Bowdoin Report on How Some (But Only Some) Church Leaders Helped Build Peace in Northern Ireland

There is a report on the Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine, USA) webpage about a public lecture I gave there last month, ‘How Some (But Only Some) Church Leaders Helped Build Peace in Northern Ireland.’

Bowdoin College is the alma mater of Senator George J Mitchell, who chaired the peace talks that produced the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

Bowdoin staff reporter Tom Porter focuses on my account of the peacemaking work of Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds at Clonard Monastery; as well as the efforts of the group Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI). 

I encourage you to read the full report here, as it provides a useful summary of their contributions.

Porter concludes the article with some of my thoughts on the lessons that can be learned from Northern Ireland in terms of the role religion can play in making peace, which I have reproduced below. And while I by and large stand by my comment that ‘mainstream’ church leaders could have done more to make peace, I would add a caveat here that there was not enough time in my lecture to analyse the contributions that were made by other church leaders and even by some of the denominations themselves. Such could be the subject of many more books!

Does Religion Have a Role in Keeping the Peace? – Excerpt from Bowdoin College Report
There are some important lessons to be learned from the Northern Ireland experience about conflict resolution, said Ganiel. “One key point is that in situations where religion has played a role in the conflict, it also needs to play a part in the solution. Another key take-away is that you cannot make any progress until you’re prepared to talk to the practitioners of violence.”

These are not lessons that everyone has taken on board, she added. Although the peace has, by and large, held in Northern Ireland, the province remains a deeply segregated society, and the church on both sides of the divide shares some of the blame for this, said Ganiel.

“Religious leaders like those in ECONI and the Clonard Monastery played a crucial role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, but they were outliers. It was left to individuals like Reid, Reynolds, and others, to do what the mainstream church leaders themselves should have been doing. Many say the churches lost legitimacy during the troubles, and they have a point.”

(Image: Fr Gerry Reynolds and me outside Clonard Monastery in 2013)

One thought on “Bowdoin Report on How Some (But Only Some) Church Leaders Helped Build Peace in Northern Ireland”

  1. What is the purpose of religion? Is that purpose being fulfilled
    in the present day, particularly in a society with a diversity of

    What is the purpose of Christianity? Is that purpose being
    fulfilled by Christianity in its present day diversity of often
    mutually antagonistic forms and denominations?

    What is the purpose of church? Is that purpose being fulfilled in
    the present day when people in the same community, if they attend
    church at all, attend, or are nominally associated with, a
    multiplicity of different churches?
    It appears to me that the purpose of religion is:-

    a) to provide some explanation of the mystery of existence.
    b) to provide guidance for the mutually beneficial ordering of

    exemplified, in Judaism and Christianity, by the Ten Commandments
    of Moses being presented on two tablets of stone, the first tablet
    covering theology and the second sociology.

    Religion may have fulfilled these purposes reasonably well in the
    distant past when communities and nations were relatively
    isolated, where most people in a community or nation observed the
    same religion, and where religion and nationhood were one and the

    Today however, traditional religious explanations of the mystery
    of existence become less relevant as scientific knowledge
    increases, and as society is more and more becoming governed by
    the democratic will of the people rather than by rules imposed
    under threat of religious damnation.

    We can argue forever about theology without coming to any
    agreement, but we do need to have agreed rules for the well-being
    of society. I think that Jesus realized this and put it in a
    nutshell (or was it a mustardseed) when he condensed all the pre-
    existent beliefs and rules into two simple and easily understood
    precepts:-“Love God, whatever your concept of God might be; and
    more importantly and by which you will in actuality be loving God,
    love your fellow Man”. Consequently it appears to me that the
    purpose of religion, as intended by Jesus rather than as practised
    by the institutional Christian churches, is to provide guidance
    for the mutually beneficial ordering of society.

    If the institutional churches have failed to do this they have proved
    own their irrelevance

    We should be demanding that Christian church leaders resolve the
    ridiculous differences between the Christian denominations (or
    should that be abominations?); foster accord with other religions
    which, after all, have the same purpose as Christianity; and
    promote one all-inclusive community for the mutual benefit of all.

    Some way must be found of creating a united community for the
    peace and mutual benefit of all. If the Christian churches fail
    to become wholeheartedly involved, fail to resolve their doctrinal
    differences and fail to disassociate themselves from divisive
    political and para-religious factions they will by their presence
    continue to hinder the development of a new community spirit and
    will inevitably become irrelevant if and when such community
    spirit comes to be.

    Dennis Golden

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