I was part of a discussion on ‘Faith in Northern Ireland’ on Sunday’s BBC Radio Wales religious affairs programme, All Things Considered, hosted by Roy Jenkins. The other panellists were Rev Brian Anderson, a Methodist minister and Vice President of the Irish Council of Churches (ICC), and Pádraig Ó Tuama, leader of the Corrymeela community.
Jenkins framed the discussion in terms of the recent death of Sinn Fein politician (and former IRA commander) Martin McGuinness, and his remarkable friendship with the late Rev Ian Paisley – a man who once declared that the IRA should ‘repent in sackcloth and ashes.’
The programme covered a wide range of topics, from the historic role of religion in contributing to division and violence, how far the religious divide has diminished, church attendance and secularisation, Corrymeela’s contributions to reconciliation, and how Northern Ireland is dealing (or perhaps rather not dealing) with its past.
You can listen to the full programme here:
I said that what was especially remarkable about Paisley and McGuinness’ relationship was that apart from their friendly ‘chuckle brothers’ public persona, they would actually pray together. For me, ‘to have that image in your mind is quite powerful and transformative’ – even more so than the images of them laughing together.
Ó Tuama added that this was a ‘praying with, not praying for’ the other to convert – a remarkable development that would have been unthinkable earlier in their lives.
Ó Tuama also described McGuinness and Paisley’s relationship as ‘almost like a conversion … where they came into a new way of being’ together; while Anderson remarked that they had a genuine friendship, and were very much involved in each other’s lives.
We also discussed indicators that the religious divide has diminished, which include greater acceptance of religious and political leaders publicly doing things together. It has been argued that for some people, going to church during the Troubles was a way to identify with their community rather than a purely religious exercise, so recent declines in church attendance could be linked to the end of violence.
I explained that isn’t the full story, as Northern Ireland shows patterns of secularisation that are similar to other parts of Europe – even if those patterns are not as pronounced. In fact, Northern Ireland shows evidence of religious liberalisation rather than straightforward secularisation. For example, people are more likely to go to church less frequently rather than stop going altogether (as has happened in most parts of the UK); and some continue to go to church despite holding beliefs that are out of line with ‘official’ church teaching on a number of matters – this is especially the case for Catholics around issues such as birth control, abortion, women priests, married priests, etc.
We discussed evidence that religious observance is falling especially among young people. But Anderson noted that young people do not seem to be interested in Catholic/Protestant divisions, and that:
‘They see the world as much bigger than my generation [who grew up in the 1960s]. Those young people who are committed are more committed to a gospel that reaches out to those in need of love: those who have migrated, on the margins of society. They have a deep passion for a gospel that is lived out on the ground.’
Ó Tuama spoke of Corrymeela’s continued appeal as a space where people ‘within and without the Christian tradition’ can have frank conversations, which ‘can contribute to the deepening of everyone’s ethic of reconciliation.’ This helps to build ‘the capacity to have plural viewpoints.’
‘… All societies have need for places where we can address tensions and fractures in society, and explore how religion has contributed to tensions.’
The discussion ends with our responses to Jenkins’ question about what others can learn from Northern Ireland.
Even whilst acknowledging the difficult political situation, with our politicians’ failure to form an Assembly and the uncertainty about Brexit, we provided examples of how Northern Ireland could be seen as an example of hope.
I returned to Paisley and McGuinness, noting that the trajectory of their lives demonstrated that if over a period of years people try to build relationships, engage constructively, and even draw on their faith as inspiration to cross boundaries – transformation can happen.
Anderson said that Northern Ireland was an example of a place where previously when we looked at the ‘other’, ‘maybe we didn’t see an equal human being.’ But now, ‘we have the ability to see Christ in each other.’
Ó Tuama pointed out that despite setbacks, ‘in Northern Ireland we have been moving away from sectarianism. And that’s relevant in a world that seems to be moving towards sectarianism.’ He added that:
‘… there are no easy answers to community division, but societies can make themselves virtually unrecognisable over a period of years.’
Today, I think it’s helpful to reflect on those as messages of hope not just for others, but as also messages of hope for Northern Ireland.