Irish Churches Peace Project – Can the Churches Back Up Words with Deeds?

clonard_monastery_1In the run-up to Christmas, details of what has been billed the “Irish Churches Peace Project” (ICPP) were announced. The ICPP is an initiative of the island’s four largest churches (Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist) and the Irish Council of Churches. It has begun advertising for three positions to head and administer the project, and will eventually employ six field workers.

The churches have garnered £1.3 million through the EU’s Peace III programme (with additional support from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the Irish Government), for a two-year project with these aims:

  • to promote sustained and well facilitated cross-community dialogue particularly focusing on the contentious issues that need to be addressed in order to develop good relations and promote reconciliation;
  • to support local inter-church/cross-community groups in their development of new grass roots initiatives that will contribute to the lasting peace;
  • to facilitate a process by which the main denominations speak more frequently in the public sphere with a united voice on social and political issues, and through that to model positive cross-community cooperation and undermine the vestiges of sectarian politics.

Over on the Slugger O’Toole blog, Alan in Belfast asks:

In some ways these are activities that you’d expect local denominations to be doing (and they are) without funding support from Europe and NI/RoI governments. Though perhaps the injection of public cash denotes the importance that those public bodies see in churches boosting their work on the ground to facilitate peace?

Indeed, Presbyterian minister Doug Baker and Catholic Bishop Donal McKeown attempted to emphasise that the funding is a vote of confidence in the churches’ ongoing work in an interview last week on Sunday Sequence, where they discussed the aims and significance of the project.

Click below to hear the interview.

A welcome addition to the interview panel was economist John Simpson, who asked Baker and McKeown some of the awkward questions, such as (and I paraphrase):

  • Why aren’t the churches doing this already?
  • If they are, why do they need external funding to do it?
  • Is this just an initiative that will stay at the ‘high’ level of bishops, moderators, and ministers, without promoting meaningful engagement on the ground?

Readers of this blog will know that I readily advocate the churches’ involvement in peace and reconciliation. And while I welcome funding if it will facilitate and support good work – especially in areas of greatest need – I share some of Simpson’s concerns.

For example, prior church projects – such as the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel and the Presbyterian Church’s Gospel in Conflict/Peacemaking programme – were relatively well-designed and did attempt to tackle sectarianism and support reconciliation on the ground. Both of these projects received external funding, including from the Irish Government, and when the funding ended so did the projects.

Why didn’t projects like the Hard Gospel and Gospel in Conflict capture the imaginations of church people and contribute to a wider, grassroots movement to promote more intentional peace and reconciliation work among Christians?

In the interview, I thought that Baker was most articulate in insisting that the funding will facilitate greater support for grassroots initiatives in disadvantaged urban and isolated rural areas. He explicitly told Simpson that the work would not remain at the level of official church leadership. He also said that the churches would be keen to work with partners “outside” the churches, and that because many people from the EU’s priority groups, such as former combatants, ex-security forces, and the bereaved, are already involved in churches, the ICPP would be advancing the EU’s Peace III focus on these groups.

But I’m somewhat concerned about the wording of the third aim:

  • to facilitate a process by which the main denominations speak more frequently in the public sphere with a united voice on social and political issues, and through that to model positive cross-community cooperation and undermine the vestiges of sectarian politics.

Like Simpson, I think it would be a “tremendous surprise” if the churches “speak more frequently in the public sphere with a united voice on social and political issues.” I’m also unsure if “speaking out” is really the most appropriate task for the churches in our context.

In my last post on this blog before Christmas, “How are Churches Speaking to the Wider Community”, I expressed some concern that Christian leaders and activists slip too readily into “church speak” and thus quickly alienate potential supporters and collaborators outside of the church.

I also worry that there is a whiff of arrogance or superiority behind the notion that the churches seem to expect that people will listen to them because they are churches, rather than because what they have to say is compelling.

So I cringed when McKeown said the churches “have to be seen to be giving the lead to the rest of society” and when he claimed that the churches “held society together” during the Troubles.

I think that the churches should rather be seen working respectfully in equal partnership with the rest of the society. And while I recognise the good work that many Christian activists were engaged in during the Troubles, I think that churches would be better served to confess their sins in maintaining sectarianism during the Troubles – and in the long years before that.

So for me, the last part of the third aim is the most compelling: that the churches will seek to model positive cross-community cooperation. But modelling implies action rather than simply speaking.

I hope ICPP can back up its words with its deeds.

(Image of Clonard Monastery, site of secret behind the scenes political peace negotiations during the Troubles)

One Response to Irish Churches Peace Project – Can the Churches Back Up Words with Deeds?

  1. Barbara Walshe December 29, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    I think this is a positive move on behalf of the main denominations, not before time and in my view ‘very late’ in the business of drawing Christian denominations together to concentrate on what they have in common, their Christianity.

    I am reassured that this has the support of the powers that be within the churches otherwise it will go nowhere, just another funded project that will be slow to start and gather momentum and will run out of steam as the funding runs out. So there needs to be a plan from the start to mainstream the work which means that it must be considered top priority by the church powers in their budgets and in their strategic plans and in their Christian prayer and lives.

    I have a few questions through, what about independent evangelical congregations who feel that this has very little to ‘do with them’ are they plans to engage them in this initiative ?

    To those that worked hard to convince their own denominations that this needed to be done, I say ‘well done’ and the best of luck with it.

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