Journeys of Faith on the island of Ireland: Exploring Extra-Institutional Religion

mamoregapLast night I spoke on ‘Journeys of Faith on the island of Ireland: North and South’ at the Jethro Centre in Lurgan. The event was hosted by Shankill Parish Caring Association. Despite the foggy conditions a healthy crowd of 40+ people from all sections of the community attended and asked me some challenging questions after my presentation had ended.

My talk incorporated findings from two of my books – one already published and one forthcoming:

It was my first time in combining results from the two projects in one talk. But I wanted to do so because Mary Gethins, the director of the association (and a onetime reviewer of Evangelical Journeys), had informed me that the group was especially interested in the spiritual journeys of individuals or groups from different faith backgrounds.

I thought adding some of the insights from Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland would push the talk beyond evangelicalism in Northern Ireland, offering a greater diversity of perspectives. So I focused on two themes to unite the talk:

  • How people experience individual religious change, and
  • How people devise strategies to manage individual religious change, in response to changing social contexts (like the Troubles or the fall-out from the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church in Ireland)

I also wanted to make sure that the voices of people who participated in the interviews for the research – more than 100 evangelicals and more than 100 people from a variety of Christian and other religions – came through in the talk. That meant I read out some of the excerpts from interviews.

The highlights from Evangelicals Journeys have been featured previously on this blog, so I direct readers to this page, where if you scroll down you will find links that take you to a number of reviews of the book.

For now, it will suffice to say that in Evangelical Journeys we identified six directions of religious journeys: converting, deepening, maintaining a steady faith, moderating, transforming and leaving; and discussed the combinations of factors and patterns of experiences that contributed to change in each of these directions.

In the aspects of my talk that focused on Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, I introduced my ideas around the practice of ‘extra-institutional’ religion, as defined below.

The practice of ‘extra-institutional’ religion: Various methods and strategies people (and not just Catholics!) use to keep their faith alive, outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church.

Extra-institutional is meant to capture how people’s experiences and practices are so often described not only as outside or in addition to the Catholic Church (extra), but also in the Irish Catholic Church’s own terms (institutional).

I argued that people deliberately create or seek out extra-institutional spaces where their faith can be nurtured and grow. My research has found plenty of evidence that these spaces are significant for prompting personal transformations.

To provide a flavour of how some people who had found extra-institutional spaces thought about their relationship with the institutional church, here are some quotes from ‘Patricia’ from the Catholic parish of Good Counsel in Ballyboden, Dublin.

“I don’t think it’s [the institutional church] part of what Jesus had any involvement in. … There was a lot of church, but not a lot of God, about that religion [Irish Catholicism].”

“If I was just relying on going to mass and hearing the sermon and saying prayers, it wouldn’t be the same. I find that actual gospel words, and thinking them, is important. It’s very important to me and it’s more important to me than any of the brass hats or gold braid. … I don’t see any of that in the gospels. Sometimes I wonder do they [the institutional church] have copies!”

“As to where you could start, I don’t have any idea where you could start to … Humanise the institution of the church. To me they just seem so detached from life.”

‘Ben,’ who had been involved with the now-defunct group Slí Eile (Irish for ‘another way’), a Jesuit young adult ministry, related how he had not experienced God or faith through his Irish Catholic upbringing. Rather, it took a lecture in a university history course to get him interested in Jesus. That led him to attend the Gardiner Street gospel choir mass in Dublin, where he went from literally standing at the back of the church in the first week to helping to organise the mass:

“I was doing … History. I remember the lecturer saying that around the times of Jesus, he was mentioned in history books. Some Roman mentioned him. … And for some reason I went, oh shit, actually Jesus was a real person. … I was 21 at this stage and in my head he had always been a mythical figure. … So thinking of him as a man first and foremost really enabled me to then to actually go, ‘I’m interested in what he had to say …”

“I started listening to the homilies [at Gardiner Street gospel mass], and thought, that’s very interesting. That’s very practical in the context of what’s happening in Ireland now, and I remember I actually took a seat.”

Creating extra-institutional spaces in which faith can grow is a strategy in an Ireland where traditional religion has been challenged and discredited. But it reminas unclear if these small organisations or spaces can be seedbeds of re-form and renewal.

(Image sourced on Flickr. A roadside holy well and grotto at Mamore Gap, Inishowen Peninsula, County Donegal, by Irish Fireside.)

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