Reflecting on Northern Ireland at 100years

Of the 100 years since Northern Ireland was formed, I, as an Ulsterman born in the sound of Lambeg drums, have spent over one third of its existence, in the Republic of Ireland.

The rationale of Northern Ireland was an expression of the resurgent nationalism of that era in which it was thought helpful to create national boundaries based on cultural and religious identity. An all-Ireland national state would make the Protestants in the minority, so to alleviate their fears, six counties, in which the Protestant majority could be guaranteed, was constituted Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. The churches then, as now, were all Ireland institutions. How then did the creation of Northern Ireland affect their understanding of their mission on the island?

Expressing and preserving their identity was essentially their mission. We see this in three ways. First, structures were clarified to ensure that that their branch of the church would be maintained by servicing congregations or parishes in their tradition. This was particularly so in parishes of the C of I and in Home mission congregations for the Presbyterians and Methodists and especially in border areas and those scattered throughout the island. Second, in terms of education. In the Republic of Ireland schools were primarily under Roman Catholic church patronage. This enabled the Protestants to have their own schools and so express and maintain their identity. In the North, again, education was segregated with Roman Catholics having their own schools and the Protestants attending schools, which, although under the state yet nevertheless had key Board appointments in the schools to maintain the protestant ethos. The third key aspect was that the majority church or churches in the two jurisdictions could now influence social morality according to their respective traditions and again to express and preserve their identity. Protestants may have been aghast that potential legislation in the Dail was first sent to Drumcondra for the approval of John Charles McQuaid, the archbishop. However, the majority Protestant church in the new Northern state was Presbyterian. In the DNA of the Presbyterian church is a belief in a national or state church in which the rule of Christ can be expressed. So, the Presbyterian church became the Unionist party at prayer. They used their influence to affect an expression of their reformed social morality.

Today the situation is radically different. A secular world view is the prevailing faith commitment in both jurisdictions. The rationale of Unionist and Republican Nationalism of 1921 no longer exists. The Republic in which I have lived and ministered for close to four decades is not only not a Roman Catholic state but is possibly more secular than Northern Ireland. It is also more economically prosperous than the North. What then is the mission of God to which we are called today as those who are members of churches on the totality of the island? It cannot be surely the mere preservation of our identity despite the numerical decline in church membership and the waning influence of the church on public policy North and South.

I think two clear commands of Christ are before us in terms of the missio ecclesia for Ireland. First, we are to make disciples of all nations/peoples and that must include the British Irish and the non-British Irish in that ‘every nation tribe and tongue’ will be part of this. Second, we are to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice so that the prayer Jesus taught us may become a reality, that his kingdom will come and that his rule will be done in this land as it is done in heaven.

So, what does this mean in practice? If the Kingdom of God is first in our thinking, then the church as a sign of that kingdom, must be willing to adapt to whatever political structures on this island that would best express and extend the Kingdom, both in terms of evangelism and in pursuing the justice of God.  The new social order in Christ in which Jews and Gentiles are one did not mean that Jews ceased to be Jews or Romans ceased to be Romans. Our expectations are; therefore, that whatever institutions will be in place in the future that might best enable the coming of the Kingdom of God, Unionists will not cease to be Unionists and Nationalists will not cease to be Nationalists.

For us, in the reformed catholic tradition, we cherish what Christ has done for us as sinners in terms of his amazing grace. If as all Ireland churches with a heart for the kingdom rule of God, then we will need radical communities that will be known above all else for practising grace. On the basis that God did not treat us as we deserved but instead for us became a servant, who died for our sins, then it would be transformative to our mission to have communities that would serve, seek justice and love extravagantly those who are different from us and may even have caused us unimaginable pain. In this way we will be a blessing to all of Ireland and we will experience a foretaste of that day when Lambeg drums will sound the rhythm for Irish dancers as they enter the City of God.

Trevor Morrow is a retired PCI minister and former Moderator who ministered in Lucan, Co Dublin for 31 years.