Doing Community Theology – Review of new publication by McMaster and Higgins

WP_20120614 1It was with great appreciation, and some sadness, that the Irish School of Ecumenics marked the winding down of its Education for Reconciliation (EFR) programme in Belfast last month. EFR, an adult/continuing education programme, ran for 16 years and catered for 1800 students in 22 different locations in Northern Ireland and the border counties.

EFR is leaving behind an important legacy, reflected in its contributions to a number of still-thriving church forums throughout Northern Ireland, and summarised in a new publication, Doing Community Theology: Reflection on Education for Reconciliation, by EFR lecturers Rev Dr Johnston McMaster and Dr Cathy Higgins.

More information about a special event celebrating EFR and launching Doing Community Theology is available here. This site includes audio of talks by McMaster, Higgins, Dr Duncan Morrow, and participants in EFR programmes over the years.

You can also download the full text of Doing Community Theology.

The booklet summarises some of the key learning from EFR over the years, including its collaborative methodology, its approach to Biblical hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret the Bible), and the importance of the mutually supportive relationship between theology and lived practice.

In the booklet, McMaster and Higgins explain how, in terms of hermeneutics, EFR has stressed a socio-political reading of the Bible. They also locate their approach to hermeneutics in a context of communal conflict and ‘in the shadow of empire.’ Following this they argue that a key to ‘a theological praxis of reconciliation’ is an end to Ireland’s ‘civil religions’ (expressions of religion that support a particular imperial or nationalistic political project). They argue that these uncivil ‘civil religions’ have existed in opposition to each other and therefore plagued attempts at conflict transformation.

Among the most valuable contributions of the booklet is McMaster and Higgins’ identification of ‘themes that linger’ – and which, presumably, their EFR curriculum would have begun to address more fully had a sustainable funding stream been found. Developed in more detail in the booklet, these themes are (p. 47-51):

  • Common Good
  • Hermeneutics
  • New Relationships between Faith and Politics
  • Faith and Gender
  • Faith and Ecology
  • Ethical Leadership
  • Economic Ethics

I am disappointed that EFR has ended and anxious that in the absence of programmes like it in our churches, much of the insights from McMaster and Higgins’ work may be lost.

Today Earl Storey, one time director of the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel project, left a comment on this website about a post I’d written about the Hard Gospel some time ago. He said:

Hi Gladys – just came across this. I was Director of the Project. Part of me feels the churches have dropped the ball on issue of reconciliation.

I agree. And so, it seems, do McMaster and Higgins (p. 45), writing:

In general terms, churches do not always place reconciliation high on their agenda but the educational experience they offer is more about package than exploration; sometimes requiring theological conformity rather than theological social praxis. The EFR Programme, therefore, was often providing the space for thinking Christians to reflect critically and to act creatively for change in society. Funding sources do not appear to recognise the nature and significance of education and critical thinking, and the capacity for education to be socially transformative. Theological education may not even be perceived by funders as relevant. His may be understandable given the sectarian nature of much theology and religion in the history of Northern Ireland, but it is a failure to recognise that faith is essentially about the ethical praxis of justice, compassion and peace. It, therefore, has a major contribution to make to reconciliation capital and to the shaping of essential values for the building of a more human and compassionate civic and political society.

Are the churches ready to pick up where EFR has left off?

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