Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference – Engaged for the Future? Guest Post by Christine Dawson

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland held its annaul Peacemaking Conference on Saturday 27 November 2010 in Lowe Memorial Presbyterian Church, Finaghy.Christine Dawson, a student on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation programme, attended the conference and has provided the report below.

Is the Presbyterian Church Engaged for the Future? – Guest Post By Christine Dawson

The theme of the conference was ‘Engaged for the Future?’ Speakers on this topic included the current Moderator of the PCI Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, Joe Campbell and Rev Dr Donald Watts, the Clerk of the Assembly and General Secretary.

The high point of the conference was hearing some very frank observations and more concrete suggestions for the future from Norman Hamilton. He proposed that we should be welcoming groups into the churches, whether they be other denominations or groups of foreign nationals. The proposal came within the context of advocating a ‘culture of welcome and hospitality’ as something of a remedy to the incredible degree to which fear permeates Northern Irish society.

Hamilton helpfully identified the fears held by several groups:

  • Politicians – fear that with integration would come less stable and guaranteed electoral bases,
  • Community groups  –  fear of losing funding, leading to unhelpful forms of competition
  • Nearly everyone – fear of crime
  • Ministers –  fear of families leaving their congregation if they say anything controversial.

He used the theory posited by Frank Füredi, a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Kent, to illustrate what happens when there is a context of fear: it transforms safety into one of the main virtues of society.

The way to at least begin to overcome this would involve acting on the realisation that no one would be entirely ruined if they opened up their doors to people and their hospitality was rejected or slightly taken advantage of (which would most likely be the worst case scenario.) At best however, the culture of fear would be replaced gradually with better relations and understanding between groups.

Does Politics Dominate the Churches?

As well as this the Moderator pointed out that politics now dominates the church more than vice versa, and this is at the cost of the church being able to truly follow the teachings of Christ. If being a follower of Jesus Christ is one’s primary identity then your political identity, it necessarily follows, should be open to persuasion. He also pointed out that we should be thinking of ways to build better relations with groups across all of society, including the working class people who are angry with the middle class people who abandoned them during the troubles.

Engaging Mission – Lessons from Northern Ireland?

Joe Campbell gave a talk about his United Mission peace work in post-conflict Nepal. He was quite emotive as he spoke of how £2 million could turn around innumerable people’s lives there and how it is shameful that that much is spent on policing a parade in this ‘over-indulged’ tiny province. He said Northern Ireland has a duty to transform itself from this into a place of givers, we have something to offer other places coming out of conflict, including knowledge about both what does and what does not work for reconciliation.

CSI – Northern Ireland Can do Better

Rev. Lesley Carroll joined some of the day’s speakers in the panel discussion and she echoed the Moderator and Donald Watts in some scathing criticism of the recent Cohesion Sharing and Integration document released by the OFMDFM. She struck a chord with some when she spoke of how depressing reconciliation work can be when you feel like progress is made so painfully slowly. In this instance there is nothing else to do but persevere. In her view there is very important work to do around making this unequal society more equal by not only providing opportunities for people but by genuinely helping them to avail of those opportunities too.

It was also very poignant that Carroll – one of the members of the Consultative Group on the Past – made the point that we need to be able to define our societies more by their future than by their past.

A Right Not To Engage?

Lastly in the panel discussion, the audience was intent on hearing Norman Hamilton’s response to a secularist’s argument that it was his right to not engage with other individuals or groups should he choose not to. Norman was initially flummoxed by this, no doubt in part because arguments defending individuals’ rights have become very much woven into our cultural fabric.

This led the Moderator to compare the extreme individualism of the secularist to the extreme individualism seen in Presbyterianism. He said that this also needs to be addressed. He said,

‘We were made to do life together’ so we need to understand individual actions better in the context of community; we need community but this excessive individualism is a hindrance to it.’

Engaging for the future successfully means doing so at an intergenerational level. This much, it seemed, all of the panel and the audience could agree upon. From the small group discussion we had, most encouraging was the group’s general consensus that although older congregations and older leadership will tend to look backwards, we can look to today’s youth for (to use Lesley Carroll’s words) ‘a sense of future’ and new visions of the future to accompany this.

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