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Step Back, Make Space

Fergus O’Ferrall

This essay was first delivered as a lecture entitled “Reformations – Towards a Reconciled Ireland?” at the Fermanagh Churches Forum Autumn Seminar on October 12th, 2017.

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognise the widest possible difference.
Frederick Douglass.
It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference. The issue is urgent.
Miroslav Volf
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:17-19

The consequences in Ireland of the reformations which occurred in Christianity in Western Europe from the sixteenth century were characterised by confessionalisation, sectarianism and colonialism. Briefly let us unpack these phenomena. Diarmuid MacCulloch, in his magisterial Reformation Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, notes that “there were very many different Reformations, nearly all of which would have said that they were simply aimed at recreating authentic Catholic Christianity”. Hence in considering the continuing implications of the Reformation in Ireland we are not dealing with a single phenomenon. Many of the “reformations” were reflected in Irish historical experiences as late as the eighteenth century and beyond. Methodism, for example, which came to Ireland from the mid-eighteenth century, demonstrated one aspect of such multiple reformations.

“Confessionalisation” is the process whereby fixed identities and systems of belief emerged in separate churches as a result of the reformations. Indeed confessionalisation became an instrument in the hands of the state to establish law and order and ensure the obedience of subjects and to control different groups in society. The Penal Laws against Roman Catholics which were such a marked characteristic of the Irish experience are an example of the colonial power, Britain, seeking to do this in Ireland. There occurred both “confessionalisation from above” by the state and “confessionalisation from below” as new church movements developed. In Ireland we had “dual confessionalisation” with “Protestantism” from above, through an Established Church of Ireland, to which a minority adhered, and Catholicism from below as an “underground church”, retaining the attachment of the majority of the people on the island. In Ireland the cuius regio eius religio principle did not operate, leading in a colonial context to embedded sectarianism. “Colonial” refers to the fact that the island of Ireland was controlled by Britain in the interests of Britain, and by those who had vested interests in that governing control, until the twentieth century brought self-government in the Irish Free State and a local devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The processes of “dual confessionalisation” from the seventeenth century onwards which occurred in Ireland contributed greatly to the formation of identities, language, sectarian cultures and indeed a divisive historiography among the contending ethnic groups. However, when we wish to consider forms of reconciliation in the current context in Ireland it is the phenomenon of sectarianism that is most salient: it has been given a working definition as “a complex of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and structures in which religion is a significant component, and which (i) directly, or indirectly, infringes the rights of individuals or groups, and/or (ii) influences or causes situations of destructive conflict”. Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg, in their very important book Moving Beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (2001) give a more extended definition:

Sectarianism is a system of attitudes, actions, beliefs, and structures at personal, communal, and institutional levels, which always involves religion, and typically involves a negative mixing of religion and politics, which arises as a distorted expression of positive human needs especially for belonging, identity, and the free expression of difference, and is expressed in destructive patterns of relating: hardening the boundaries between groups, overlooking others, belittling, dehumanising, or demonising others, justifying or collaborating in the domination of others and physically or verbally intimidating or attacking others.

Marianne Elliott entitles her 2009 book When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland – Unfinished History. Former archbishop Robin Eames entitles his new book reflecting on his long ministry and engagement as a Christian leader in Northern Ireland Unfinished Search. In this paper I suggest that the Irish churches must make choices on how this history or “search” finishes: that faithfulness to their ministry of Christian reconciliation will require a new and radical “reformation” of how they seek together to become the church of Jesus Christ. In considering what is involved in making such choices – either to remain “captive” to conflicting religious identities and a sectarian future or to resolve to be faithful to the “ministry of reconciliation” – we will need to reflect on the experience of the churches in Ireland in seeking to respond to the trauma and troubles we have inherited. Bishop Richard Hanson wrote in 1973: “All the major denominations in Northern Ireland: Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Church of Ireland and Methodists … are captive Churches. They long ago sold their integrity and spiritual and intellectual independence to political ideologies in return for the massive support of the people of Northern Ireland.” Is this true and, if so, need it still be the case?

On Sunday, October 8th, 2017 Archbishop Eamon Martin spoke in the Church of Ireland St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh on “Reconciling the Reformation”. He emphasised the importance of reconciliation between the Christian churches, noting that people who look upon them from the outside “particularly on this island, see a history of division and sectarianism, of intolerance, mutual recriminations, and open hostility within the Christian family”. This, he observed, is “a source of scandal”. We need to move “from conflict to greater communion together, bringing the joy of the Gospel into our troubled world”. Let us explore, then, what might be involved in such a reconciliation.

The European reformations from the sixteenth century were immensely complex phenomena. Each country was unique in the way the forces at work played out. The failure of the popular dimension of the Protestant Reformation in Ireland created a basic and often very bitter divide into which complex political, social, cultural, ideological and economic divisions were added until the present day. The Protestant Reformation as experienced in Ireland was identified as English and foreign while Catholicism became increasingly identified with the native culture and people of Ireland. Given this heritage, which has proved so sectarian and conflictual in the twentieth century, leading to partition in 1922 in order to create separate jurisdictions with separate Protestant and Catholic majorities – and with a subsequent thirty-year period of traumatic violence between 1968 and 1998 – we may well inquire how might our communal memories ever be reconciled so that we may share a flourishing future for all people on the island of Ireland?

To seek answers to this question will require discussion of the kind of theologies embraced by Protestants and Catholics since the sixteenth century. As Rev Dr Johnston McMaster has observed, Ireland has had a history and theology of violence which has never really been analysed or acknowledged by the churches who until recently sought and often achieved a privileged role and status in society. He writes: “We need to take violence out of the psyche, personal and collective, tackle the theological roots of sectarianism and the culture of violence. To do that we need critical analysis of the bad theology, Protestant and Catholic, which has been around for centuries, and a deconstruction of the myth of redemptive violence.” Dr Noel Irwin, in his doctoral thesis in 2009, noted “the ecumenical paradox of Northern Ireland” where the conflict since 1969 pushed the churches closer together but at the price of addressing neither the causes nor the effects of the conflict satisfactorily in terms of a fully developed and common ecumenical contextual public or political theology.

As Johnston McMaster stresses, the “perpetuation of memories will continue to be divisive unless we find some way to walk through history together, enter into each other’s chosen traumas and victories”. We will now turn to these questions of memory, history, theology and reconciliation.

Historians have contributed greatly through rigorous historical analysis to a more honest assessment of how politics and other vested interests often shaped the developments of Christian churches and how various Christian leaders sought further “reformations” leading to new denominations. For example, George Fox in the seventeenth century led the development of the Society of Friends or Quakers, and Rev John Wesley in the eighteenth century led another “mission-oriented” reformation as he developed the Methodist movement. Historians of these “multiple reformations” have helped to lay the basis for new theological evaluations. Churches now seem more prepared to admit of situations in their histories where the behaviour of their members contradicted the gospel of Jesus Christ in a significant way and are more inclined to see some real theological value in what their critics or opponents were claiming. One Roman Catholic document on memory and reconciliation speaks of the need for “purification of memory” which “aims at liberating personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults, through a renewed historical and theological evaluation of such events. This should lead – if done correctly – to a corresponding recognition of guilt and contribute to the path of reconciliation.”

Norman Porter wrote an important book called The Elusive Quest: Reconciliation in Northern Ireland (2003) which opens as follows:

Reconciliation matters. And if it mattered enough to enough of us in Northern Ireland, then we would have it. Or at least we would have something tolerably close to it: citizens would not be alienated from their public institutions or from each other, sectarianism would no longer be our lot, and society’s most serious divisions would be healed.

Just as there were many “reformations” there are many different kinds of “reconciliations”. It is vital that we articulate the kind of “reconciliation” we are working for, or hoping for, as history is replete with examples of enforced or coerced reconciliations and these remain a danger in Ireland: one may, for example, foresee unionists, as a minority, through force of numbers or circumstances having to “reconcile” themselves to a united Ireland; or one may foresee nationalists having to “reconcile” themselves to the union with Britain as a minority. There are many dimensions to, and various forms of “reconciliation”. Let us just outline some of these as they help to explain why it is such a difficult and complex set of processes: it “matters”, as Porter says, but engaging people in these processes is no easy or simple affair.

In regard to “reconciliation” there is the historical and cultural dimension, the political dimension, the theological and religious dimension and, of course, the socio-economic dimension in which matters like equality, segregation, employment and so forth arise. It is valuable to “unpack” these dimensions, however briefly, and to explore where we are in relation to them, in order to assess how to bring us closer to more effective pathways to reconciliation at a societal level. I will focus in particular on the theological and religious dimensions of reconciliation as I believe they are fundamental to the conflictual mentalités in the case of Ireland. Mentalités denote an underlying collective frame of thought rather than merely a set of ideas and they tend to be deeply embedded in communities over time. Such “frames of thought” may “imprison” communities unless there emerges seminal and prophetic leadership to will and reason ways out of them. In this regard, it seems to me that there lies huge responsibility on churches, their leaders and all true disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

Historians have in recent decades begun to study memory – the relationship between the past and the present in Irish society – and the way in which our identities have been shaped by oral tradition, icons, rituals and images, and by pivotal events which are recalled, commemorated and mythologised. It is one thing to study how we become who we are and how confessional identities have divided the contending groups on the island. It is quite another to explore how these memories might be reconciled. FSL Lyons, who explored this “clash of cultures” as the explosive juxtaposition of “seemingly irreconcilable cultures, unable to live together, or to live apart, caught inextricably in the web of their tragic history”, presents a view that might not hold out much hope for such reconciliation. On the other hand Alan D Falconer and the Irish School of Ecumenics undertook a programme of study and reflection on the subject of “the reconciliation of memories” in the late 1980s. Margaret MacCurtain asked the key questions:

Can histories be reconciled? Is truth so harsh that it threatens with fragmentation the illusory reality which in a multiplicity of fragile structures envelopes, not just our personal identity but the past identities of our communities? Does the seemingly unassailable fortress of each particular establishment on this island, Unionist or Republican, Protestant or Catholic, remain impervious to the persuasion of rational analysis of our shared past? Specifically now, at this point of time, what is the position of the founding myths of the modern state(s) of Ireland?

Revising the accounts of history according to the surviving evidence is what historians do all the time. This may lead hopefully to better common understandings but, while this historical task is a necessary contribution to reconciliation, it is hardly sufficient. What is required is larger-scale popular engagement in moving from “identity-in-opposition” to “identity-in-interdependence”: achieving popular understanding of how our identities have been shaped by “the other”. As Falconer pointed out, this is a costly process: there is no “cheap reconciliation” if memory is to liberate rather than imprison. Reconciliation involves the appropriation of each other’s history, through which each empowers the other to be free of an imprisoning past. We do, however, have the freedom in examining our histories to choose different angles of vision and, if we do freely so choose, we may discover very significant episodes and personalities which have great healing power for our present. Personally speaking, I believe that Daniel O’Connell’s moral force politics and opposition to violence has generative potential for our future democratic development. Other episodes, such as Horace Plunkett and George Russell, who developed the co-operative movement and much else, have similar liberating possibilities. There are so many women who led the way to more equality for women that have only recently received historical appreciation and their examples are very inspiring in emancipatory practices for us today. The reconciling potential of studying those who in the past advanced human freedom will allow us to cherish exemplars from all Christian traditions.

There has recently been made a case for historical forgetting by American author and critic David Rieff in his book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2016), the argument being that there is healing power in political amnesia and that there are times when it is better to forget the past in order to have peace in the present. Certainly commemorations are often abused for present sectarian or divisive purposes and we do need to think through how to remember rightly. In this context the Ethical and Shared Remembering Project, led by Rev Dr Johnston McMaster and others, has much to offer in terms of how communities might approach the past.

Reconciliation in whatever form it takes in any political society entails embracing and engaging with others who are different in a spirit of openness, with a view to expanding our possibilities, healing our divisions and articulating common purposes. It requires building trust and being trustful in relation to our dealings with each other. In Ireland, given the radical changes likely to flow from the decision of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to leave the European Union by March 2019, it is imperative to recall and to reinforce the enduring principles that have emerged following the Belfast Agreement of 1998. These include consent, respect for identities, social and economic wellbeing of all, the responsibilities of the British and Irish governments as guarantors of the agreement and a commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences. The “Declaration of Support” which prefaced the agreement speaks of a “spirit of concord” which is required and the need to “firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all”. Of course, as Norman Porter has pointed out, making these principles fully operational requires the development of “an inclusive citizenship”. This will require, in my view, a reformulation of unionism and republicanism so that each may share a common political life and indeed bring what is precious in their political traditions to enrich the common good. There is, for Christians, a great deal of overlap between “common good thinking” and gospel values. The “common good” is a set of conditions in which every individual in the community can flourish: these are created through building relationships between those with different views and experiences and balancing their different interests as it is in “all our interests that all thrive”. It is supported by biblical values such as human dignity, human equality, respect for life and the dignity of work. Common good thinking is underpinned by principles governing relationships: reconciliation, subsidiarity, solidarity, participation and association.

There is now a substantial literature on how inequalities in societies lead to a great range of negative outcomes. More equal societies have better outcomes across a whole range of important measures. There is not the space here to address the issues of inequalities and social and other discriminations in the Irish context. It is vital, however, to note that reconciliations in a political society must involve addressing issues of inequalities. In particular, for Christians, with the biblical imperatives for social justice so clear and specific, there is a special onus to both give voice to those who suffer from inequalities or unfair discrimination and to take action to address the causes. Given the record in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland of discrimination and of economic inequalities, the words of the poet WH Auden in “1 September 1939” come to mind:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn
That those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

There has been much profound reflection both internationally and in Ireland on the theological and religious dimension of reconciliation. In discussion of this dimension we are focused, in particular, on the response that those with a clear and active Christian commitment need to make given that they follow Jesus Christ. It is often forgotten that, as the political philosopher Hannah Arendt points out: “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” This discovery enables human beings to be freed from the irreversibility of our past actions and empowers us to act for a future freed from an imprisoning past: forgiving “is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven”. It has been often stated that Jesus Christ gave to his church the “ministry of reconciliation” as set out by St Paul in 2 Corinthians Chapter 5 where what is stressed is God reconciling the world to himself and committing this message to Christians as “Christ’s ambassadors”, through whom God makes his appeal.

Marking the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Theses of 1517 indicates the great advances in ecumenical understanding that has been achieved between the Roman Catholic church and the wide range of Lutheran and Protestant churches on a global level. Perhaps the high-water mark has been the resolution of the key divisive issue of the sixteenth century “Reformations” in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed between the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, and the subsequent adoption of the Joint Declaration by the World Methodist Council in 2006 and by the World Communion of Reformed Churches in 2017. These churches now share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”. The full fruits of this common understanding have yet to be realised in the Irish context. However, ecclesia semper reformanda is now widely shared in western Christianity, though not, of course, universally and perhaps not particularly well in Ireland. I suggest that a new fundamental ecumenical reformation in and by our churches must precede and accompany the visioning and steady realisation of the specific Christian reconciliation which is urgently required on the island of Ireland.

The work of Miroslav Volk, the Croatian Protestant theologian, is particularly seminal in dealing with the challenges of reconciliation in the contexts of persisting enmity between communities. Two of his works, in particular, are essential: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) and The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (2006). “Embrace” is characterised as acting with generosity toward perpetrators of evil acts and maintaining porous boundaries of flexible identities: this represents a mode of grace. However, such “embrace” does not stand in contrast to justice, as justice is included as a dimension of grace extended toward wrongdoers. While “porous boundaries” are important so is maintaining one’s own boundaries: knowing who we are in Christ is key and from this commitment the right to pass judgement on evil arises. However, our boundaries ought to be “porous” so that we can make a journey with the “other” in reconciliation and mutual enrichment. Volf’s theology stresses God’s unconditional love, justification of the ungodly, love of enemy, forgiveness and the impact of these emphases in public life or as a way of life. Volf emphasises the importance of truth-telling and that we seek to remember the past rightly. However, he states that the proper goal of memory should be reconciliation. He claims that remembering wrongs suffered, if done rightly, will ultimately result in a “non-remembrance” of the wrong-doing: the world of God’s love, which is the Christian eschatological hope, will be realised when people and their relationships are healed to such an extent that former wrongs will lack the emotional fuel to enflame toxic relationships and they will no longer come to mind in that form. What is particularly important, it seems to me, in Volf’s work is that he is asking Christians the key question: what kind of selves do we need to be in order to live in harmony with others? The urgent task of the churches is to foster a kind of discipleship in which disciples are capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies. His approach is entirely founded upon the cross of Christ and what we understand the cross to mean – for Volf it demonstrates the mutuality of self-giving love in the Trinity, the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross for the “godless” and the open arms of the Father receiving the prodigal son. For disciples of Christ the imperatives are the will to give ourselves to the “others”, to welcome and to be prepared to adjust our identities in order to make space for them. This will is prior to any judgement about the “others”; the will to “embrace” precedes any “truth” about the “others” as it is based on their humanity.

The “truth” and “justice” we seek are unavailable outside the will to embrace the other. Volf spells out that the embrace itself – in the sense of full reconciliation – cannot take place until truth has been said and justice done. If churches – the presumed agents of reconciliation – remain so committed to their own community’s culture, they remain impotent at best or at worst accomplices in the strife. We need to come to understand that other cultures are not a threat “to the pristine purity of our cultural identity, but a potential source of its enrichment”. Churches ought to be equipped to exercise judgement against the evils in every culture but they need to be far more self-critical of their own religious culture. Often in Irish history churches twisted the Word of God to serve their own communal ideologies and political strategies. Too often they have colluded with “exclusion” strategies: of elimination (Penal Laws), assimilation (Protestants in Free State/Republic), domination (Catholics in Northern Ireland) and abandonment (Jews in Europe in 1930s and 1940s). Indeed, as Volf notes, indifference and unconcern for the fate of the “other” is often more deadly than hate. So all of our churches share a “condition of noninnocence”. As Volf notes:

Under the conditions of pervasive noninnocence, the work of reconciliation should proceed under the assumption that, though the behaviour of a person may be judged as deplorable, even demonic, no one should ever be excluded from the will to embrace, because, at the deepest level, the relationship to others does not rest on their moral performance and therefore cannot be undone by the lack of it.

Can we, as Irish Christians, make our own of Volf’s thesis that God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to the other? This question inevitably leads us to consider repentance, forgiveness, restoration of relationships and “healing of memories”.

Given that the trauma and violence experienced in Ireland since 1969 was largely inflicted by methods of “terror”, particular questions arise as to the intersection of “terrorism” and theology. These have been addressed by Northern Ireland Methodist theologian William J Abraham in his book, Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology, published in 2013. “Terrorism” is the use of violence against innocent people for political or other purposes and it is, of course, a global phenomenon; as Abraham points out, “religion is an ineradicable factor” in it, leading to deeply troubling questions. As Abraham puts it,

it is easy to pick up the rotted and dry remains of a religious heritage that has been entwined with ethnicity and nationalism over centuries. Indeed, such material is intrinsically combustible, for it was originally the carrier of light and life. Transposed into secular idiom it can burn and serve as kindling for the fires of violence.

Leaving aside the security, political and other factors that led to the cessation of terrorist acts in Northern Ireland, the “good news” is that, as Abraham puts it, “we can genuinely deploy the resources of the Christian faith in order to tackle the challenge of terrorism”. To do this, however, we have to gather up the debris of religion and dispose of it – once we know what religious themes and practices are being abused we can intervene and challenge such usage at its foundations. This, it seems to me, implies “reformations” in the various Christian denominations in Ireland. We must reengage with the gospel of Jesus Christ centred upon love of God, neighbour and “enemies”; we must, as Abraham puts it, “issue sharp warnings about our own mistakes across the centuries when violence was used for religious purposes or when religion was used inappropriately for political purposes”. As Abraham observes, we can “redirect the oxygen and energy of religion to confront terrorism and to find ways to contain or eradicate it”. Of course terrorism will need to be fully combated by a combination of measures – philosophical, cultural, political, economic and military as well as religious – but it is essential for Christians to undertake whatever is necessary from a religious perspective.

There is required a slow but radical reformation in our churches focused upon discipleship and the development of lay Christians who reject idolatries as they follow Jesus as lord and engage in his mission in the public sphere. In our representative democracy effective and fruitful disciples of Jesus live for the glory of God but also for the common good and the flourishing of all people and in this way they make an essential moral contribution in our pluralist societies. This contribution is vital, it seems to me, in the rich content of Christian understanding of reconciliation and in understanding forgiveness. In reconciliation we envisage the restoration of full relationships with the offender; forgiveness is clearly essential to such reconciliation but it does not cancel out the requirement for truth and justice before the law: claiming “freedom fighter” status does not excuse participation in a terrorist act against innocent civilians. In Ireland we have had political agendas based upon an argument for the legitimacy of terrorist acts lately dressed up in the language of inclusion, peace and reconciliation. Christians, it seems to me, can never accept such claims; in the interests of true reconciliation Christians need to expose such a morally deficient stance but we ought to do this with a forgiving spirit. Christians embrace a “forgiving spirit” so well described by Rev David Clements, a Methodist minister whose father was murdered in 1985 by terrorists:

A forgiving spirit rejects the right to retaliate. It will not consider returning evil for evil. A forgiving spirit takes the deliberate decision not to harbour hostility. The evils of the past are not forgotten, but they are not allowed to dominate the present. A forgiving spirit takes the deliberate decision to return good for evil. A forgiving spirit wants the best for those who have injured us. For the unbeliever this may be absurd but for the Christian it is profound. It opens up the possibility of not just forgiveness but reconciliation. A forgiving spirit grows out of the knowledge of being forgiven by God in Christ (Ephesians 4:32).

There is the example of twenty-two-year-old Rosaria Schifani in November 1992, at the funeral of her twenty-seven-year-old policeman husband murdered by the Mafia, saying: “To the men of the Mafia, for they are here too, I say there is forgiveness even for you … but you have to get down on your knees if you have the courage to change.”

We have to face the fact that many actors and perpetrators of evil deeds in the past may not “have the courage to change”. This, however, should never be able to be said of Christians or their churches.

We have also to face the reality that truth may not be able to be fully established for many traumatic episodes though every effort ought to be made to do so; we have additionally to face the fact that justice may have to be sacrificed in the interests of the common good for a period of time, as in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Amnesty has been used for a specific time and purpose in both South Africa and in Northern Ireland. However, whether truth is “recovered” or amnesties utilised, there continues to exist a major mental health challenge which is a legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland, as described in the recent very important book by David Bolton, Conflict, Peace and Mental Health. The decades of loss and trauma in Northern Ireland continue to frame the future. Addressing this challenge, as Bolton argues, must be incorporated into peace-building and reconciliation.

Abraham’s considered view of what is possible in Northern Ireland is that we abandon “a lot of silly expectations” concerning reconciliation and seek “the unconditional practice on all sides of civilised politics; beyond that we will be fortunate if we have peaceful co-existence. Peaceful co-existence rather than the utopian will-of-the-wisp of reconciliation is the default position of communities.” This, it seems to me, is to sell the rich possibilities of Christian reconciliation very short indeed and to let Christian denominations of the hook of their complicity in sectarian division. The possibilities of joint Irish Christian theological reflection which sprang out of the violence appear to have stalled with the return of devolved government to Stormont. Some bodies and individuals have continued under their own steam as it were, such as the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland (the successor body to ECONI), when the current peace process after the Belfast and St Andrews agreements yielded a Stormont assembly and working executive.

It is clear from studies that the national-level dialogue between church leaders in the Irish Inter-Church Meeting is “fundamentally problematic” as it has “never meaningfully addressed the issue of conflict in Northern Ireland”. The work has remained “fairly static”, as Maria Power has noted. This assessment does not seek to diminish the role played by church leaders or local churches, such as the Omagh Churches’ Forum, in calling for peace and responding pastorally during the long decades of violence and meeting together to lead their flocks. In terms, though, of new theological leadership and joint preparing and publishing of prophetic theological contributions, this was left to groups such as the Faith and Politics Group and ECONI during the times when violence and terror raged. The work of local ecumenical communities, often at the heart of the conflict, did demonstrate the role of faith communities in promoting reconciliation, and they often began with prayer and listening and then proceeded to help divided communities to get to know one another.

It is both urgent and important, I suggest, that a major re-engagement of churches and their leaders is developed to explore what a rich common and public theology for a reconciled society would involve for Christians. This would seem to me to be the next key step in response to Archbishop Eamon Martin’s prophetic call for reconciliation between the Christian denominations. This is, it must be admitted, a great challenge for our churches, given the depth of the confessionalisation and sectarianism which has been so much part of the Irish historical and contemporary experience. It is even more challenging in a post-colonial context where issues of popular self-government are so divisive in Northern Ireland, given the permanent contest over its future constitutional status. It is precisely because of the magnitude of both the challenge and the consequences of failure that the Irish churches are, it seems to me, now called to have what might be termed their “Ephesian moment”. In Ephesians Chapter 2, the radical differences between Gentiles and Jews were subsumed into a unity of diverse peoples in the “one body” because there is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God”: only together could the different cultural entities achieve their fullness in the household of God.

Peace is more than avoiding violence and condemning violence. In biblical terms shalom is a central concept and the vision of shalom ought to draw all Christians together in a common struggle so that God’s will might be done and God’s kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. Shalom involves material well-being and prosperity, justice and working to remove deceit and hypocrisy and to promote honesty, integrity and straightforwardness: it demands conversion and transformation. Eirene is the New Testament word for this holistic communal “peace” where relationships are what God desires: shalom-makers strive for total reconciliation in all relationships. An old quip has it that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God and got the church – in fact got thousands of divided churches! The coming ecumenical movement needs to reflect on what the “reign of God” implies in our current situation: as Perry Yoder, the Mennonite biblical scholar, observes,

love is basic to shalom justice … people, as well as structures, need to be transformed … People who are caught in oppressive structures need to be liberated from the values and perspective inculcated by these structures. The shalom maker, as a result, is involved in a mission of conversion ‑ converting people to a new understanding and way of life (Romans 12:1-2). This conversion, based on God’s love for them in Jesus, frees them from old patterns of thought. As examples, we have suggested racism, sexism, and the values of wealth economics. This conversion … expresses itself by the practice of shalom justice and economics individually and the transformation of structures to promote and make possible this new corporate way of life.

There is an urgent and pressing onus on all the Christian churches in Ireland, I believe, to acknowledge the extent of the pain, trauma and division which lies barely under the surface in Northern Ireland. A population of about 1.7 million includes an estimated thirty per cent of people directly affected by the so-called “Troubles” – 3,720 people were killed between 1969 and 2006 and about 500,000 people were bereaved, injured or experienced trauma.

I believe that it is urgent to recognise that a “peace” consisting of two separate communities deterring each other from dominance in a fragile see-saw balance of power, where there is no real sharing in a common civic culture, is no real “peace” and will always be liable to promote sectarianism and indeed a return to violence if the consequences of Brexit turn out to be as negative for relationships on the island of Ireland as many fear.

Churches, working together, need to bring forward a rich vision of shalom and reconciliation that eliminates fear of “the other” and addresses positively the sense of victimhood so pervasive in Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that memories are rightly kept with the common purpose and goal of building in solidarity the common good; to nurture the quiet attitudinal changes at local level – in the grassroots and undergrowth where shifts in public opinion occur. Churches are now called to acts of transcendence – to transcend their own culpability for the past, their own current doctrinal divisions, and their polite ecumenical contacts, and to reimagine the potential in the gospel of reconciliation which they share in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The grim alternative is to choose to be “captive” to their own community, which will lead to their failure in an increasingly secular and pluralist society where churches, in effect, seek to “hoard” the essence of gospel for their own tribes.

The churches collectively exercise what may be called “soft power” – their ability to set the agenda in ways that shape the preference of others and invite encounters between hitherto divided congregations and thereby allow the general public to become proactive in Christian reconciliation. Even with the decline in the authority or influence of the churches in Ireland substantial “soft power” is available to them perhaps only if they are willing to display imaginative, courageous and prophetic leadership. This has the potential to change intransigent agendas and the historic fatalism which so often underpins such agendas. The churches have a healing ministry and with a capacity to pastor those who have been traumatised in the past; it is essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of terror and of violence from whatever source as a necessary element of reconciliation. Out of such acknowledgement has to grow a culture of tolerance for diversity in a pluralist society as Christians seek to set new and higher standards for right relationships under the rule of law and democratic government.

In other words, I believe that the Irish churches are now challenged by “the signs of our times” to what has been called “living reconciliation”. This would be a costly corporate commitment by each of our churches as they die to their traditional concerns to protect their institutions and vested interests and begin to live as the body of Christ in service to their ministry of reconciliation given to them by Jesus Christ.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in his 1984 Nobel lecture:

God calls us to be fellow workers with Him, so that we can extend His Kingdom of Shalom, of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, joy and reconciliation, so that the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. Amen.

At the heart of our gospel is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).

Living reconciliation is always a painful, risky, difficult journey that makes all who participate vulnerable. It is most effective at local community level where different denominations of Christians might form journeying communities in a form similar perhaps to the indaba programme in the Anglican communion: indaba is a Zulu word for “gathering for purposeful discussion” and for discernment on important matters such as healing the wounds of history, learning to live with and value difference and celebrate diversity, and building a common civic culture of peace and flourishing for all.

Bishop Mark Santer wrote some years ago that the “ecumenical task in not to reconcile theologies, but to reconcile the people and communities who use those theologies to identify themselves as distinct from each other”. Once theological differences become badges of identity doctrinal issues are used to keep denominations divided from one another “with a good conscience”. However, we must challenge whether our consciences can be “good” in these circumstances justifying segregation and sectarianism in the face of the gospel demand for reconciliation.

Churches must not demand that victims of violence “forgive and forget”: but they may create conditions in which it becomes possible to forgive, to heal as each one claims or reclaims their human dignity and a flourishing future for all people. The world is changed by ordinary people living in a new way and healthy vibrant peaceful communities are created by the people who live in them: they are maintained by people paying close attention to the needs of one another. It is hard work and requires leadership and persistence from all local churches as “salt and light” where God has placed them.

Bishop Andrew Dietsche of New York set out the framing question:

If as I believe the world desperately needs the church to be the church, what does that mean for us in the places where we are and in the contexts in which God has planted us? What does it mean to be the church? What and who are we? What is this strange unworldly calling, when we are compelled to be the church and what are those things which God requires of us which only we can do?

To answer these questions is to undertake to fulfil the New Testament radical and positive collective role of Christian reconciliation – so different from secular or weak versions of reconciliation such as peaceful and very segregated co-existence. To set about the challenge the churches in Ireland would need to undertake a “reformation” towards what the late Michael Hurley SJ described as “a spirituality of reconciliation”. The elements of such a spirituality embrace relationships that end estrangement and bring about friendship, unity and peace; it emphasises forgiveness; it acquires “a more comprehensive view of the situation” as people begin to see things less partially, to see them as others see them, to accept that responsibility may well be shared, and to want to resume contact and conversation, “to fall back in love again”. A “spirituality of reconciliation” involves “the will to change things for the good; the forgiveness of one party facilitates a change of heart on the part of the other, a change of mind on the part of each, of both”:

The ensuing dialogue is sincere and honest; it is not superficial, it is not satisfied with patching over or covering up; it goes to the roots, it is radical. Reconciliation is not cheap; it is no soft option; it does not mean peace at any price, unity at any cost. There is no reconciliation without repentance, reparation, without change, without the making of amends; there is no at-one-ment without atonement of some sort. Such a spirituality of reconciliation recognises the sacredness of the other, the primacy of love and the existence of God revealed in Christ as the one who forgives, who forgives without condoning, whose forgiveness inspires our repentance and whose example moves us to be in our turn ministers of reconciliation, forgiving those who offend us and making amends to those whom we ourselves offend.

This it seems to me to be a far richer model of reconciliation than any secular model, but of course a far more challenging one to embrace: it is the one, however, which holds before us the promise of the brightest future for succeeding generations in Ireland. Christians, at least, have no excuse not to seek to fulfil the Christ-given ministry of reconciliation. They all should be able to sing the words of Methodist hymnodist Fred Pratt Green:

What shall our greeting be:
Sign of our unity?
“Jesus is Lord!”
May we no more defend
Barriers he died to end:
Give me your hand, my friend –
One Church, One Lord!


Dr Fergus O’Ferrall is author of a number of books in Irish history including Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy 1820-30 (Dublin, 1985) and he has edited and contributed to a number of books including Longford History and Society (with Martin Morris, Dublin, 2010), Longford Irish Historic Towns Atlas 22 (with Sarah Gearty and Martin Morris, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2010) and Towards A Flourishing Society (TASC, Dublin, 2012). He has contributed essays and reviews to the Dublin Review of BooksStudies: An Irish Quarterlyand other journals. He contributed an essay to the recent book A Dialogue of Hope: Critical Thinking for Critical Times, ed Gerry O’Hanlon SJ., (Messenger Publications, Dublin, 2017). He is a governor of The Irish Times.



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