Rev Heather Morris: How can the church be a catalyst for change in a post-conflict society?

uulectureHow can the church be a catalyst for change in a post-conflict society?

Rev Dr Heather Morris, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, shared some ideas about that at a lecture organised by the University of Ulster joint chaplaincy team on Tuesday at the Belfast campus.

You can read Alan in Belfast’s report here.

And watch the lecture below.

Morris packed a lot into the 45-minute talk, drawing on experiences she has had during her year as Methodist president, as well as on academic research and practical theology.

She began by admitting it could be thought presumptuous that the church might actually have a role to play in reconciliation and transformation. She noted the almost total omission of the churches in the Together Building a United Community (TBUC) document, and asked:

“Has the church been so enmeshed in the problem, so consumed with inward looking issues, that we’ve lost the opportunity to be involved in peace building or community transformation?”

Morris assured her listeners that this is not the case, saying that in her travels this year she found many people already engaged in peacebuilding work, or asking about how they might become involved.

She then outlined six ideas about how the churches could contribute, clarifying that she was speaking primarily to the church as a church person:

  1. The institution has a role to play. Morris recognised that the institutional churches have been criticised for their lack of engagement, and their failure to do more than make public statements. Morris contended that “there is a place for public statements” and said that the church statement after the Haass Talks was constructive. Morris also said that the institutions could act as “permission-giver in peacemaking and as ethos builder … covering the backs of those who have the courage to work on the edges in terms of peacebuilding.
  2. Commitment to the Common Good. Morris acknowledged that “we are a fragmented society … [where] Sectarianism shifts almost seamlessly into racism.” She challenged the churches to have the courage to speak up and say that every voice matters, even the voices … which we find it difficult to hear. She said that includes not only the voices of those who are victims of attacks, but those who are undertaking the attacks.
  3. Partnership. Morris spoke of developing partnerships across churches, as well as more broadly across civil society. She cited Archbishop Eamon Martin’s advocacy for the development of covenants of friendship at congregational and parish level as one way in which Christians could go beyond the polite nods to more meaningful engagement.  She admitted that the church is now on the margins after having been used to being at the centre of things, not needing partners. She said “we will not be a catalyst for peacebuilding by shouting from a distance. Citing Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, she called for a practice of humility in partnership, meaning sharing ideas, not imposing them on one another.
  4. Speaking Theology in the Public Square. Morris said the churches have been hesitant about speaking theology in public, for legitimate reasons, such as shame about the way that theology has been manipulated and misused. She noted the theological echoes in the Ulster Covenant, and in the slogan “For God and Ulster,” which are “ used to imply that God is on my side and therefore not on yours.” She then re-told a story about Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) that had been told by Canon David Porter, former director of the organisation, at this year’s Catherwood Lecture. Porter said that: “ in the early days of ECONI, the staff used to joke and guess how many people would walk out of ECONI public meetings because they had been so challenged by what they had said. ECONI’s material was so challenging, so thought provoking, that Christians walked out.” Morris said this story woke her up, because she couldn’t recall anyone walking out of any of her sermons or talks because she was so challenging! She said:  “I heard Porter’s comments as a call for the church to be a biblically resourced, theologically informed,  prophetic, uncomfortable voice.” She also shared about an interdenominational group that has been developing principles for engagement with society, which were outlined last week on Rev David Campton’s blog.
  5. Modelling a different reality. Morris urged the church to “move beyond vague talking about a better future to talking in concrete terms about what that future looks like.” Drawing on the examples of Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Zachariah, she said that they not only spoke prophetically but lived as if the future they longed for was already present. For Jeremiah, this meant buying a field during a time of national crisis as a sign  “that what the Lord says is true, houses and fields and vineyards will again be in this land.” She spoke of the life of the Benedictine monks in Rostrevor, who as “a kind of prophetic action” pray “for leaders not just of own church, but of all the Christian churches.” Although she thought there should be nothing new or radical in praying for other church leaders, the lack of this type of public prayer is striking.
  6. Be clear and unequivocal about the church’s primary allegiance – to Jesus Christ. Morris insisted that “everything comes under Jesus’ Lordship. Everything else is second.” Acknowledging that this might sound “naïve” or “simplistic,” Morris insisted that a focus on following Jesus would – in this divided society – lead Christians to contribute to peacebuilding and reconciliation.

Locating herself in the tradition of “practical theology,” Morris concluded with seven “action points”:

  1. Pray across the church – with and for each other
  2. Preach on reconciliation on forgiveness and justice and courage – Partner with God in creating holy discomfort
  3. Make theology practical  — don’t  talk of love, show your love by getting involved with what’s happening in your area or start something new
  4. Listen – to those with whom we differ,  and to God
  5. Pay attention to Liturgy —  human beings long for a place to make a corporate response, be mindful of that need
  6. Continue in community engagement. She asked: “Would your community miss you if your church closed your doors tomorrow?” She said community engagement means dealing with underlying issues, like unemployment, education, engagement with democratic processes.
  7. Providing pastoral care for alll who have been effected by the Troubles, including advocacy.

It’s worth watching the whole talk to better digest the points outlined above, and to hear more of the examples Morris gives about what is happening on the ground in Northern Ireland.

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