The Clonard Novena: Steve Stockman on Ecumenical Day

image Yesterday was Ecumenical Day at the novena in West Belfast’s Clonard Monastery. As I’m in a Northern Irish style ‘mixed’ marriage, and live close to Clonard, I appreciate the spirit behind ecumenical day and try and make a point of being there.

So last night I dropped in on an evening session, where Rev. Steve Stockman, the minister from Fitzroy Presbyterian, was speaking. The theme for this year’s novena is ‘Our Church: A Time for Hope,’ and the theme for ecumenical day was ‘a time for justice.’

Stockman’s sermon reminded the novena-goers that the Christian gospel is unescapably political. But rather than politicising the gospel to serve as a ‘chaplain to the tribe,’ the gospel that Stockman preached is political in a way that subverts unhealthy ethnic, religious or social divisions and sets out a vision for a reconciliatory new way.

Stockman’s message was framed around what he called Jesus’ ‘remix’ of the ‘greatest commandment’:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Stockman applied this remix to Northern Ireland, where the ‘neighbours’ are those from the other side who have hurt you, or who you may have no desire whatsoever to have a relationship with.

He spoke of the sense of elation that greeted last week’s Saville Report about Bloody Sunday, and told those assembled that many in the unionist community were disappointed with the way some of their politicians had responded so negatively to it.

Stockman said this negative response flowed from two shortcomings within the unionist community:

  • A problem with admitting weakness, or confessing sin
  • A tit for tat mentality that resists admitting wrongdoing until the other side has also admitted that they have done something wrong

What this says to me is that living out the gospel requires confession and repentance, and feeling free enough not to have to wait for the ‘other’ to make the first move.

Stockman also attempted to answer a question that has been raised with the election of the new Presbyterian Moderator, Rev. Norman Hamilton. Hamilton has said that he wants to put the ‘shared future’ back on the political agenda.

Last week, in part in response to Hamilton’s opening speech as moderator, there was an extensive debate on the Slugger O’Toole blog under the tagline:

Shared Future: the ‘popular’ option almost no one votes for

This rather cynical, or at least tongue-in-cheek headline, gets at something I think both Stockman and Hamilton are calling us to address. They realise that many in Northern Ireland are content with a kind of ‘benign apartheid’, so long as overt violence has ceased.

Last night, Stockman raised that issue, asking: why bother seeking out your ‘neighbour’ – the enemy?

Drawing on the South African concept of ‘ubuntu’ – that we require each other to be fully human – Stockman told those assembled at Clonard that despite previous or current divisions, people in Northern Ireland are better together.

When Jesus talked about neighbour/enemy love, it wasn’t simply because he was advocating it as a conflict resolution strategy. There was a deep wisdom in what he was saying, which can cause us to reflect that encountering difference through the ‘other’ can also bring out the best in ourselves.

Is this reconciliatory new vision too demanding? Neither Stockman nor Hamilton are claiming that it is easy to achieve, either among Christians at the grassroots or through government programmes that promote ‘cross community’ interaction.

But the experience of listening to Stockman on ecumenical day, and observing how he was welcomed there by the priests and people of Clonard, provided a glimpse of what such a vision might look like.

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