Insights from ‘Ministry on a Wounded and Wonderful Island’ at the 4 Corners Festival

The Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice hosted an event in the 4 Corners Festival, ‘Ministry on a Wounded and Wonderful Island,’ on Thursday 9 February.

Seminarians and young clergy from the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions were invited to listen to the stories of four clergy who have made peacebuilding and reconciliation central to their ministry.

This was an invitation-only event, although most festival events are free and open to the public. The festival continues through Sunday.

The speakers were Rev Dr Heather Morris, who served as the first female President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and is now General Secretary of the Methodist Home Mission; Fr Damian McCaughan, who was ordained a priest in 2011 and since then has been curate in St Mary’s on the Hill parish, Glengormley; retired Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe Trevor Williams, who also served a decade as the leader of the Corrymeela community of reconciliation; and Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church who is well known for his mediation work in the Holy Cross dispute in North Belfast in 2001.

I’m a member of the 4 Corners Festival committee, as well as a Research Fellow in the Mitchell Institute.

The event was largely inspired by my own research on religion, conflict and transformation. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with and observe many clergy peacebuilders in action. They have always impressed and inspired me. But I’ve also become aware of how challenging it is to be religious ministers who are convinced that living out their vocation on this island requires a commitment to crossing boundaries, and a commitment reconciliation.

We wanted seminarians and new ministers to have the opportunity to learn from clergy peacebuilders first-hand. This event was designed to help them hear those stories, and give them an opportunity to meet seminarians and new ministers from other Christian traditions, who could become their allies in their future ministries.

Rev Dr Heather Morris

Morris spoke about how as a young seminarian, she had been inspired by the example of Methodist Rev Kenneth Wilson crossing picket lines to attend a controversial conference marking the 200th anniversary of the death of Alphonsus de Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists, alongside the 250th anniversary of the conversion of John Wesley. [The conference had been picketed by conservative Protestants who opposed Liguori’s Roman Catholicism.]

She advised the seminarians that:

  • Reconciliation is not yesterday’s issue – too many people are still wounded. She warned that speaking about reconciliation would draw both the most hostile and the warmest responses.
  • Difficult issues need to be addressed not just in the public sphere, but in ‘our homilies and our sermons.’ She emphasised that speaking out must be accompanied by relationship and conversation.
  • Ministers have the responsibility to point to hope in challenging days, modelling alternative ways of relating with each other.

Fr Damian McCaughan

McCaughan shared how he had embarked on a career in broadcasting before entering the seminary at age 26. He was ordained in 2011, and early in his ministry, ‘I wouldn’t have considered reconciliation a priority.’

But his experience participating in the clergy fellowship in Glengormley ‘changed my mind.’ He added that, ‘the most important part of the fellowship is not what we organise. It’s not enough to meet and say we’re busy, good luck being busy, and see you next time. It’s stopping and making yourself have conversations that’s important.’

McCaughan said that he felt he had been insulated from the Troubles growing up: ‘I thought the Troubles were behind us. They’re not. … People in your parish will be carrying guilt and trauma.’

He also described how in his time at St Mary’s, two hoax bombs and one viable device had been left in the grounds of the church. Although he joked that the first ‘device’ was a ‘packet of buns from Tescos,’ these experiences impressed upon him the need to prioritise reconciliation.

Bishop Trevor Williams

Williams, who grew up in Dublin, described how he nurtured prejudice against Northern Protestants. As a young minister, when he was offered an assistantship in the Queen’s chaplaincy, he confessed that Northern Ireland ‘was the last place I wanted to be.’

Williams gradually overcame his own prejudices, aided by involvement in Corrymeela: ‘Corrymeela was transformative for me. It’s amazing how we all can live in bubbles of like-minded people. I learnt the most from those who were most different from me.’

Williams added:

‘Reconciliation is not just something on the theology list – it is the essence of the good news. … Do something about reconciliation. Invite those you disagree with for a meal. Listen. Corrymeela taught me the power of creating safe spaces where people can share their story. I fear that reconciliation will slip from the agenda as churches become consumed with their own survival. And if the churches are consumed with their own survival, they won’t survive.’

Rev Dr Norman Hamilton

Hamilton described his experience during the Holy Cross dispute as definitive for him – as important as his conversion, his calling as a minister, his marriage and family. For him, it was a question of what a minister should do in the face of ‘great public evil.’ He described how the ‘direction of scripture’ was important in sustaining him during this time.

Holy Cross helped teach Hamilton that Christians should seek ‘the welfare of the city’, not just one’s own group. Like Williams, he emphasised that ‘reconciliation and seeking the welfare of the city are not add-ons to parish ministry.’ He admitted that reconciliation can be ‘highly unpalatable’ – forgiving others is not easy. He asked, ‘when was the last time anyone heard a sermon on horizontal forgiveness?’, as opposed to sermons on ‘vertical’ forgiveness between God and humankind.

Hamilton also suggested that the language of reconciliation has become tainted for some. He has recently advocated the idea of ‘civic reconciliation’ as a means of advancing Northern Ireland politics. And he repeated that ‘we must put reconciliation at the centre of the Northern Ireland Executive.’ But at the same time, he recommended the language of the ‘common good’ as a possible way to move conversations forward.

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