This month’s (November) Methodist Newsletter features Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, long-time coordinator of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Education for Reconciliation programme and now an adjunct assistant professor at the School.
Titled ‘Dreams of an Alternative Society,’ the article, written by Anne Hailes, details McMaster’s childhood on the Ards Peninsula, early career as a Methodist minister in Cork (where he says he was introduced to Irish history in a whole new way), and his work with the Irish School of Ecumenics.
The article focuses on the development of the content the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Education for Reconciliation curriculum, which included a critical, socio-political reading of the Bible, emphasis on love of enemy, and the creation of safe spaces for people of diverse backgrounds to interact.
In a seminar I gave last week for the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship group, I emphasized that a growing body of qualitative research has demonstrated that intensive programmes like Education for Reconciliation have contributed to transformative changes among people who took part in them.
In light of the winding down of Education for Reconciliation, and other similar programmes, due to funding cuts, I think it is important that church and community groups themselves consider how they might continue the difficult work of devising educational programmes that challenge people to critique and transform this island’s sectarian structures.
This could be one step towards building the ‘alternative society’ referred to in the title of the article.
I was of course very interested in McMaster’s own assessment of ‘how successful’ he thought Education for Reconciliation had been. Hailes reports his answer (p. 18-19):
Difficult question to measure and answer. We measured by the kind of people who took the programme and the things they have become involved in since – building better relations, becoming involved in initiatives in their community, especially in schools.
For me education is about empowerment and this programme offered empowerment to people. On another level, for a long time we were the only programme of its kind that was taking a critical theological look at this whole thing of sectarianism and peace building.
I think it’s fair to say about half of the students we had were people who had become disillusioned with institutional religion and were on the edge or outside; others were there but asking questions and we were opening up safe space for them, Catholics and Protestants, searchers and doubters, all coming together to explore theology related to social, political and economic issues in society.’
Another theme that emerged from the conversation at Clonard-Fitzroy is that it often seems that Christians who see transforming sectarianism as absolutely central to living a contextual faith on this island are a minority within their congregations and parishes.
I think McMaster’s comments allude to that and it will take some concerted educational efforts to convince more Christians to prioritize reconciliation at social and political levels.