‘Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties: Implications for the Northern Ireland Churches’: Part I

DSC09528Yesterday the Open University in Belfast hosted a seminar on ‘Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties: Implications for the Northern Ireland Churches.’

The seminar was based on the results of a research project, headed by Prof John Wolffe, which has resulted in a report aimed at policy makers and more general readers. Clergy and representatives of parachurch organisations were invited to discuss the results. (Read a summary of the report on Slugger O’Toole.)

Wolffe opened the day by presenting his main findings, then Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and I responded to his remarks. Since some of the conversation was confidential, I’ll limit my post here to presenting some of the points I made in response to Wolffe’s findings.

Could the Churches do More?

Wolffe said that there was ‘widespread perception that churches “could have done more” in the Troubles, but exactly what is unclear.’ This also is one of the main findings of John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney’s book, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland. I added that this perception continues today in Northern Ireland’s ‘transitional’ or ‘post-violence’ phase, where there is a sense the churches could be doing more, especially around dealing with the past.

I made the point, also made by Brewer et al, that it is the institutional churches that are so often criticised, not the brave individuals like Fr Alec Reid, Rev Ken Newell, Rev Harold Good, or Fr Gerry Reynolds, who took risks in reaching out to so-called ‘enemies.’

For me, the failure of the institutional churches is as much a sociological problem as a theological problem: the slow bureaucracies of the institutional churches make them sluggish in responding to immediate needs; while the need to keep a diverse constituency happy makes them cautious to speak and act boldly.

In part that’s why organisations like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) were more effective than the institutional churches during the Troubles: they had the freedom and flexibility to take risks and they didn’t have to answer to an army of denominational committees.

So for Christians who see reconciliation as key to living out their faith in Northern Ireland today, is it wise to seek to work through denominational structures? Or would they be better advised to work with small groups or create their own parachurch or even secular organisations to advance their goals?

Right now, the sociological evidence at least, convinces me that working outside the denominations is the better strategy.

What about Denominations?

But is there anything that the ‘big four’ denominations can do, especially at the present juncture, to contribute to current debates about reconciliation and dealing with the past? As Wolffe put it:

‘Although the past role of the churches is complex, how can they best address and overcome widespread perceptions that they are themselves the root cause of sectarianism?’

In this regard, I noted one of the recommendations of the Haass-O’Sullivan report, which was that organisations – including churches – could devise statements of acknowledgement which recognised their own divisive roles in the past.

To put it in Christian language, that means repentance.

Public acts or statements of repentance are one of the few things that denominations might actually be able to do better than parachurch organisations and small groups of Christians.

And to put this in perspective, Christian denominations in South Africa did something similar with their submissions to the Truth and Reconcilation Commission.

ECONI, for its part, did critique its own evangelical tradition and repent for how evangelicalism contributed to division and conflict. But as a special-interest organisation, it was always clear ECONI wasn’t speaking for everyone, even all evangelicals.

Denominations, representing wider groups of Christians, could be seen to be speaking for more than just a few.

Of course, statements of acknowledgement or repentance from denominations would be met by criticism from people within those denominations. There is a significant constituency of Christians in Northern Ireland who think that the churches just weren’t part of the problem at all.

Repentance is an opportunity for denominational leaders to actually show leadership. They may not do so for fear of hurting or offending some of their own flock. But if they did, I think they could set an example for other groups and organisations who also have contributed to keeping division and sectarianism alive. In the meantime, the failure to repent continues to damage the churches’ legitimacy as partners in building peace.

(I hope to share more from my comments in the coming days.)

Image: Clonard Monastery, West Belfast

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