At first glance, perhaps nothing at all. But in the week that the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant approaches, the ‘In Joyful Hope’ initiative is on the move.
‘In Joyful Hope’ this time finds a home at St Oliver’s Plunkett’s Catholic Church in Lenadoon, West Belfast, tomorrow (Thursday 27 September) at 8 pm.
‘In Joyful Hope’, billed as ‘A New Step in Eucharistic Fellowship’, began about two years ago among a group of clergy in and around Belfast. Since then it has travelled to Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian churches and has included the involvement of laypeople.
In each location, all those who are present participate in a shared liturgy.
Then the host congregation enacts its Eucharistic or communion service, and those who are permitted to participate take part. The others observe and experience what Fr Gerry Reynolds calls ‘the pain experienced by not being able to share fully in the celebration,’ their presence serving as a principled witness to their desire to fully share Eucharist.
Covenant is of course a prominent theme in Eucharist/communion, as recalled in Eucharistic prayers in the Catholic (and other Christian) tradition:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
Each time it takes place, Eucharist/communion can be considered a re-enactment and a renewal of covenant with God and with each other.
It’s in the renewal of covenant that I think ‘In Joyful Hope’ can provide a fruitful starting point for reflecting on the Ulster Covenant.
In a recent blog on Slugger O’Toole, I’ve written about the Protestant churches and the Ulster Covenant. Readers will be fairly clear that I am critical of the way that the Ulster Covenant seems to link the cause of political unionism with the will of God, and also threatens violence.
This is a critique elaborated more fully by Rev Dr Johnston McMaster in his book Overcoming Violence, and in the ‘Order of Service for a Contemporary Covenant Service of Worship’, prepared by the Belfast-based group Contemporary Christianity.
Dr David Tombs of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (where I also teach), has provided a hopeful theological perspective on how in the bible, the concept of covenant is intrinsically linked with renewal.
In a paper titled ‘The Irish Churches and the Ulster Covenant 1912-2012,’ given at the Open University/Institute for Conflict Research conference on ‘Religious Conflict and Difference’ earlier this month, Tombs explained that:
‘The principle of renewal is built in to the covenantal tradition’
And noted that:
‘Within the biblical tradition there is an emphasis on restating the covenant for a new time.’
Tombs also argued that the Ulster Covenant is very much a document of its time, reflecting a respect for Empire and projecting a tone of confidence and power. He added that this attempt to appear confident and powerful may in fact be misleading, and rather indicated insecurity and fear.
We are obviously in a new time, when the values of Empire have been forgotten or discredited. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement champions pluralism and declares that people living in Northern Ireland can be Irish or British or both.
In this new context, can we find scope for thinking of a renewal of covenant in terms of building relationships with each other – across denominational and political lines – and in a way that includes all of us in ‘covenant’ with each other?
Initiatives like ‘In Joyful Hope’ give me some hope that we can expand our imaginations to think about renewed ‘covenant’ relationships. A renewed covenant would include people we might have previously opposed or overlooked, people now thought of and treated as friends and fellow pilgrims.
(You might have to record the beginning of the programme if you attend ‘In Joyful Hope,’ but be sure to check out BBC One Northern Ireland’s programme on the Ulster Covenant, hosted by William Crawley, at 9 pm on Thursday.)
Other blogs on the Ulster Covenant
Other blogs on ‘In Joyful Hope’
(Image sourced on flickr, by + Alan)