Merriman Summer School–Sectarianism and the Challenges of Reconciliation–Part II

merriman3Yesterday I posted the first part of the talk I gave at the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, titled, ‘The Challenges of Reconciliation.’ The theme of the Summer School was ‘Ireland: North and South – Two Societies Growing Apart?’

The first part of my talk dealt with themes within Protestantism that are challenges to reconciliation (including examples of how such challenges have been addressed).

Today I’ll focus on understanding sectarianism as an overarching socio-political system, and why that means that reconciliation is a task for all of us.

Today’s post includes interesting data from the Irish School of Ecumenics’ surveys of faith leaders and laypeople, as well as the definition of sectarianism developed by Liechty and Clegg in their Moving Beyond Sectarianism project. Although published more than a decade ago, that book remains a classic in the field and contains many relevant insights that seem to me in danger of being forgotten as our island stumbles through its post-violence transition. It remains on the syllabus for the module I teach on ‘Reconciliation in Northern Ireland,’ and policy makers and civil society actors also would do well to return to it. At the end of the post I’ve included a Select Bibliography of sources on religion, conflict and reconciliation.

It is worth noting that the general consensus emerging from the summer school lectures and discussions is that North and South are indeed growing apart – if they haven’t grown apart already. There also seems to be very little political will to stem this or to think about how we might creatively develop relationships between East/West and North/South.

The Challenges of Reconciliation – Part II

Sectarianism is a Problem for all of us, and Reconciliation is a Task for all of us.

Sectarianism operates at multiple levels, from the prejudiced attitudes of individuals through to social and political structures. It is at the level of social and political structures that all of us are implicated, by the fact that we live on a segregated island and more often than not move in networks of like-minded people, who are usually our co-religionists or at least come from similar religious and social backgrounds.

One of the most comprehensive definitions of sectarianism was developed by Joe Liechty and Cecelia Clegg of the Irish School of Ecumenics in their book, Moving Beyond Sectarianism (2000: 102-103). For them, sectarianism is:

“a system of attitudes, actions, beliefs, and structures at personal, communal, and institutional levels which always involves religion, and typically involves a negative mixing of religion and politics. [It] … arises as a distorted expression of positive, human needs especially for belonging, identity, and the free expression of difference and is expressed in destructive patterns of relating: hardening the boundaries between groups, overlooking others, belittling, dehumanising, or demonising others, justifying or collaborating in the domination of others, [and] physically or verbally intimidating or attacking others.”

Listening to Liechty and Clegg’s definition, is there any one among us who cannot find in themselves one of these sins of omission or commission?

But most people on this island do not think of themselves as sectarian, nor do they see reconciliation as a joint individual and communal project.

This is not just a vague impression or generalisation – there is data to back it up.

In 2010, on behalf of the Irish School of Ecumenics’ ‘Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism’ research project (funded by the Irish Research Council), I conducted surveys of faith leaders (clergy, ministers, pastors etc) and laypeople on the island of Ireland. These surveys asked questions about reconciliation, ecumenism and diversity (ethnic and religious).

Among the questions, we asked people to define reconciliation for themselves.

Very few defined reconciliation in anything other than individualistic terms, and some were cynical or hostile about the term.

To give some examples:

A Presbyterian man from Co. Londonderry/Derry: It means giving up your principles and beliefs to appease others.

A Free Presbyterian man from Co. Armagh: A large-scale repentance for one’s sins, though popularly and improperly equated with a need to compromise religious principles often out of reckless pandering to the whims of others.

A Catholic woman from Co. Dublin: Subsuming your pride/ego and learning to love each person as you would like to be loved, the Lord teaches us the importance of humility, which really helps with matters of reconciliation.

Definitions with a slightly more social focus included:

A Church of Ireland woman from Co. Cork: What it is meaning is one group is walking on another. But it should mean that they should walk side by side, and enjoy each other’s marches and parades. Live and let live.

A Baptist man from Belfast City: To have peace with God through what Christ has done for us (Romans 5). In the social sphere this manifests itself in a willingness to recognise and give thanks for the faith of brothers and sisters from other faith traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, etc.) and to celebrate our shared hope and love of Christ.

But even with these definitions, it is a huge stretch to claim that people are thinking of reconciliation in communal or structural terms.

This observation was further borne out when we asked people how important they thought it was for their churches to teach and preach on reconciliation between individuals and God, between individuals, and between various groups (Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants on the whole island, Different Religions, People of Different Religions, and Different Ethnicities/Nationalities).

On the island as a whole:

  • 80% of clergy and 61% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between individuals and God
  • 70% of clergy and 61% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between individuals

But when it came to the more group-orientated options, the percentages dropped drastically. On the island as a whole:

  • 37% of clergy and 39% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between different ethnicities and nationalities
  • 39% of clergy and 30% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland
  • 34% of clergy and 30% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants on the whole island
  • 28% of clergy and 30% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between people of different religions
  • 27% of clergy and 27% of laypeople thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between different religions

There were some differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and across denominations.

For example, among clergy, 45% of clergy in Northern Ireland thought it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, but only 34% of clergy in the Republic did so. Methodist clergy were by far the most enthusiastic about group-orientated reconciliation, with 53% saying it was very important to teach and preach on reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants on the whole island and in Northern Ireland.

But when less than 40% of Christian clergy and laypeople think reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants is ‘very important,’ that tells us that few Christians recognise the sectarianism in themselves.

We don’t have the data to speculate about the population outside our surveys, but I would guess most people on this island are very unlikely to recognise sectarianism and commit to reconciliation.

So, a huge challenge to reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants is the belief by so many on this island that reconciliation just isn’t that important.

Where do we go from here?

I’m conscious that there may be people here today who also think that reconciliation just isn’t all that important. Aren’t we better just to draw a line under the past, to live and let live, to get on with it?

Others may be asking why I focused on church groups and Christian ideas. Aren’t the churches growing more irrelevant by the day? Didn’t they abdicate their responsibility as peacemakers during the Troubles?

But in the absence of political leadership – by parties in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Britain – on matters such as how to ‘deal with the past’ and how to foster reconciliation, it seems to me that civic society needs to step into the gap and stimulate debate, with the aim of leading to action.

The Christian churches remain some of the largest groups within civic society, and have generated a wealth of insights through the likes of groups such as ECONI, Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics, and brave individuals like Fr Alex Reid and Rev. Ken Newell. The challenge is to heed what they said and did, and to carry it further forward.

Meeting that challenge means recognising that if sectarianism remains a problem for all of us, reconciliation – and that means transforming our relationships, systems and institutions – is a task for all of us.

Read Part One – Protestantism and the Challenges of Reconciliation

(image: Gladys Ganiel and Doireann Ní Bhriain at the Merriman Summer School)

Select Bibliography

Brewer, John, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney (2011) Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press

For God and His Glory Alone (1988) Belfast: Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, available at: http://www.contemporarychristianity.net/resources/pdfs/fgandhga.pdf

Ganiel, Gladys (2009a) 21st Century Faith: Results of the Survey of Clergy, Pastors, Ministers and Faith Leaders, available at: http://www.ecumenics.ie/wp-content/uploads/Clergy-Survey-Report.pdf

Ganiel, Gladys (2009b) 21st Century Faith: Results of the Survey of Laypeople in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, available at: http://www.ecumenics.ie/wp-content/uploads/Lay-Survey-Report.pdf

Ganiel, Gladys (2008) Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, New York: Palgrave

Garrigan, Siobhan (2010) The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics and the End of Sectarianism, London: Equinox

Liechty, Joseph and Cecelia Clegg (2001) Moving Beyond Sectarianism, Dublin: Columba

McMaster, Johnston and Cathy Higgins (2012) Doing Community Theology: Reflection on Education for Reconciliation, Belfast: Irish School of Ecumenics, available at: https://dl.dropbox.com/u/56963/TCD/DOINGCOMMUNITY_WEB.pdf

McMaster, Johnston (2012) Overcoming Violence: Dismantling an Irish History and Theology – an Alternative Vision, Dublin: Columba

Mitchel, Patrick (2003) Evangelicalism and National Identity in Ulster, 1921-1998, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mitchell, Claire (2005) Religion, Identity and Politics in Northern Ireland, Aldershot: Ashgate

Mitchell, Claire and Gladys Ganiel (2011) Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture, Dublin: UCD Press

Wells, Ronald (2010) Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: The Role of Faith-Based Organisations, Dublin: The Liffey Press

Wright, Frank (1973) ‘Protestant Ideology and Politics in Ulster.’ European Journal of Sociology 14(2): 213-280.

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