Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland Part 5 – Liturgical Reforms and Conclusions

Church-4Today marks the conclusion of a five-part series on this blog on Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland, based on a paper I recently gave at the ‘Religious Conflict and Difference’ conference at Stranmillis College in Belfast. Today I consider the third and final of the ‘grassroots tactics’ that I think Christians (both lay and clerical, as Fr Martin Magill has reminded us) could adopt when advocating reconciliation and reconstruction:

  • Educational Programmes
  • The Principles of Neo-Monastic Living
  • Liturgical Reforms

Today’s post considers Liturgical Reforms and also includes a short conclusion summing up the overall argument of the paper. Links to all the posts in the series are included at the end of today’s post.

Liturgical Reforms

The ritual and liturgical practices of Christian churches are loaded with symbolism. In Northern Ireland, the liturgies of both Catholic and Protestant churches often convey the message that there is one true faith. It follows that those outside of that faith are radically ‘other’ or, in extreme cases, not even Christians (McMaster 2012, Garrigan 2010).

But the churches in Northern Ireland could re-form their liturgies, even in subtle ways, so that they communicate to the people attending them that the people from the ‘other’ tradition are also in fact Christians, and not enemies.

This can be illustrated by the liturgical practices implemented in places like the Holy Cross Benedictine Monastery in Rostrevor. For example, the monks name, in their prayers, Ireland’s Protestant churches and leaders at the same time as they pray for the leaders of the Catholic Church (Nolan 2011, Ganiel 2011). This communicates to those present that all are Christian and equal: brothers and sisters in Christ.

Further initiatives, like ‘In Joyful Hope,’ a programme of Eucharistic sharing among some Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in the Belfast area, also models reconciliation at a liturgical level.[1] Siobhan Garrigan’s 2010 book, The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics and the End of Sectarianism, is a further source of ideas about the ways in which liturgies could be adapted to transcend sectarianism. She offers the following suggestions:

  1. Every Christian, when planning, leading or participating in worship, should try to imagine what it would be like if a person from a different tradition to their own were present. She says, ‘What this visualization does is to lessen the chance of you saying or doing something sectarian in that service or else having a mechanism to challenge yourself when you do’ (p. 195).
  2. Every Christian ‘must ask ourselves how our worship should be performed to foster faithful living of faith tradition in our time’ (p. 198). She is convinced that ‘growing out of sectarianism might mean growing deeper in love with our own confessional tradition’ (p. 198). She says this to emphasise the point that is not just in joint worship or in ‘mixed marriages’ that Christians can transcend sectarianism.
  3. Christians can ‘create, foster and participate in new encounters with other Christians across the denominational divide’ (p. 201). Here, she discusses the witness of the Clonard Monastery-Fitzroy Presbyterian fellowship and the Unity Pilgrims.
  4. Christians should participate in ecumenical bible study, but ‘not as “study” in the sense of debate or discussion or education, but rather as prayer’ (p. 211).

Churches also could devise special inter-denominational liturgies to promote repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.

In the absence of the recognition or catharsis offered by a truth commission, such services can be places where suffering is publically and mutually acknowledged and space is created for people to contemplate reconciliation. In this, remembering ECONI’s emphasis on self-critical repentance is important, as illustrated by a service titled ‘The Gospel According to Christy Moore,’ performed in 2012 by Fitzroy Presbyterian at St Oliver Plunkett’s Catholic Church in Lenadoon.

Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy asked the Catholics in the audience for forgiveness, because of what he called his forebears’ oppression of their forebears. Over the course of the evening, Stockman explained that he saw the Fitzroy musicians’ performance of Christy Moore – in a Catholic Church – as a type of repentance and identification with the oppressed.[2]


In the context of Northern Ireland’s on-going debate about dealing with the past, I have argued that networks of Christian activists, who are active at the level of organisations, congregations, or parishes, are best-placed to advocate reconciliation and reconstruction.

A generation’s worth of work on reconciliation by organisations like Corrymeela, the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE) and Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) has a lot to offer to a society in need of healing, with its insights on relationship-building, self-reflection, repentance, and forgiveness.

But dealing with the past should also include dismantling and reconstructing the sectarian system that has created and perpetuated division and violence. Christian activists lack the power to make the political decisions that could begin dismantling that system, such as mandating policies to encourage integrated education or reforming the consociational structures of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

But from their relatively powerless position, some of Northern Ireland’s Christian activists are attempting to transcend the sectarian structures created by their own churches through educational programmes, living according to the principles of neo-monasticism, and creative liturgical reforms. These seemingly small actions model to those around them, whether they are regular church-attendees or not, that there are ways to transcend the sectarian system.

These tactics are limited, but probably the most effective ones currently open to Christian activists. If Northern Irish Christians consistently employed these tactics, they might begin to regain some street credibility or moral authority.

This would make them better placed to contribute to a wider, secular, civil society-based movement that could challenge politicians and policy makers to make the political decisions to deal with the past, by changing the structure of social and political life in the present.

Posts in the Series

Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland: Some Initial Reflections (Part 1) – includes a bibliography of academic research on religion and reconciliation in Northern Ireland

Churches and Reconciliation: Challenges for Christian Leadership? (Part 2)

Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland – The Role of Education for Reconciliation (Part 3)

Religion, Reconciliation and Reconstruction in Northern Ireland – Principles of Neo-Monastic Living (Part 4)

Other Resources:

Irish School of Ecumenics Education for Reconciliation Programme

Review of Event Celebrating ISE’s Education for Reconciliation

Review of Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins’ Doing Community Theology

Download-able Text of Doing Community Theology

Online Courses Produced by ISE’s Education for Reconciliation

[1] See, accessed 5 March 2012.

[2] See, accessed 28 August 2012.

(Image: interior of Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor)

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