Address by Bishop Donal McKeown at Week of prayer for Christian Unity, St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Belfast
Many of us remember well those heady days some 30 and more years ago when coming to these annual services was to take part in the real confrontation between two radical opposed views of what the churches should be doing in the context of the worst years of our communal conflict. In the 70s and 80s there were those who believed that such inter-church worship was a sign of courageous witness for peace – while others who decried it as treachery to long-held allegiances and a betrayal of the search for truth.
Now the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has become an accepted and sometimes almost unnoticed part of the year for many people in Northern Ireland.
Of course, the smaller numbers that attend the two services in Belfast this evening and in Armagh tomorrow can be interpreted in different ways. It can justifiably be argued that what were originally iconic trail-blazing services have allowed for inter-church work being to be mainstreamed in many places. This annual service can be seen as having done its job. Thus, last weekend I was in Dromalis Conference Centre in Larne. On the Catholic ‘Pathways’ programme where I was teaching, there were six members of other churches, while Whitehead Presbyterian Church was holding a full-day reflection in another part of the building. And the various inter-church bodies have done very faithful and dogged work in the service building relationships and taking initiatives. In such an environment there is less perceived need for the big high-profile events.
Of course the small numbers can also be interpreted as reflecting the role of churches in our society. These events are not the places where the hammer strikes the anvil. Decisions about the future of Northern Ireland are being forged at Castle Buildings, not in cathedrals. And the traditional mainstream Churches have to recognise two further things. Firstly, churchgoers represent a decreasing percentage of the overall population. And, secondly, even under the broad Christian umbrella, the main churches are not thriving while growth tends to be in what are called the non-denominational and post-denominational Christian groupings. Religious allegiance is now more a question of choice than of fate. In an age of fragmentation, small is seen as beautiful in that it is offers very tangible belonging and enthusiasm. The larger churches have to refute the claim that they are beached relics of a painful past, holed below the water-line by the rocks that we flirted with – and show that we are more like clay in the hands of the potter.
Tonight offers us a chance to acknowledge what has been achieved – and to assess the value and role of events such as this. And all of this needs to feed into a review of our strategy for how we can bear common witness in a society that still struggles to live with the past and to create hope for our young people and their future.
Part of that truer story has to do with our narrative about the role of the Churches in the past. On the one hand, while great credit is due to courageous political leadership in getting us to the stage that we are at, there needs to be a recognition that, during the worst years of conflict – when the politicians would not be seen in the same building together, much less making policy around a shared table – it was the churches and individual prophets who spun much of the improvised fabric that held communities together, and that it was people of faith who played key roles in rescuing the politicians after they had hoisted themselves with their own petards. It is a silly and serve-serving narrative that would blame the churches for the past and laud the politicians for where we have got to. On the other hand, as churches, we cannot live off the very imperfect investments we may have made in the past. Whatever contribution were made by people of faith – whether individually or together – we need to acknowledge the undeniable fact that we regularly stumbled in the dark, often without seeing the distant scene. And we have to publicly accept that we churches were part of the problem as well as part of the solution. In all circumstances we are a church of sinners, marked by the sting of death that is sin – and there is no room for boasting except in the Cross of Christ.
But however we assess our past contributions, in 2012 we certainly have to discern where God is calling us to be remoulded in our increasingly fragmented society and in the increasingly violent dysfunctionality that this nominally post-conflict society produces.
So this evening we might ask how we can be transformed in order to walk the path of discipleship together and trust that, in the Lord, our labour is not in vain?
Firstly, we walk in faith. For churches one of the great dangers of being strong is that we can end up seeing ourselves as just one more human organisation desperately fighting to defend what we saw as our rightful influence in a changing society. Simplistic solutions abound. If only we would go back to the way things were, or if only we would make elementary structural changes – then we would be strong again. But the stories and the imagery of the scriptures are clear. The perennial Exodus – just like the call to Abraham – is to move out from the familiar and the comfortable and traverse the desert without glamorising the past. And there is no simple way out of Egypt, no panacea or shortcut if we are to move towards the land flowing with milk and honey. The age of strong churches may have seemed like an arrival – but it was only an oasis on the journey. For Christians, organisational strength can be more of a temptation than an ideal. We are pioneers, not settlers. Stephen the deacon showed just how stubborn pagan hearts and ears had sought to canonise the secure (Acts 6:51). Being powerful has produced examples of terrible counter-witness to the love of God.
The promised land of maximum visible unity in the body of Christ will be reached only by those who learn to walk through prayer and in faith – and the task of leadership is to enable the disciples to leave the Haran that we have known for the land that we will be shown, to accompany the exiles into Babylon because God will be revealed there, to leave the boat and come to Jesus, to leave the empty tomb and go to Galilee, to leave Jerusalem and be led through Judaea, Samaria to the ends of the earth. Currently we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12). We have not seen him but we love him (1 Pt 1:8). If we walk by faithful prayer, we will avoid the temptation merely to haggle over doctrines, practises and organigrammes in the search for early agreements. Our call as disciples is rather to pilgrim together in prayer through the uncomfortable desert of our liberating weakness – and to let the Lord do the leading. Our plans for unity in his name are guaranteed to be pathetic besides God’s dream for us.
Can we – at leadership level and in every parish and congregation – re-commit ourselves in every way possible to journey and pray together so that we are led beyond simplistic structural solutions and can be caught unaware by the God of surprises who often speaks through apparent failures and uncomfortable voices?
Secondly, we journey in faith with, and towards, the one who alone is the way, the truth and the life. (John 14:6). There is a temptation to believe that we must reflect consumerist expectations and offer a supermarket approach to spiritualities and to versions of Christianity. As churches, we are called to proclaim Christ and not ourselves. Discipleship means making Jesus loved and not just making ourselves palatable. Jesus’ favourite song was not Cole Porter’s “Anything goes”. The next 10 years are going to need a lot of truth-seeking and truth-speaking if we are to find truer stories to tell about our shared past on this island. That offers a unique laboratory in which to facilitate reconciliation, rather than repeat the pagan 20th century lunacy that war is the way to peace, the un-Gospel belief that the victory of virtuous ‘us’ over the monstrous ‘other’ is the only way to find security, and the un-Christian assertion that blood of the enemy is the only source of redemption for God’s people. Only truth will set us free. Thus, as we enter into the decade of centenaries, we need to be prophets of the truth, tellers of new stories about the past, when civic society can be tempted to indulge in its own self-congratulation or risk exploiting the past to serve new agendas.
Can we as churches actively support our existing inter-church bodies to play a prophetic role in helping our still very divided society to speak the truth in love about the political events 1912, 1916, 1918 and 1921 – and about the 2017 anniversary of the events that preceded and followed the publication of Luther’s Ninety-five theses? After all, Jesus prays that we might be sanctified in the truth (Jn 17:17-19). St Paul tells us that living by truth and love is the only way to grow into Christ who is the head, allowing Christ’s body, the Church, to grow until it has built itself up in love (Eph 4:15-16). Nothing else will set us free (Jn 8:32). That is the only way that we can be transformed and be built up as the Body of Christ.
Thirdly, a weakened church is actually liberated to play a prophetic role in the drama of human life and redemption. In an age of what – at least on the surface – is remarkable political consensus, we as churches together have an opportunity to reflect the realities of life on the margins and actively work together as the politicians’ critical friend. We have huge involvement in so many projects from prisons to homelessness to emigration and immigration. For example, we have to keep asking what is wrong at the macro level of how we organise society when human relationships seem so much harder to maintain, and where both criminality and mental illness seem to flourish. Can we continue to speak for the disadvantaged who suffer most at a time of austerity? Can we ensure that we reflect the Jesus who did not just minister to the pious? Will our voices be raised, not merely for the good people who still sit in our pews but to address and listen to those who feel alienated from church, society and themselves? After all, it was not to the rich that Jesus said he came to bring good news.
Equally, could I suggest that we consider how we help to develop a more helpful vocabulary about how we describe conflict and violence here? In recent weeks I have been struck by the use of the word ‘sectarian’ to describe various attacks on individuals and homes. In fact, I’d guess that most of those violent events referred to were not based on a perception of theological difference but because of perceived political allegiance. Clearly we have to confront the undoubted real sectarianism that still taints much of our church culture and priorities. But the misuse of the word ‘sectarian’ in media reports can simply reinforce the clearly unsustainable argument that the current tensions are the fault of religious difference and ignorance, that our conflict was and is between Protestants and Catholics – and remove the glare of publicity from those whose political strategies need ongoing division, while nominally condemning it. Furthermore, this misuse of the word ‘sectarian’ reinforces those who would wish to banish religion from the public sphere and particularly from playing a role in education.
Could I suggest that the churches continue to prioritise working together so that we can ensure access to explicitly faith-based education in Northern Ireland? In the past, faith-based education was portrayed by some as being a wholly bad thing, dividing Christians and making them into violent bigots. Now the churches are discovering that the challenge to faith is not so much religious difference but an earth-bound culture that breeds religious indifference. Those of no religious convictions certainly have a right to an education that mirrors their secular beliefs.
But I believe that those many people who want their children to develop a worldview that is open to the Transcendent, should not be portrayed as either social luddites or divisive bigots. Working in this prophetic way, I believe the churches can create a situation where we are no longer caricatured for being prisoners of our past but recognised as architects of a liberating and healing future that can see beyond new ideologies.
We will soon face another challenging opportunity. One of the big events in this year’s calendar of religious events is the 50th International Eucharistic Congress which is being celebrated in Dublin in June. Its theme is The Eucharist – communion with Christ and with one another. We are all aware that this presents theological and pastoral challenges for our current churches. But I welcome the fact that keynote addresses will be given by – among others – Archbishop Michael Jackson, Rev Dr Ruth Patterson and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church. Furthermore the associated Theological Symposium will contain a full day entitled Learning from Ecumenism. This provides a test for us to face together the scandal of Christ’s message and the scandal of his fragmented Body. Can we take on the enormous challenge of standing at the foot of the Cross together, eschewing the temptation to think we have to produce an immediate solution? Can we bear witness to Christ as we seek to love, heal and liberate one another in his name. That is what Jesus says is how others will know his disciples (Jn 17:21). I hope and pray that the Congress will enable us to build communion and to build towards fuller communion in the God who has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ– for only then can we more truly be ambassadors for the Christ through whom God can appeal for the fullness of that reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19-20).
I conclude. In and after this decade, can I suggest that our credibility will depend on how much we can work together to engender liberating rather than oppressive memories? Our faithfulness to Jesus will depend on how much we can work and pray together in the service of society. And our openness to be transformed will decide how much the Lord can use us as midwives of unity, community and hope in a lonely and uncertain world. The big events may not be what they were in the past. But what they continue to encourage and facilitate will decide whether we can in God’s grace make progress towards the promised land or succumb to the temptation to wander in uncertain circles between a longing for the very imperfect past and the promise of God’s transforming salvation. As the early ministry of Jesus tells us, the Kingdom of God is close at hand, repent and believe the Good News. (Mk 1:15)
Notes to Editor
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor
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