A few days ago I had the very real privilege of speaking at the prayer breakfast, which marked the start of the 2018 Four Corners’ festival, and am glad to have been given the opportunity to share the essence of that talk.
I sought to explore two main themes: Firstly – my pessimism about the return of a devolved government. I argued that devolution must not be seen as an end in itself, though to read and hear what is being said in public, you would think it was. What we desperately need is GOOD government. I also think that the tone of political debate in recent weeks and months has greatly set back any worthwhile discussion about what it means to heal our land. We are a long way from reconciliation being at the heart of any new NI Executive, and that fact alone makes high quality government seem very elusive.
The second theme was how our Christian churches should respond to the deepening quagmire that is our politics.
In a recent article in the Irish News, Bishop Noel Treanor wrote:
“Known for our care for the stranger, for our response to disaster scenarios throughout the world, we urgently need leadership in offering a new narrative for a radically new future, which is opening before us… We need prophetic, imaginative and courageous leadership which offers a new narrative for a dawning and challenging future.”
This was paralleled in a talk given last week by Prof John Brewer at Queen’s University. He said (amongst many other things):
- Uncouple the practice of religious faith from the practice of cultural religion. …the churches should preach loyalty to Jesus Christ – not Ulster or Mother Ireland – as believers’ principle identity.
- The churches should show unity around the key Christian principles of forgiveness, mercy, compassion, empathy, grace and justice, principles that define Jesus’ new covenant rather than fragment.
- Inter-denominational and inter-religious respect between faith-based organisations and communities should model the culture of tolerance, respect and compassion that the churches aspire to realise in society generally, making religion truly non-partisan.
- The churches should develop a public role in which they become part of the solution in dealing with the legacy issues of the conflict. This means not hiding behind a veil of personal piety but entering the public square and contributing to public debate.
I agree. Yet I am struggling to figure out clearly EXACTLY what we should be saying, and how ANY message that is non-PC can be heard. Authentic Catholicism cannot allow itself to be nationalism or republicanism at prayer any more than the Protestant Churches can allow themselves to be unionism at prayer. One might even be tempted to say that we have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people.
The Four Corners’ festival is wonderful, not least because it brings fresh understanding to people and develops substantial and robust relationships. Details of the festival’s wide range of events, which run from 1 February through to 11 February, can be found at www.4cornersfestival.com.
My hope and challenge is this: as the understanding develops and the relationships develop, can we find ways of standing shoulder to shoulder with one another, and together begin to articulate in public what Bishop Treanor and Prof John Brewer are asking – a new narrative for the future, which spells out the importance of forgiveness, generosity, compassion, thoughtfulness. And as Philippians 2 so magnificently puts it:
“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Are we really up to that Biblical challenge? I am not sure that we are, but I would dearly love to be proved wrong!
Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a retired Presbyterian Minister and former Moderator of the General Assembly.
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.
Greetings Norman. You wrote ” I am struggling to figure out clearly EXACTLY what we should be saying”. I think this is absolutely critical. Bishop Treanor, Professor Brewer and we in ECONI, have been making these kinds of statements for many years, but the challenge I personally always found was how we turn these into something specific, programmatic. I think in ECONI we managed that from time to time in relation to specific issues, but it’s always much easier for us to talk in generalities.
Over time, I’ve come to be a lot more sceptical of talk of a reconciled society, partly driven by Timothy Garton Ash’s comment some years ago that ‘the reconciliation of all with all is a deeply illiberal idea’, partly driven by the recognition that since churches, supposedly communities of reconciliation empowered by God, struggle so much to become reconciled societies, how can we expect our wider society to become so?
One of the key questions for me, as a way to get to the heart of the issue of what exactly we should be saying is to ask those who speak of a reconciled society what exactly it looks like. Specifically, to ask them to point to an example of a reconciled society somewhere in our world. When, on occasion I did ask that question, the answer usually ended up – after much pressing – with either South Africa, which demonstrates just how disconnected the idea of a reconciled society is from the political, economic and social reality or one of the Scandinavian countries. However, whether the Scandinavian countries are a model of reconciliation is questionable.
It’s an interesting question for advocates of a reconciled society to ask: where are the actually existing models of reconciled societies in this world? And if there aren’t any, what exactly is it that we are aiming for? Shouldn’t we be setting our sites on what is realistic and achievable, rather than something that cannot be realised?
I have no answers, just questions, but thank you for raising the issue once more. Domiciled in the US as I am and heading to Bulgaria for three years in a few months time, I’m somewhat less engaged in Northern Ireland affairs than I once was!
Wise words from one of my heroes – keep speaking truth in love Norman.