jerusalem.
Apart from the vivid yet familiar imagery – including looking out from Cave Hill, children swimming in the Lagan, etc – it was a vision of a city with no ‘peace’ walls and no ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ (as we think of them today).
While idealised, it reminded me that ‘seeking the welfare’ of Belfast should include intentional efforts – like In Joyful Hope – to transcend the barriers that have historically divided our churches.
During his sermon, Stockman talked about visiting JL Zwane Church in Guguletu, Cape Town, with students when he was a chaplain at Queen’s University. In a portion of the sermon published yesterday on his blog, he shared this story:
… Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile, the minister, was talking to my students about the anti-apartheid movement and the process of reconciliation. Spiwo said, “Every day I wake up and I thank God that I am a Christian, South African and black… because that means that every day I get a chance to forgive my enemies.” Wow! To a group of Northern Ireland students this was almost mind blowing. In Northern Ireland we wake up every morning and thank God that we are British, white, middle class and Protestant… so that every day we can ask our Catholic neighbour to repent!
Stockman’s contrast between South Africa and Northern Ireland is challenging for Christians who consider themselves series about promoting reconciliation in this city, and further afield.
Stockman is advocating forgiving enemies – with or without those so-called enemies ever repenting or asking forgiveness for what they have done. At the same time, he says we ourselves should repent:
That is no formula for shalom or God’s Kingdom in Northern Ireland as it is in heaven. We need to humbly confess our part. We need to be robust in our repentance and then as Dr. Xapile, and so many black South Africans like him, have modelled for us to be quick in the tender forgiving of those that society has deemed our enemies.
Similarly, at an event in St Oliver Plunkett’s in March, ‘The Gospel According to Christy Moore,’ Stockman asked the Catholics in the audience for forgiveness, because of what he identified as his forebears’ oppression of their forebears. That evening, Stockman explained that he saw the Fitzroy musicians’ performance of Christy Moore – in a Catholic Church – as a type of repentance and identification with the oppressed.
Repentance and forgiveness are difficult matters in a city like Belfast that has been so violently divided, and as someone who was not born here, I know I can’t fully understand the depth of the pain that some people feel and how difficult it must be for them to do what was advocated on Wednesday night.
It’s a stark task: Recognise and repent for your own sins. Then forgive your enemy even if they do not repent.
The communion table is a place where Christians can be strengthened to do just that. Imagine how much stronger we could be if we shared that table together.
Other Posts on ‘In Joyful Hope’
(Image sourced on flickr photosharing creative commons, by freefotouk)