Do the Churches Matter? – Hope and History and the Irish Churches Peace Project

hope and historyPeople often think of religion as causing conflict, but sometimes religion can inspire peace. That’s the aim of the ‘Hope and History’ campaign, set up by religious leaders to encourage politicians to engage faithfully in the Haass Talks on flags, parading and dealing with the past.

Hope and History asks people to sign a statement embracing the ideals of Humility, Healing and Hope.

The statement was written by ten clergy –including four clergywomen – from across the churches. It’s an example of faith leaders trying to change the tone of public discourse. Less than a week after its online launch on September 11th, more than 1200 people had signed. Now nearly two weeks later, it is up to almost 1500 people.

This coming Friday, the Irish Churches Peace Project will hold its official launch in Belfast.

Set up at the beginning of the year with funding from the EU, OFMDFM and Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, it has now hired nine staff and its expressed purpose is ‘to promote reconciliation in our communities – through the churches working together.’

As Rev Heather Morris, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, explained in a Sky TV interview, Hope and History is a chance for ordinary people across Ireland to say that they want to lend their voice in support of the Haass Talks.

You can watch the segment that includes Morris’ interview here. (It also includes helpful contextual information about the flags and parades protests.)

In a lengthier interview on Radio Ulster’s Talk Back, which also included input from Fr Martin Magill and Prof John Brewer of Queen’s University, Morris said signing Hope and History is an opportunity for people to say that their voice stands for peace, they want to let their names be known, and they are committed to act – to make their own contribution to building better relationships. (You can listen to the full interview below.)

1500 signatures may seem a drop in the bucket compared to those on the streets protesting, but the ten clergy who devised the statement believe it is rooted in a grassroots desire among the people they interact with day and daily to really contribute to a better future.

My sense is that people are often at a loss about what they can do to help deal with the past and to work towards a shared future. Others may think the past has nothing to do with them, and just want to get on with their lives.

And there are some people out there who identify as Christians who would welcome  insight and direction from their local churches about how they might contribute.

I think Hope and History and the ICPP provide excellent opportunities to get Christians reflecting on the gospel imperative towards reconciliation – and then acting in such a way as to contribute to it.

To that end, for me, two key aspects of Hope and History are:

Humility. For better or worse, the churches have often been seen as contributing to division and conflict, or as bossy and arrogant, telling others that they must repent or forgive. A key insight from the Hope and History statement is that the churches themselves must be self-critical, humble and willing to repent for their sins of commission and omission on this island. This doesn’t have to be a big public statement from denominational leaders – it can happen locally, like when Fitzroy Presbyterian presented ‘The Gospel according to Christy Moore’ in West Belfast.

History. For me, if the Haass Talks fail to address dealing with the past it will be a major missed opportunity. Churches can be one civic society group among many, pressing the politicians to keep the past on the agenda. Christians have a lot of ‘resources’ to help people ‘deal with the past’ in ways that can promote healing, including insights on what it means to forgive, repent and be reconciled. To the extent that Christians interact with people who have been bereaved or traumatized during the Troubles (or have themselves been bereaved or traumatized), they will know that many victims and survivors have felt let down because the Eames-Bradley recommendations on dealing with the past (2009) were brushed aside.

As far as the ICPP, it is extending an invitation to local churches to facilitate grassroots activism. It asks, ‘How can we help you?’ and says:

The ICPP team are keen to meet clergy, church leaders and active laypeople who are interested in supporting better links with other churches within their community. As their website says:

Our work is local …. so it could be:

  • Local clergy meeting together to develop friendships facilitated and supported by the ICPP staff team
  • Meetings facilitated by the ICPP staff team involving their congregations to build positive relationships
  • Churches working together to define the needs of each community supported by the ICPP staff team
  • The ICPP staff team accessing resources and additional support on behalf of churches
  • All partner churches being able to work together to agree practical areas in which they can become involved to address issues within society and positively impact their communities
  • The development of new projects led by the churches in partnership with others to impact their communities.

Any and all are invited to get in touch with ICPP and start taking steps to get working better together.

And that will be the real test of both Hope and History and the ICPP: not whether they get the ‘church leaders’ a place at Haass’ table, but whether they inspire local Christians to work together to build a better future.

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