Service with the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship, Ballynafeigh Methodist Church
I am very grateful to Reverend Wesley Blair and the members of the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship for their kind invitation to be here this evening. It is a privilege and a joy to preach at this Inter-Church Service.
We come to celebrate the shared Christian witness given by the Ballynafeigh Fellowship for the past thirty-six years. It has been a remarkable and a constant witness. Even in the darkest days of the troubles the clergy of the Ballynafeigh Fellowship stood side by side. They brought hope, healing and encouragement to so many people by their courageous witness to Christ in joint action and prayer. We give thanks for that witness in praise and prayer. In the great tradition of John Wesley we give thanks for that witness this evening in joyful proclamation of the Word and in heartfelt song.
Though, I have to say that I am not sure how much John Wesley would be pleased to see me, a man from Cavan here this evening. You see, in my research for this evening’s service I discovered something very interesting. I discovered that John Wesley’s first visit to Ireland was in August 1747. But it wasn’t until May 1758, during his seventh visit to Ireland, that he visited County Cavan. He preached in Cootehill, the part of Cavan I come from.
Shortly after his visit to Cootehill, it seems that the small class of Methodists there, under the care of John Smith, began to experience persecution. Charles H Crookshank, tells us in his History of Methodism in Ireland ‘Members of the different Churches in the town began to oppose the little band… Their malice was chiefly directed against John Smith … as the most zealous of the Methodists … They collected mobs, surrounded the place of meeting, seized the worshippers, knocked them down, beat and even dragged them through cesspools and sewers.’ Not a very inspiring description of my native Cavan! But please note he says: “Different Churches – As you know, Cavan also has a strong Presbyterian and Church of Ireland tradition.’
Despite this terrible opposition, however, Methodism continued to flourish in Cootehill. Wesley visited the town again in 1760 and 1762. Interestingly, however, he did not return until 1778 despite being in County Cavan on virtually all of his Irish visits during the intervening years! Clearly he was not too impressed with the Catholics, Presbyterians and Anglicans of Cootehill!
As if that wasn’t enough, when the Rev Thomas Coke arrived in 1797 to preach at the new Methodist Chapel in Cootehill, the crowd was so big that the service had to be held in the Presbyterian Meeting House. But if Rev Coke was impressed with the size of the crowd in Cootehill he was less impressed with their musical talents. For when he gave out the hymn books to the people he is reported to have said that this motley crew from Cootehill could raise no tune at all! So our poor musical talent rather than our reaction to his preaching might have made John Wesley very surprised to see a Cardinal from Cootehill singing his heart out here this evening!
Progress in Ecumenism
We have come a long way from those fraught and fractious days in Cootehill. We have come a long way from the tumult of the plantation and the penal laws in Ireland. We have also come a long, long way from the daily fear and foreboding of years of bloody conflict here in Northern Ireland.
The reason we have come so far is because in every age God raises up people like the Rev Pat Lowry of St John’s Presbyterian Church and Msgr Robert Murphy of Good Shepherd Catholic Church, the founders of the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship. He brings forth women and men who understood that their friendship in Christ is a bond of greater depth and significance than any national or cultural identity. Those who speak of Rev Lowry and Msgr Bob always comment on two things: their holiness – derived from immersion in their own tradition – and the depth of their friendship with one another. This is a mark of two men who were ‘in Christ’ and who, because they were so close to Christ in their own lives, could see Christ very clearly in each other. It was Christ who was the bond between them.
This is a useful barometer for all who claim to live and love like Christ in ecumenical endeavour. It begs the question: Am I so ‘in Christ’ through the grace offered to me within my own tradition that others immediately see Christ in me? If so, then Christ in me will draw me into friendship with others who are in Christ. Not just a human friendship but a ‘spiritual friendship’, a friendship which perseveres and deepens in spite of, perhaps sometimes because of difference and misunderstanding.
I am reminded here of something said in the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council: ‘All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives, according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love.’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, #7)
In this the words of Dr David Stevens of the Corrymeela Community are particularly apt. ‘The Gospel,’ he explains, ‘invites us into the space created by Christ and to find there those who were previously our enemies. It therefore seeks to break down the enmity between us; enmity caused by different traditions and national, political and religious loyalties. The Gospel opens up for us a view of wholeness, justice and living in right relations which sees the whole world as potential brothers and sisters – a nourishing and fulfilment of the human. This is a vision of a new humanity, reconciled in Christ and living together in a new community.’
Pope Benedict has described this vision of a new humanity, reconciled in Christ and living in a new humanity as the civilisation of love. We are called to build it through concrete gestures of compassion and solidarity. We are called to live it through ordinary, everyday acts of kindness and care carried out with selfless concern for others.
I believe it is this simple call to friendship and fraternal love ‘in Christ’, so evident in the relationship which formed and sustained the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship, which is still the most urgent and radical challenge of ecumenism today. We cannot ignore the beautiful simplicity and the ever-present challenge of Jesus’ words: ‘by this shall all people know that you are my disciples – by the love you have one for another’ (Jn 13:35). This fraternal love between the followers of Jesus can exist and grow, even in the midst of difference about matters of deep conviction. It is a love which is real, tangible and transforming, especially when it is expressed as joint witness in the midst of conflict.
Churches and the Peace Process
The spontaneous, united and prayerful response of the Churches in Antrim to the murders of Sappers Cengiz Azimkar and Mark Quinsey, is a reminder of just how deep-rooted this shared Christian spirit of healing, unity and peace has become in our society. The overwhelming rejection of a return to violence and the unprecedented level of cross-community support for the PSNI which followed the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll are evidence that we have come further along the road to a shared and settled society than many had realised. Peace has taken deep hold among us. Suspicion and fear are gradually giving way to a new atmosphere of ease and trust. This is something we should thank God for constantly and never take for granted.
The shared witness of the Ballynafeigh Fellowship, the impact of a myriad of other Church-based initiatives which generated the language and modelled the modus of the peace process, played a very significant part in moving us forward on that journey. In the spirit of the Gospel we do not seek any credit or recognition for the positive influence of Churches on the search for peace in Northern Ireland. Where this contribution was real and positive, we merely did our duty. Where we were chaplains rather than challengers to the communities which bore our denominational labels, giving cover to attitudes of hatred and exclusion, we must continue to repent and change. The Churches are sometimes described as being part of the problem, just as they were, and will continue to be, part of the solution. Facing up to this truth requires a humble acknowledgement of just how far we have yet to travel as Churches and as a reconciled Christian community, both locally and internationally, to become as Christ would wish us to be.
For this reason the Consultative Group on the Past was quite right to highlight the need for critical reflection by the Churches in its recent Report. It recommends that the proposed ‘Legacy Commission should engage specifically with the Christian Churches in Northern Ireland to encourage them to review and rethink their contribution to a non-sectarian future in the light of their past, particularly in the area of education.’ It is important that as Churches we give full and serious consideration to this recommendation.
Dealing with the Past: The Morality of Violence
It is also important that in our approach to the past we do not treat the violence of the past with a moral ambiguity which it did not receive or deserve at the time. It is now generally accepted that one of the most important contributions the Churches made to moving people away from violence into a peaceful, democratic methodology was their consistent repudiation of any moral justification for violence.
Glamorising the violence of the past is dangerous. Any attempt to do so must be challenged. Young people with no memory of the misery wrought by violence or its utter futility, are more likely to be lured into violence if its evil and horror are not clearly and consistently acknowledged.
We cannot forget that the overwhelming majority of people on the island of Ireland had already rejected recourse to violence before the Good Friday Agreement was ever constructed. We cannot forget that the basic architecture of a political agreement was available long before the violence stopped.
The Consultative Group on the Past speaks of achieving a more humane, comprehensive and rounded assessment of what it describes as the ‘conflicting moral assessments of the past’. It is not clear what this means for those Churches and political parties who consistently rejected violence as a means to political ends.
The Positive Contribution of the Churches
The proposed assessment will require great wisdom. Healing and reconciling the past must be built on solid foundations. What is required is honest acknowledgement by everyone of evil as evil, perpetrated by omission or commission. Genuine repentance from that evil and a recovery of the largely lost art of Christian forgiveness are also required.
I am reminded here of a particularly poignant paragraph by Dr David Stevens in the Book, Inter-Church Relations: Developments and Perspectives: A Tribute to Bishop Anthony Farquhar, edited by Professor Brendan Leahy. In it Dr Stevens quotes an economist who in November 2007 said of Ireland: ‘the cycle of violence that Cromwell did so much to create lasted for over three hundred years. The beginning of the end began to come when preachers from both sides of the divide began to condemn violence. In most parts of the world that has yet to come.’ Dr Stevens then goes on to comment:
‘This is a very interesting suggestion – that something changed in Ireland and it changed in the religious world first. It is the tangle of religion with other things – economics, culture, politics, colonisation that is the potent thing. Change in the realm of religion may lead to change in other areas of life. It is true that Protestant and Catholic Church people engaged long before the politicians. Still the Churches need to critically examine separately and together their roles in the Troubles. Churches are in the business of acknowledgement and repentance – not avoidance and evasion which seems to be the preferred societal and political mode of dealing with the past plus, of course, blaming religion and the Churches.’
It is very easy to blame the Churches for a divided society. It is easy to point to differences of doctrine and modes of worship. It is easy to point to schools that in any other society would be accepted and welcomed as a normal and confident expression of diversity. It is more difficult to take responsibility for the more pervasive and damaging inclinations we have to hate and exclude that have no basis in religion at all. These are the silent and more hidden prejudices based on politics, class or ethnicity which are often more alive and pernicious than those based on religion in Northern Ireland.
As with so much of the violence of the past, the recent murders of the two soldiers and a PSNI officer were not likely to have been motivated by religion. The shocking lawlessness and violence against residents and the PSNI by the crowd of students in the Holylands area nearby this Church, were hardly motivated by a zeal for the Christian ideals of St. Patrick.
No, religion is all too often the convenient scapegoat. It is especially so for those who want to ignore the fact that what really threatens peace and stability in Northern Ireland today is a rejection of the values of personal responsibility, moral goodness and concern for others. The Churches were largely responsible for instilling those values in previous generations. Would the Churches have the same restraining influence on young people today as they did, to an important degree, during the troubles? It doesn’t seem likely, with obvious consequences.
Conclusion: Communion in the World
And this brings me to the final point I would like to make. This year sees the 150th anniversary of the great religious revival in Northern Ireland. At the heart of that revival was a return to faith in the power of God’s Word to make all things new. It is also the 500th Anniversary of the Birth of John Calvin, a man who called us to recover the original vitality and purity of Sacred Scripture.
Last October it was my privilege to be present at the Synod of Catholic Bishops in Rome. The title of the Synod, chosen by Pope Benedict, was The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church. It was a great experience to be present with fellow bishops from all over the world but also with representatives of the Christian Churches. At the end of the Synod some fifty propositions were sent to the Pope for his consideration.
One of those propositions (proposition 34) is headed ‘On the unity of Christians’. It goes like this:
‘The Bible is truly a place of encounter between the different Christian confessions. Hearing the Scriptures together causes us to live a real communion, even if it is not full communion. To hear the Word of God together, to practice Lectio Divina of the Bible constitutes a journey to be travelled in order to reach unity of faith as a response to the Word of God. The common hearing of the Scriptures pushes us to dialogue – to the dialogue of charity and increases the dialogue of truth”.
Rev Tony Davidson, a Presbyterian minister in Armagh, states: ‘In a community where there are two distinctive stories, we need to work on finding a common story that will help us create a genuine future, based on truth and filled with hope……To find a common story involves prophets, in all Churches, challenging us to think about the past and take responsibility for it.’
He says he suspects that we will need help from people of different traditions to pose difficult questions and to begin to answer those questions. He proposes a series of small meetings, in safe places, where stories can be told and people listened to attentively. I would suggest that posing and answering such questions, in the light of the Scriptures and in the context of joint Bible prayers, might prove most fruitful.
It is sometimes said that practical ecumenism is experiencing something of a crisis, that it is difficult to find new and meaningful things to do to deepen our understanding and our encounter. Yet the opportunities for common hearing, sharing, reflection and prayer around the Scriptures are immense and largely untapped. They offer real opportunities for communion in the Word.
John Wesley once said of the Bible:
‘I want to know one thing — the way to Heaven!
How to land safe on that happy shore!
God Himself has condescended to teach the way!
He hath written it down in a book! Oh, give me that book!
At any price, give me The Book of God!
I have it: here is knowledge enuff for me!
Let me be a man of one book!’
Let me echo his words. As you seek new ways to express and maintain your long established and respected Clergy Fellowship. As we seek to deepen the ecumenical journey at every level of Christian life, let us become again, and in a very practical way, people of the one book! The Book of God!
Finally, in the words of Wesley’s famous Letter to a Roman Catholic:
‘In all things, and for the sake of Christ, let us endeavour to help each other on in what¬ever we are agreed leads to the kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God. Above all, let us each take heed to himself that he fall not short of the religion of love. O let you and I, whatever others do, press on to the prize of our high calling! That, being justified by faith, we may have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Thank you again for inviting me and thank you for listening so patiently.