Last night I participated in a colloquium organised by the new Centre for the Study of Irish Protestantism (CSIP) and the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Resolution at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. The colloquium helped to mark the visit of Rev Dr Roy Patton, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, to the University. It was the first official visit of a Presbyterian Moderator to the University, which also provided an opportunity to recognize the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Presbyterianism in Ireland.
Patton’s visit was impressively attended by university officials, members of the Irish Defence Forces (with which NUI Maynooth has a partnership), staff, students, and interested citizens.
I was asked to speak on ‘The Churches and Reconciliation in Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities,’ along with Rev Dr Trevor Morrow, who spoke on ‘The Ulster Covenant, the Reformed Churches and Irish Identity.’ (In the next few days I’ll blog about Morrow’s talk.)
There was a critical link between our talks in that I argued that one of the ‘opportunities’ for churches in Ireland today is to contribute to conversations on how best to ‘deal with the past’ (on the whole island, not just in the north), while Morrow’s talk illustrated how engaging with the text and context of the Ulster Covenant can open up constructive conversations on identity, spirituality, and citizenship in the present.
Today, I will draw on my talk to blog about challenges facing the churches; later in the week I’ll blog about opportunities.
The Churches and Reconciliation in Ireland: Challenges
For me, the churches’ main challenges if and when seeking to contribute to reconciliation are:
- Institutional. Denominational institutions by nature are bureaucratic and move slowly around issues like peace and reconciliation. A large and growing body of research on the churches and violence in Ireland has concluded that the churches as institutions have not done ‘enough’ for peace. Further, many citizens have lost faith in religious institutions.
- Divisive Discourses. Many people find discourses about reconciliation – especially coming from church institutions or clergy who they do not trust – as unhelpful. It also is difficult for people to agree on how to define reconciliation.
To illustrate the diversity in how Christians in Ireland define reconciliation, I reproduced some quotes from the Irish School of Ecumenics’ 2009 surveys on faith in Ireland:
I am back in favour with God because of what Christ did on Calvary. – Male, Evangelical Christian, Co. Clare
Asking for forgiveness, forgiving, sharing common ground, having fun. – Female, Catholic, Co. Dublin
The acceptance of others’ opposing background faiths and beliefs. – Female, Jewish, Co. Dublin
Though holding different cultural, political and religious views I believe it means ‘doing unto others as you would be done by.’ – Male, Hindu/Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church, Belfast City
What it is meaning is one group is walking on another, but it should mean they should walk side by side, and enjoy each other’s marches and parades. Live and let live. – Female, Church of Ireland, Co. Cork
Not sure I agree that reconciliation is what we should be looking at, the ‘re’ of the word suggests that we have somewhere to go back to. Think I would just want to look forward to create new ways of being together. – Church of Ireland minister, Co. Londonderry/Derry
I feel this question could be misconceived. If we believe that reconciliation comes from the gospel, then the outworking of the gospel will drive reconciliation. What do you mean by reconciling Muslims and Christians? If it is not in the gospel – is it really reconciliation? – Presbyterian, Co. Donegal
- Christians in Ireland think of reconciliation in highly individualistic terms, neglecting social and political forms of reconciliation. This was borne out in the 2009 surveys of both faith leaders and laypeople, where Christians across all denominations overwhelmingly agreed that reconciliation between individuals and God and between individuals is important. They were much more ambivalent about the importance of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or Catholics and Protestants on the island as a whole. (For the specific data, consult the reports on the surveys).
(Image: Trevor Morrow, Roy Patton, Gladys Ganiel)