FITZROY PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, BELFAST
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
23 NOVEMBER, 1997
ADDRESS BY MOST REVEREND SEAN BRADY
I thank Reverend Ken Newell, and all here at Fitzroy, for the kind invitation to take part in this Reconciliation Service. Toward 2000, how does Jesus Christ want our Churches to relate to each other? Straight away I can say that I am sure that Jesus Christ wants our Churches to relate to each other in a respectful, friendly and truthful way. In a respectful way, by that I mean, respecting all sincerely held views and seeing the good that is in them. In a truthful way, by stating our position honestly as the only basis for any worthwhile dialogue. He certainly wants us to avoid all words and actions which do not represent truthfully and fairly the conditions of other Christians. In fact we must try and gain an authentic knowledge of the teaching of the other Churches in order to dislodge stereotyped ideas which we may have inherited about one another’s faith. We must all seek to renew our own faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour of the world. For the more committed we ourselves are to Jesus Christ, the greater will be our respect for others who believe in him as their Lord and Master also.
We also reaffirm the faith common to all Christians that the disciples of Jesus are called to be agents of reconciliation and promoters of love, justice and peace. Nothing simpler to say, nothing more problematic to apply in our particular situations. For in the Christian understanding of the term, reconciliation seems to call for at least three things which are difficult to hold in a balanced relationship to each other; speaking the truth, demanding justice and showing compassion. A commitment to reconciliation which tries to be truthful, seek justice and yet show compassion inevitably exposes oneself and one’s faith community to different reactions.
But as we draw near to the Great Jubilee I am sure that Jesus would want us all to give sincere thanks for the many ecumenical activities which have been undertaken with generosity and commitment in recent years. I think of the recent visit of the Presbyterian/Roman Catholic delegation to Northern Ireland from the United States led by Reverend Hank Postel and Bishop Raymond Boland. It has been welcomed here each year, going back almost ten years now, by a joint committee of the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches. Over these years much good work has been done, especially in the provision of business scholarships to students from Northern Ireland to study in America.
The last time I met the Reverend John Dunlop we were in Graz in Austria at the end of June. Dr Hutchinson, the Moderator, was also there. For a whole week the beautiful Austrian city of Graz was host to about 12,000 Christians. They represented the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Churches of Europe. This great throng of people drawn from the Urals to the Atlantic celebrated the second – and it was only the second in history – Pan-European Ecumenical Assembly. In their diversity they reflected the riches of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ and the variety of cultures generated by that one Gospel. The theme of the occasion was that of reconciliation, specifically, “reconciliation, gift of God and source of new life”.
If you think we have huge difficulties about reconciliation in Ireland, and we have our share, then you should have been at Graz. There one heard at first hand the many instances of conflict between Christians from different Churches. But there one also saw the beauty of reconciliation and the risks people are taking for reconciliation, as well as the great hopes that the Holy Spirit, who breathes where he will, is opening up for all Christians. The Churches of Europe are moving closer together at this time, in spite of the many unreconciled situations, that are almost daily the subject of media attention.
This is both an encouragement and a challenge to all of us here in Ireland. We are encouraged not to opt out of this history-making movement of the Holy Spirit. We are challenged not to leave it at the leadership level of church life, nor merely at international or continental level, but to take the message to the congregations and to the parishes as is happening here this evening.
We are called to deepen our own understanding of Reconciliation. Reconciliation is recognition that there has been and there still exists a rupture in relationships at a deep level. It involves the sometimes unfashionable concepts of forgiveness and conversion. Reconciliation begins with the healing of victims which comes about by God’s grace. It is indeed a healing which is really a gift of God and a source of new life. Victims, healed by God’s help, can in turn bring about the healing of their oppressors, through forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential to reconciliation. Reconciliation is not essential to forgiveness. Forgiveness can be offered by one side in a conflict whereas reconciliation requires both sides to be involved. Forgiveness means being willing to let go of bitterness even before our enemies repent. But how can we possibly forgive those who have hurt us irreparably? It is truly super human, a miracle of grace, a miracle of God’s love. It has to be said that one reason why the violence in Northern Ireland was not much greater has been the way Christians and the churches have called for, and practised, forgiveness and non-retaliation. It has been practised by many victims and their families and has had considerable social and political effect. One thinks of the late Gordan Wilson of Enniskillen, of Mr McGoldrick of Lurgan. There are countless other examples.
However victims may not be able to forgive those who committed crimes against them. If that is so they cannot be burdened with the demands that they forgive. They cannot be burdened with the responsibility for progress in the peace process. Then the community at large must be prepared to engage in a process of trying to set aside the past with all its bitterness and calls for revenge. People sometimes talk as if forgiveness is all that is required for reconciliation. It is not. We all need to repent of what we have done wrong or of the good we could have done and failed to do. At the very beginning of the Gospel the message of John the Baptist is: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near at hand’. We need repentance at many levels, in fact at all levels where violence has been wrongly used whether that be paramilitary or institutional violence. We need repentance for our own sins of omission and commission in creating and sustaining divisions and for our failure to do what might have helped to reduce those divisions.
Communal forgiveness takes what happened seriously. So seeking the truth and telling the truth is important. In the post-conflict years in other countries the full disclosure of the truth has been regarded as very important. Victims need to have their stories heard and the seriousness of the harm done acknowledged. So reconciliation is not the suppression of the memory of a history of violence. To ignore human memory like that is to ignore human dignity. So the victim is forgotten and the causes of suffering are never uncovered and never confronted.
Reconciliation is something especially difficult to achieve. It is about healing memories, offering forgiveness. It is about repentance. Reconciliation is also about changing structures in society that provoked violence in the first place and that promoted violence and sustained violence. But the problem is how do you seek reconciliation from someone who does not think he has done anything wrong?
The Churches have historically played important roles in processes of reconciliation. In order to be reconciling agents they need to be first reconciled themselves and so the Churches need to look at the ways they may have hurt each other as Churches and to ask forgiveness. We have to ask forgiveness from God and from one another for our failure to witness to Christ’s love in our attitudes towards one another, and in our language about one another. We have to seek pardon for our failure to respect one another’s convictions and for our failure to accept one another in our differences. To acknowledge the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and of courage. It helps strengthen faith and prepares us to face today’s temptations and challenges.
Today the Churches are being challenged to cherish what unites and to dialogue about what divides and to pray for a healing of those divisions and the repair of the damage. We are united in our faith in One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Faith of the Church – The Nicene Creed which we will all recite in a few minutes is the same Creed which is said in Roman Catholic Churches throughout the world. There we find what unites us against the practical atheism so prevalent in the world today. We are agreed about our love and respect for the Bible; it is the Word of God and a source of wisdom and guidance. We acknowledge one baptism and regard it as the doorway to our sharing in the inner life of God. We believe that in prayer we have another powerful means of communion with God. These are some of the pylons on which the foundations of the bridge of unity can be constructed. They are strong, firm pylons, robust enough to carry a powerful bridge.
THE PEACE PROCESS
As I thought about the title of this talk, “Praying for Peace in Northern Ireland” an incident in the life of Jesus came into my mind. It is described in the 19th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel like this:
“As Jesus drew near to Jersualem and came in sight of the city he shed tears over it and said: ‘If you in your turn had only understood on that day the message of peace’ but alas it is hidden from your eyes…….and all because you did not recognise the opportunity when God offered it” Luke 19. 41-44.
I think the Lord is depending on all of us now to have his message of peace heard loud and clear. He wants us to calm people’s fears about the peace process and to recognise the real opportunity that exists for agreement, an agreement that can lead to harmonious coexistence.
TASK FOR THE CHURCHES
In their interesting publication called: “New Pathways – Developing a Peace Process in Northern Ireland” the Faith and Politics group sets forth a task for the Churches, namely to disentangle religious commitments from political commitments. An on-going task of Christianity at all times and in all societies is that of de-sacralising political positions. For politics sometimes assumes the dimension of a religious crusade. Political positions are sometimes made absolute. Political loyalties have been put before God, the God who will have no other God before Him. So the challenge is to simultaneously relativise secular values including political affiliation, without devaluing them. Part of the process of reconciliation may be for the Churches to analyse the over-identification of religious commitments with political commitments as an aspect of social sin. When we say that Jesus Christ is Lord we mean that no earthly ruler or political structure can be absolute. Therefore we give politics and political commitments their proper place. Political compromise does not sell out a God who is beyond all our political ambitions. What God requires is new and just relationships between persons and communities.
It might be useful to establish an inter-church programme to reflect, comment, and make recommendations on a range of human rights issues: e.g. prisoners, victims, Bill of Rights, which arise from the conflict and which must be addressed as part of any lasting peace. The development of a shared language, a shared perception, and a shared practice of human rights between the Churches could make a significant contribution to reconciliation.
I am sure the Spirit of Christ is saying many other things to the Churches at this time. The Spirit would want to remind them not to neglect their work for justice and their care for the poor, the suffering and the weak. Where projects of social concern are promoted on an inter-church basis they can be a powerful witness of the caring Church before the world. There is an urgent need to adopt a programme aimed at maximising ecumenical witness, consultation and co-operation at local level in such areas as social work, Third World projects, common liturgies, pastoral care and outreach, prison visitation. Where this has been tried for example in projects like Aid to Romania and liturgies like the cross-community Harvest Thanksgiving they have yielded excellent results.
Particular emphasis needs to be given to encourage the Churches to make maximum use of their own peace education programme. These programmes are already in existence and have been ecumenically developed, piloted and endorsed. What seems important is to do everything possible to encourage a climate of agreement and to incarnate this in the local and daily life and consciousness of the Churches. As this happens new possibilities and challenges will arise.
THE GREAT JUBILEE
The celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 will be a time of great joy and it belongs to all Christians. The Roman Catholic Church is quite keen that ecumenical agreements be reached with regard to the preparation and celebration of the Jubilee. The World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have set up a group to plan ecumenical celebrations for the Year 2000. Dr. Raiser, the General Secretary of World Council has said: “The values of the Jubilee are reconciliation and pardon, repentance and metanoia, restitution and reconstruction. These values should encourage us to go beyond yesterday’s struggles in order to devote all our energies to dealing, in the light of the Gospel of Christ, with the questions of life and of survival that are arising today and will continue to arise tomorrow”. I certainly hope that we can all go beyond yesterday’s struggles. For certainly the energies of all of us will be needed to combat the culture of death and to promote the culture of life.
My prayer is that the Great Jubilee will strengthen the faith and witness of all Christians. May it renew the hope of each one of us in the definitive coming of the Kingdom of God. May it enkindle the fire of love in our hearts, a love of God and neighbour which sums up the moral life of every Christian. May the words of Peter guide us to the Third Millennium:
“Keep your eyes fixed on the Lord as a lamp for lighting a way through the dark until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds”. 2 Peter 1.19.
My hope is that as we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord we will all pray more frequently and more fervently his prayer:
“Father may they be one in us
as you are in me and I am in you”. (John 17:21)
and that we may continue to plant seeds of reconciliation and regeneration, that hopefully one day will grow, while not neglecting to water the seeds already planted, knowing that they too hold great promise for the future.