For Christians of a certain age there has been a noticeable change in the dynamics of faith in Northern Ireland. I grew up through an era where the differences between Protestants and Catholics were discussed, argued over and viewed as critical. I can still picture the relevant scriptures, “gospel bullets” as some referred to them, deployed to support evangelical arguments around justification by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) or the true nature of the government of the Church (1 Timothy 2:5) or John 3:16 with its encapsulation of the essence of the gospel was prominently displayed at sporting events billboards and other large public occasions. Catholics in Northern Ireland despite the exhortations of the second Vatican Council that, “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” remained cautious about private reading of the bible. A perception remained that the utilisation of chapter and verse was a protestant prerogative; in our ‘zero-sum’ world whatever Protestants emphasized was suspect and vice versa.
For all its acrimony and reinforcement of stereotypes the religious divide in Northern Ireland was understood and the lines of demarcation were clear. Church attendance remained high during the Troubles, when identity was important, and each tradition required reinforcement. Ironically the new irenic tone of the ecumenical conversation outside Northern Ireland, while not ignored was viewed through an Ulster lens… ”That is all very well but…” we intoned. ‘The integrity of our quarrel’ was still intact and the luxury of that disagreement ensured that the areas of theological difference were continually stoked.
When the Good Friday agreement was signed, we were unprepared for the peace. Secularism, the easing of community tension and the emergence of the abuse crisis in Ireland combined to herald the swiftest of social change. Within a generation, church attendance had further plummeted and young people, in particular, struggled to understand the faith in a post-modern world where truth was subjective and the concerns of Christians about human sexuality or human dignity seemed anachronistic and out of step. We woke up to a new orthodoxy, just as rigidly enforced where religion was regarded as always ‘intensely personal’ or worse still ignored. Politicians were among the first to identify the changed dynamic and most of the extant political parties fell over themselves to embrace this brave new world. It was important, we were told, to be on the right side of history and any previous reticence to fill the existential vacuum was filled by an expansion of the human rights lexicon.
I reflected recently on the thought of JI Packer, the great evangelical Anglican whom I had heard speak at Evangelical-Catholic events in the 1980’s with prophetic insight. Packer saw the Christian future as a dichotomy between those who believed the Creed and those who did not. Packer, forever the catechist, like Cardinal Newman, who saw dogma as the fundamental principle of his religion, recognised that the plates had shifted and the fault lines altered. Disputes between Protestants and Catholics were a luxury that could no longer be afforded in the wake of the challenge of secularism. Post modernism with its elevation of one’s personal truth had little patience for objective right and wrong and was mystified by what it perceived as arcane and anachronistic arguments about the doctrines of the faith. To turn around Pope Benedict’s perceptive aphorism from his visit to Britain in 2010, religion was not a vital contributor to the national conversation but a problem to be solved. If one’s faith could be confined to the realm of the strictly private and was not seen to have influence or inform one’s views publicly then that might just about be acceptable. Otherwise as Kate Forbes a candidate for the SNP leadership has discovered, the option for Christians in political life regarding their views on hot button issues is “Don’t ask Don’t tell!”
What impact did this philosophical assault have on the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone? When the Lutherans and the Catholics agreed their joint declaration on the doctrine of justification in October 1999 and mutually lifted their anathemas on each other the immediate effect was somewhat muted in Northern Ireland, where the argument on justification remained a central doctrine of difference. But since the Second Vatican Council the ecumenical conversation had gathered pace and eventually even Christians in Northern Ireland had to take notice.
Cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholic slowly began to evolve in Northern Ireland not primarily in the realms of theology and doctrine but out of a shared commitment to the protection of the unborn and a desire to respect all of human life. Alas that growing collaboration and even respect could do nothing to resist an activist Speaker in the House of Commons and Northern Ireland as laws on the protection of human life were swept away in an afternoon in July 2019. Relationships opened up new possibilities and conversations which in another era may not have happened have been established.
The fog has not cleared to reveal a startling new era of cooperation and respect between Christians in Northern Ireland, but the mist is certainly not as dense. There is I believe slowly emerging a realisation that in the twenty first century the luxury of an intensely focused disagreement on matters outside the essential tenets of the faith (what Vatican 2 referred to as ‘the hierarchy of truths’) is not option we can afford. The challenge of a new philosophy, which has so influenced the hearts and minds of our children, requires a coherent response to a new generation of the critical importance of faith.
While dogma provides a vital framework for that faith, I am struck by the words of the late Pope Benedict reminding us of our central truth. “Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new form of morality, but an encounter with the person of Christ, an event that ignites a personal relationship with Him”.
Brett Lockhart KC, Permanent Deacon St Brigid’s Parish Belfast
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.
 Dei Verbum: DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON DIVINE REVELATION 18th November 1965
 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Act 2019 at section 9.
I welcome the dialogue between “evangelicals and catholics” as described by Brett, but wonder whether there is an even deeper divide between “fundamentalists and liberals” across all denominations. On a recent visit to the Moravian Church at Gracehill I was struck by a motto associated with that Church: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things Charity”. The challenge, of course, is to define the “essentials”, while learning from a diversity of views and respecting those from whom we differ.
A fair point John. Have struggled with terminology at times. Liberal and Conservative somehow don’t quite grasp the breadth or nuance of the essentials of belief. It was why I liked Packer’s insistence on belief in the Creed or Vatican 2’s “hierarchy of truths”While we can of course differ on a wide variety of doctrines there is are core truths which are the essence or ‘sine qua non’ of Christianity.