Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing: Faith on Trial with Lagan College Chaplains at Fitzroy Presbyterian

imageThis week Fr Martin Magill’s ecumenical tithing takes him back to Fitzroy Presbyterian, where he attended a “Faith on Trial” event featuring Lagan College Chaplains Helen Killough and Gerard Souney. In this post, Fr Magill shares what he learned about the Lagan chaplaincy and the school’s history, explaining how he came away with several of his stereotypes challenged.

Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing: Faith on Trial with Lagan College Chaplains at Fitzroy Presbyterian

One of the advantages of regularly attending the same church is getting to know more and more people who also worship there.  From the conversation with Michael who was welcoming at the door tonight, I enjoyed catching up with people whom I’m getting to know from my regular visits to Fitzroy.

In a previous post, I have commented on the quality of Paul Lutton’s prayers who leads these “Faith on Trial” events and again tonight I would reiterate my positive response.  I was especially struck by his phrase about the chaplains in their role as teaching the young people to be “peace makers”.  I had my stereo-types challenged (again!) when Paul in his prayer referred to today as Trinity Sunday – I hadn’t realised Presbyterians observed  Trinity Sunday!

For this month’s Faith on Trial, Paul interviewed the two chaplains from Lagan College – Helen Killough and Gerard Souney.

He invited them to share about their background and how they came to work in Lagan College.  Helen talked about her Presbyterian upbringing (Church of Scotland) but how she plays traditional Irish music – more challenges for stereotyping!   Gerard thanked the Fitzroy folk for the warmth of their welcome each time he has visited.  It was interesting to hear how he came to study theology at Union College (Presbyterian) and his acknowledgement of how formative conversations with others from different faith traditions had been in his life.

I hadn’t realised Lagan College was quite unique as an integrated school owing to its emphasis on its Christian ethos.  Helen recalled its origins which she told us came from a group of Catholic parents wanting additional support for their children who were not in Catholic schools to prepare them for the sacraments.   She told us that the bishop at the time refused this.  Eventually a group of parents of various Christian denominations opened the first Lagan College in 1981. They had chosen as their motto the words of Jesus for his followers from John 17 “that they may be one” to show their desire to nourish unity amongst the different faith traditions.

We heard from Gerard and Helen about their work – they are responsible for all the assemblies as well as organising services at other times of the year such as for Ash Wednesday and last year a Mass to celebrate 30 years of the existence of the college. (This was before Gerard’s time).   I was struck by their honesty when they acknowledged they face some difficult issues such as marking “Remembrance Day”.  Helen used a phrase which really resonated with me “we only do apart the things we can’t do together”.  In briefly telling the chaplaincy story Helen acknowledged the change in the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy over the past number of years to the college.  She also talked about how she saw her role as an advocate on behalf of others – although she was Presbyterian she did not see herself there primarily for the Protestant children in the school but in some ways as an advocate for the Catholics.

There were some very thought provoking moments in the evening when they acknowledged that it was almost more difficult to work in the peace process than it was during the conflict.

In the past the school was united against violence and everyone knew where they stood.  Now they had to address some difficult issues during peace times.  It was interesting listening to Gerard talk about how he was both inspired and humbled by the reaction of the students when they turned to the chaplaincy to deal with issues as was the case in the recent “flags dispute”.  Both Gerard and Helen talked about the centrality of the chaplaincy in the college and how in the new build the chaplaincy would be at the heart of the college.

The congregation/audience was given a question to discuss “you have a blank page in Northern  Ireland for education, what would it look like if you were to devise education from scratch”.  Certainly the small group I was in did not make much progress with that because we got sidetracked in talking about other issues such as First Communion dresses!

In looking at the success of the school, Helen acknowledged  there was inevitably some form of “social engineering” – parents did not always choose Lagan College because of its Christian ethos or even its integrationist philosophy.  Paul Lutton at the end of the session invited us to pray for Helen and Gerard and asked them what they would like us to pray for.

Some reflections

  • This was my first time to hear anything directly about Lagan College. Most of what I had heard over the years was from others and was filtered through a lens which was unsympathetic to the ideals of the college.
  • I was especially struck by the operating base of only doing apart those things which they could not do together.  I imagine this was inspired by the Lund principle which reads in its most popular, abbreviated version:  “We would, therefore, earnestly request our Churches to consider whether they are doing all they ought to do to manifest the oneness of the people of God.  Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches, and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” (World Council of Churches, 1952)
  • I was fascinated by their honesty about how it was more difficult for the chaplains to deal with some issues during these “peace times” than it was during the conflict.
  • I was also taken by their desire of wanting the chaplaincy to be a bridge between teachers and pupils who were not committed in their faith and disenchanted by religion and the Church.

Overall, I came away from the Faith on Trial event in Fitzroy with more questions than answers and much to ponder.   A really good night.

(Image: Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian and Fr Martin Magill of St Oliver Plunkett’s Parish)

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