In her chapter in Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims: Irish “Religious” Conflict in Comparative Perspective Gladys Ganiel asks if churches in Northern Ireland can contribute to post-violence reconciliation and reconstruction. She cites the role of ECONI and, more recently, the Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP), set up by the four biggest denominations in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches, as a ‘tentative sign’ that the institutional churches are contributing to peace-building. She goes on to argue that Christian activists should seek to create spaces outside ‘sectarian socio-political systems … in which other forms of work, life and leisure are possible.’ This, she suggests, could be done through educational programmes, adopting the principles of neo-monastic living (that is intentional communities such as Corrymeela and the Columbanus Community) and through churches ensuring that in their worship services they they communicate that the people from the ‘other’ tradition are also in fact Christians, not enemies.

Working with the Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) I find much to agree with in what Gladys has written. However, her proposals for reconciliation between the churches are predicated on building on a recognition that “the people from the ‘other’ tradition are also in fact Christians, not enemies.” Related to this is the suggestion that ‘Christians spend a significant percentage of their time in worship and service with Christians from a tradition other than their own.’

The experience of the ICPP, working with churches in various areas in Northern Ireland, is that many do have serious problems in recognising people from the other tradition as brothers and sisters in Christ, and therefore joint worship is not possible for them. This is often true from those from a conservative evangelical background, although some Catholic people hold similar views.
We have found that when bringing a group of church leaders, or people from churches, together, some will very quickly propose some form of joint- worship to build relationships and express unity. However, as soon as joint-worship is mentioned a lot of people are excluded, or exercise self-inclusion. It is very hard for those who are more ‘open minded’ to understand the more ‘closed minded’. It is often assumed that they cannot be included in reconciliation work until they are willing to engage in joint worship (basically until they become ecumenical like ‘us’). Or, another way of putting it, is that for many there is often no conception of reconciliation between churches that does not include joint worship.

The difficulty and the challenge is that for the conservative evangelicals Reformation truth claims are very important. Truth claims are obviously at the heart of all religious belief, but hold a particular place within evangelicalism. So, for genuine reasons, good and sensitive evangelical people believe that the differences between the churches mean that they cannot in good conscience engage in joint worship. In our project I have had one evangelical minister say that he has engaged with several ‘ecumenical’ groups of clergy, but, as he put it, all that clergy know how to do is to organise services. When they started doing that he felt that he either had to object or withdraw. He chose the latter option because he did not want to create a fuss or prevent something everyone else wanted to do from happening.

We have found that when church leaders and lay people meet together regularly, with a semi-formal structure to the meetings, relationships can be built that allow for honest sharing and increased mutual understanding. An honest conversation about the appropriate level of engagement (including whether or not people are comfortable with joint worship) ensures that each person and church feels secure and uncompromised in their engagement.  We have found that within this setting discussions about faith and practice are possible, which often correct misunderstandings and prejudices. We have also found that when relationships are built in this way churches which retain significant theological differences find they are able to cooperate on practical projects within their communities.

Often the issue of inter-church relations has been approached by asking, ‘Is this person (or church) in Christ?’ and on the basis of the answer deciding how I/we should relate to them. Perhaps we should instead ask, ‘Because we are in Christ, how should we relate to them?’

Peter McDowell

Peter is a Good Relations Officer with the Irish Churches Peace Project and a member of the Board of Contemporary Christianity.