This year’s theme comes to us from the churches of Brazil. Brazilians, who have traditionally been tolerant of their various social classes and ethnic groups, are now living through a time of growing intolerance made manifest in high levels of violence, especially against minorities and the vulnerable. The logic that undergirds this kind of behaviour is competition for the religious market. Increasingly, in Brazil, some Christian groups compete with one another for a place on the mass media, for new members and for public funds.
The Brazilian churches have begun to recognise that intolerance should be dealt with in a positive way – respecting diversity and promoting dialogue as a permanent path of reconciliation and peace in fidelity to the gospel. We can share this recognition. Although the competition between churches is less obvious in our islands, we are well aware that competition and violent discrimination lie beneath the surface of our lives together. Jesus challenges us to acknowledge that diversity is part of God’s design, to approach one another in trust and to see the face of God in the face of all men and women.
In Ireland, one of the primary activities of the week has traditionally been joint services, which in many locations rotate between churches of various denominations. So, for example, this Thursday in Enniskillen the Fermanagh Churches Forum (FCF) has organised a service, at which they emphasise their solidarity with the theme. Publicity for the event reads:
The theme for this year’s service comes from the churches of Brazil: ‘It was necessary to walk through Samaria’ (cf. John4:4)
Although the 2010 Census shows that 86.8% of the Brazilian population identify themselves as Christian, the country has very high rates of violence. A high rate of Christian affiliation does not seem to translate into a respect for human dignity. The Brazilian churches have begun to recognise that intolerance should be dealt with in a positive way – respecting diversity and promoting dialogue as a permanent path of reconciliation and peace in fidelity to the gospel. We can share this recognition.
The service will be held at 7.30 pm at St Michael’s Parish Church, Enniskillen, and the speaker is Fr. Tim Bartlett, priest of the diocese of Down and Connor, Episcopal Vicar for Education and Director of Public and Social Affairs.
The FCF might have pointed out that similarly high rates of the population on the island of Ireland identify themselves as Christian, yet we have not been immune from violence. We continue to be plagued by division, segregation and sectarianism.
When conducting research for my forthcoming book, Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland, FCF served as a case study of an ‘expression of faith’ on the island of Ireland and I interviewed some of their participants. There was a widespread feeling that even if the churches had not contributed directly to the violence, they had not responded adequately to it either, and they continued to perpetuate systems of division and sectarianism. For some people from FCF, the continued failure of the churches to advocate good relationships and reconciliation remained a stumbling block on the road to peace. As one member of FCF told me:
If you were to ask the question what is the most pressing thing facing Christians in this community, it is the rift between the churches. And that no matter what gloss we put on that in terms of the four church leaders speaking, fundamentally the churches either in a very pro active way or by default represent the fault-line in our community. And in some ways nurtured that, either by actively stoking it or by just not addressing it. So for me if you were to ask what is the most pressing thing – that is the most pressing thing. It’s not poverty, it’s not illness, it’s the division and for me any living out of faith necessarily has to involve some activity that majors on that issue.
It has been my experience that many – probably most – churches in Ireland miss the opportunity to reflect and pray together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It was not mentioned at all this past Sunday in the local parish where my husband sings in their choir. The vast majority of Christians on this island will probably see the week pass without giving it any thought – or prayer – at all.
But today I’d like to encourage readers to focus just on one line from the description of the week, offered by the churches from Brazil:
Jesus challenges us to acknowledge that diversity is part of God’s design, to approach one another in trust and to see the face of God in the face of all men and women.
On a hopeful note, one Protestant woman from FCF told me a story about a time when she saw the face of God in another, so to speak, when she was serving tea with a Catholic woman at an ecumenical event. I share it now:
One night when it was time in church to host the group, we were coming down the stairs from the little prayer room upstairs. And I think she was carrying the kettle and I was carrying the mugs or whatever it was, and I just stopped on the stairs, and I said: “This is holy ground. Who would ever have thought that you and I in years gone by would be doing this together for the Lord?” It was just a moment of pure revelation, of God’s wondrous mercy. … That’s the sort of thing that has happened there.