Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: The Role of Faith-Based Organisations by Ronald Wells – Book Review and Launch

image Historian Ronald Wells, a well-respected scholar who has devoted much of his career to Northern Ireland, was in Belfast on 30 October 2010 for the launch of his latest book, Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland: The Role of Faith-Based Organisations (Liffey Press). The launch was held at the Ulster Museum and I was a guest speaker along with Brian Lambkin, founding Director of the Centre for Migration Studies at the Ulster-American Folk Park, Omagh.

Wells is Professor Emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and the Director of the Maryville Symposium on faith and learning at Maryville College in Tennessee. He has written ably in this area before, including Friendship Towards Peace: The Journey of Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds (Columba Press, 2005) and People Behind the Peace: Community and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (Eerdmans, 1999).

And as Lambkin noted in his remarks, Wells was co-author – along with Brian (now Lord) Mawhinney – of the seminal Conflict and Christianity in Northern Ireland (Lion Hudson, 1975). Lambkin said this was the first book to offer serious and sustained analysis of the role of the churches in the conflict and served as a keen challenge to Christians in Northern Ireland to make peace-making a priority.

I recommend Hope and Reconciliation for any who want a thoughtful analysis of the role of key Christian organisations during Northern Ireland’s peace process, up until our present ‘post-conflict’ phase. I spoke for about ten minutes about the book, and reproduce my comments below.

Remarks at the Launch of Hope and Reconciliation by Gladys Ganiel

I was at first surprised, then honoured, when Ron Wells asked that I say a few words at this book launch. It has been a pleasure, indeed an inspiration, to read the stories of the people in this book. Many of you are in the room today and I think it’s appropriate to thank you all for your spirited dedication – as well as to thank Ron for so ably chronicling and analysing it.

It’s a testimony to the quality of the book that it has helped me not only to think about the role of Northern Ireland’s faith-based organisations in some new ways, but also has sparked in me again a sense of urgency about all that remains to be done for hope and reconciliation to reign in Northern Ireland.

But if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to start with a personal story about the work of Ron Wells. As some of you already know, and the rest of you have figured out because of my accent, I like Ron am an American and therefore something of an outsider to Northern Ireland.

In 1999, I was graduating from Providence College in Rhode Island. I had recently completed an honours thesis on the role of religion in the Northern Ireland conflict and my supervisor, Prof. Joe Cammarano, gave me a book to celebrate. It was Ron’s People Behind the Peace: Community and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. When he gave me the book, Prof. Cammarano said to me: ‘you don’t know it yet, but this is your life’s work.’

I was bemused at the time but those words, and later the stories of the people in that book, stuck with me. Ron’s latest book will also stick with me and remind me that peace and reconciliation really are worth working for.

Now, I’ll share with you just three of the instances where Hope and Reconciliation has prompted me to think in new ways.


First, as I read Hope and Reconciliation, it occurred to me that it is an ideal text to accompany the lecture I give every year for students taking the Reconciliation in Northern Ireland module on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation.

The book explores in depth the work of organisations that we study, like the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, Corrymeela, and the Centre for Contemporary Christianity; as well as the Unity Pilgrims, the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Programme and the Presbyterian Church’s Gospel in Conflict programme.

During that lecture, international students usually ask for more information about the Catholic Church and its role in ecumenism and reconciliation – noticing right away that the Catholic Church doesn’t have a programme that is roughly equivalent to the Hard Gospel or the Gospel in Conflict, or an organisation like the primarily evangelical Centre for Contemporary Christianity.

I’m happy to report that Hope and Reconciliation has given me a new way to respond to that query. In his chapter on the organisation that I actually work for – the Irish School of Ecumenics – Ron offers what to me was a new perspective on how the ISE itself has been as an impetus for encouraging Catholic involvement in ecumenism. Ron helped me see not that I was missing the elephant in the room, but in the case of ISE, perhaps the elephant literally is the room!

This insight was centred on Ron’s discussion of ISE’s founder Fr Michael Hurley, a spunky Jesuit whose vision for the Irish School of Ecumenics was opposed by none other than the indomitable Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (p. 116). Ron notes that in 1970 Ireland’s ‘Catholic Church had not really signed on to the ecumenical movement,’ and goes on to argue that the ISE helped open up Catholics to ecumenism and reconciliation in the same way that ECONI/the Centre for Contemporary Christianity helped to open up evangelicals to ecumenism and reconciliation. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying ISE is ‘Catholic’ or can take all the credit for Catholic involvement in ecumenism – I’m just saying I had never thought about it this way before.

Second, Hope and Reconciliation brought ‘forgiveness’ back onto my radar screen.

Some people say that there cannot be reconciliation without forgiveness, so the two concepts – while complex – are obviously related. Demanding that people repent, forgive and reconcile can be problematic, perhaps even immoral. But Ron is inspired to write about forgiveness in part by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has written a book called No Future without Forgiveness. Ron prompts us to again ask ourselves, do we agree with Desmond Tutu – that there can be no future without forgiveness?

In Northern Ireland, I don’t think discourses about forgiveness have ever had as much prominence as discourses about reconciliation. As those of you who have ever applied for cross community funding know, you may be expected to explain how your work will promote reconciliation – but not how it will promote forgiveness.

This call to consider forgiveness comes at a time when some political parties seek to banish even the idea of reconciliation from our public discourses and our consciousness.

As many of you will be aware, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister has abandoned the ‘Shared Future’ strategy – which at least conceived of reconciliation as a worthy process to pursue – and has released for consultation a ‘Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ document. This document makes no mention of reconciliation and seems to assume that the way forward for Northern Ireland is a kind of separate development based on demands to respect each other’s rights. I would rather see serious engagement among communities that could result in all the diverse peoples of Northern Ireland enriching each other’s lives, not simply demanding rights and concessions. Could the gentle balm of forgiveness somehow contribute to a process of mutual enrichment?

To that end, Hope and Reconciliation reminded me of Christian reflection around forgiveness that has already taken place. In his discussion of ECONI/Centre for Contemporary Christianity, Ron flags the significance of its ‘Embodying Forgiveness Project’ (2001-2002), which resulted in a series of 14 booklets written by academics and practitioners from a variety of Christian traditions. Ron says that,

‘Some observers in Ireland told me they thought it would be the organisation’s most significant and long-lasting impact’ (p. 107).

Much of my own research has been on evangelicalism and on ECONI itself, but I have tended to see the organisation’s significance in its role in prompting moderating and inclusive changes in evangelical identities. Hope and Reconciliation helped me to see I had forgotten about forgiveness.

But I fear that the fruits of the work on forgiveness and reconciliation – whether the ECONI papers, the books of Corrymeela’s David Stevens, or resources produced by the other organisations analysed in the book – may never have reached those with political power, or even the Christians who sit in our pews each Sunday. Ron’s book challenges Christians in Northern Ireland to think again about what the churches can say and do about forgiveness – and then to say it, and to do it.

Third, Ron’s analysis of the difficulties surrounding shared Eucharist or communion made me ask if Christians really have the ‘street cred’ to be contributing to public debates about forgiveness and reconciliation.

Ron wrote of the pain that the prohibition against shared Eucharist in the Catholic Church causes for people in the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, as well as of the awkwardness that Clonard’s Unity Pilgrims may feel about inviting the Protestants whose churches they regularly visit to join them in Clonard. As Ron writes,

‘since the Eucharist is central to Catholic worship it would have been an essential rejection of Protestant visitors to exclude them. … While the friends are very welcome at Clonard, sharing together in fellowship and worship must also include the pain of sharing the pain of separation at the table.’ (p. 146-147).

Now, I’m not saying that the churches’ credibility stands or falls on the one issue of shared Eucharist, and indeed, Christians in Ireland probably are absolutely powerless to affect the ruling of the Vatican on this matter. But what does it say to those outside the churches when the Christians inside them cannot even share the most basic symbolic act of reconciliation with God and with one another? Can Christians really say anything meaningful in public debate about social or political reconciliation when such a profound and deeply symbolic division remains?

While thinking about shared Eucharist might be cause for despair, Hope and Reconciliation does provide inspiration that despite their differences the churches can say and do something meaningful for reconciliation.

The book is chock full of moving stories about people who have made a difference for reconciliation in this small corner of the world. Their stories are a living reproof to those who would tell us that reconciliation is impossible, an unachievable goal.

Despite the divisions that remain and are reflected in Christians’ inability to share the Eucharist, their ability to achieve so much reminds us that reconciliation doesn’t mean that everything has to be perfect – but reconciliation does mean that relationships can be transformed.

In fact, this book might have been titled Hope FOR Reconciliation, because that is what it ultimately does: furnish us with stories of hope for Northern Ireland’s future.

But I also hope we read the book as a warning that there is a lot more left to do.

For example, the final chapters focus on the secular but morally-driven work of Healing Through Remembering and the Consultative Group on the Past. Ron rightly judges that HTR and the Consultative Group have had a massive impact on the way people in Northern Ireland think about addressing the past. But I was struck by how optimistic he sounded that the recommendations of the Consultative Group would be implemented by the British government, and that Northern Ireland would indeed begin to address its past in a systematic, state-sponsored way. In some passages he writes almost as if the proposed Legacy Commission and Reconciliation Forum would soon appear on our horizons.

Sadly, I don’t see this happening any time in the near future. If the infinitely less-threatening Shared Future process has been derailed, what chance do we have that the Consultative Group’s recommendations will be heeded?

Of course, this book went to print at least a year ago, and Ron would have had no way of taking recent developments into account in his analysis. But in some ways, this makes what he has to say about the churches and their role in reconciliation even more important.

If we can’t count on politicians and public officials to fund, support or make social and political reconciliation a pressing issue in the public sphere, maybe it is time for the churches to make this their top priority. Let the churches say that this is what it means to live the gospel in Northern Ireland.

Some Christians have already grasped this vision, and it is their stories that Ron Wells tells so well. The challenge now is not just helping other Christians to see and prioritise this vision. The challenge is also to speak with humility to a secular world that while for good reasons may be suspicious of the churches, can still be inspired by genuine acts of grace.


30 October 2010

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