The 4 Corners Festival kicked off its second week last night with a storytelling evening featuring four church leaders from Belfast. More than 100 people gathered in South Belfast Methodist Church to hear Church of Ireland Bishop Harold Miller, Presbyterian Rev Norman Hamilton, Methodist President Heather Morris, and Catholic priest Ciarán Dallat share their formative religious experiences and reflect on the theme: “Is Christ Divided in this City?”
The stories – told with passion and generous doses of humour – are well worth a listen.
A couple of weeks ago I spoke at an inter-church men’s breakfast at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Monkstown on “Is Christ Divided?”, which has been the worldwide theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January).
I argued pretty strongly that yes – Christ remains divided on this island. I used data from surveys conducted during my School’s “Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism” project to support my claims. The data that showed that most clergy and laypeople are not all that concerned with social and political reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, nor do they prioritize ecumenism.
Most Christians on this island, it seems, are content for Christ to remain divided.
So I was somewhat surprised when Fr Dallat concluded his story with the words:
“Is Christ divided? For me not at all. We’re the ones who make it hard. We’re the ones who allow people to mislead us.”
Fr Dallat was speaking of a unity that exists among some Christians at the grassroots. It is a unity that is expressed through joint cooperation on social justice issues, joint Bible study and prayer, and shared experiences of relationships with Christ and with one another. He described examples of this unity from his own ministry, particularly when he was a chaplain at the University of Ulster.
Indeed, in some ways the 4 Corners Festival is itself an expression of unity rather than division, in its quest to encourage people to cross the mental and geographical boundaries that divide them from other people and other parts of Belfast.
But as the Chair of the event, Prof John Brewer from Queen’s University, pointed out (and I paraphrase):
“It’s not the people in this room who are the problem. It’s not these four leaders who are the problem. How do we get beyond these nice stories to the harder questions?”
Prof Brewer’s challenge is one that remains unanswered after the event and it is a serious one that needs to be addressed.
If the 4 Corners Festival attracts only the “usual suspects” or the “ecu-maniacs” – as one person who completed a Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism survey called them – how far will it have gone in achieving its aim “to inspire people from across the city to transform it for the peace and prosperity of all”?
Rev Morris spoke about how the Methodist tradition had given her an appreciation for the word “all.” The ideal of “all” is part of a model of inclusivity neatly captured in John Wesley’s dictum that Christians be “friends of all, enemies of none.”
How can we reach all the people in our churches and our city with an inspiring vision of peace and reconciliation, or “a shared and better future”? And can the churches, or individual Christians or groups, contribute something powerful and distinct to such a vision?
But even if the four church leaders were preaching to the proverbial choir on Monday night, I think that their stories provided inspiration for those who heard them.
They shared their struggles and their experiences of healing and reconciliation. They provided examples of real unity among Christians on the ground. They pledged their willingness to keep on working for the good of all.
If any among us gathered were discouraged or cynical, their stories tempered our experiences of the limits of Christian activism with hope.
Sometimes even the “choir” needs to be reminded of what’s possible and urged not to abandon the hymn sheet – especially when we are called to sing a song of forgiveness and reconciliation.