Johnston McMaster on Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile: Remarks from the Book Launch

imageCathy Higgins’ new book, Churches in Exile: Alternative Models of Church for Ireland in the 21st Century, was launched on 22 May at Skainos in East Belfast. One of the launch speakers was Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, who worked with Higgins for more than 15 years on the Irish School of Ecumenics’ adult community education programme and now with her on the Ethical and Shared Remembering project at the Junction in Derry.

McMaster has kindly provided his remarks from the launch, which I reproduce below. You can read my own review here.

You can listen to McMaster’s remarks (as well as an introduction from Higgins and remarks from Hazel Franey, Good Relations Manager at Belfast City Council) here:

Johnston McMaster on Cathy Higgins’ Churches in Exile

I would like to thank Cathy for the privilege of speaking today. Also to congratulate her on the publication of a challenging, helpful and hopeful book. Churches in Exile reflects something of her own story and experience as a woman in, or perhaps more honestly, on the edge of the faith community.

The strength of this book lies in its having been taught as part of a Women and Peacebuilding programme which Cathy designed for the broader Education for Reconciliation programme of ISE.

The book reflects the exploration and feedback of up to 90 women in different locations in Northern Ireland and the border counties, women who were both Catholic and Protestant. That represents a significant piece of field research, reflection which has both breadth and depth, and therefore a book which belongs to many and deserves to be read and treated seriously.

Another strength of this book is its opening two chapters which engage in robust analysis of where churches are today, not only in Ireland, but in the Western world in general.

The painful reality of living at the end of Christendom, a marginal experience without the status, privilege and power of the past, hence an experience of exile; and the equally painful experience of living in a post-modern world which represents a deep on-going shift in consciousness, a moving from certainties and absolutes to an inner and outer landscape without maps, is also an experience of exile or dislocation. Churches are not doing much of this analysis, but change is not possible without recognition of where we are. A voice referenced at this point in Cathy’s writing is Douglas John Hall, a Canadian theologian who also engages in this analysis from a North American context. In his recent book, Waiting for Gospel, with echoes of Samuel Beckett, he suggests that ‘we are part of the winding down of the great cultic clock of Western history called Christendom, i.e. the power and the majority status of the Christian religion in the Western world’ … and that ‘there always was a fundamental disconnect between Christendom and gospel’. Cathy is in good company and has not been afraid to engage and recognise this epochal shift for Western Christianity. The biblical metaphor of exile is more than apt.

Beyond this analysis of where we are, Cathy draws on some of the deep wisdom and practice that is out there, alternative insights and models of what it is to be faith community today. In the chapter, Models of Church in the Christian Testament, there is the wise and realistic reminder ‘that there never was or is the One True Church’. The Christian Testament itself has some 80-100 different models. Maybe the one true church, claimed in some way by every denomination in Ireland, was a Christendom and imperialistic model with an imperialistic truth claim. Of the diverse 80-100 Christian Testament models, Cathy has only space for profile four, and four exciting models they are, radical and challenging and rooted in gospel that Christendom obscured and distorted.

The exploration of women church, is a reminder that women in Northern Ireland and the border counties shaped this book, and that women are also the majority of church members.

Therefore the recovery of that radical discipleship of equals of the early Jesus movement and Pauline communities, is the challenge to overcome patriarchy, to move beyond it in being church in Ireland today. That would be liberating for both women and men.

Wisdom is also drawn from the earliest experiences of church in Ireland, those early churches when faith took root here.

Although the story came to Ireland dressed in the clothes of Christendom, it nevertheless had its roots in the countercultural movement of Egyptian monasticism. For 600 years it was non-conformist, including a relative equality for women. Cathy draws wisdom and insights form the earliest experience of being church in Ireland, described in 19th century shorthand as Celtic.

On page 187 Cathy titles a page Conclusion, goes on to write eight paragraphs without a single conclusion. I thought, that’s smart, and how refreshing, a book without conclusions!

It’s also appropriate. Because to write a book about the current dislocating, exilic experience of Irish churches today and draw conclusions would be premature. In our current experience as Irish churches, we are still decades away from any conclusions and Cathy has had the wisdom and insight to avoid them. What she does is state her deeply held, experiential conviction that:

‘real change occurs in grassroots communities, and that education for change is a necessary part of any transformative process’.

And she offers her own helpful vision of church. I think Cathy was well taught by one of her great teachers, the late Professor Letty Russel:

‘there is nothing as dangerous as a concluded mind’.

When you read this book, as you will, spend time with the cover! You may or may not recognise it. It’s the Burren in Co Clare. A lunar type landscape, an expanse of rock, largely bare, with deep narrow crevices and fissures. A lot of rain falls and seeps deep into these crevices and fissures, deep down into the rock. And because of that exotic and rare plants push up out of those deep crevices. Flora and fauna, not found anywhere else in Ireland, some not even in Europe. It’s a great cover! And then read chapter 3 which tells the ancient Hebrew story of exile, the painful story of dislocation, displacement, collapse, trauma and loss and how somehow out of that terrible experience of exile there emerges the most creative, imaginative and transformative response in the ancient Jewish story. It is that story that more than any other, shapes the narratives of the gospels and faith of the Christian Testament letters. The rocky, rugged, barren looking Burren is a place of hope where exotic things flower and bloom. Cathy has ultimately written a book of hope.

Dr Johnston McMaster

May 2013

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