It’s getting to that time again when there’s plenty to write about, but not enough time to do it. Last night our Christian Unity service went beautifully, despite the hazard of putting me in charge of lighting the participants’ candles; this morning I went to Belfast to talk about how to cope with our wonderful Green Surge in membership, and this evening I was fortunate to see Philip Orr’s wonderful and moving drama Halfway House for its one night in Enniskillen. And now I’m tired. And happy.
We are now in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and tomorrow evening we in the Fermanagh Churches Forum are holding our annual service to celebrate the faith that we share. It will begin at 7.30pm in the Presbyterian Church in Bridge Street, Enniskillen, and all are very welcome.
As the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland website explains:
“The 2016 material was prepared for worldwide use by the Christians of Latvia, and adapted by the Britain and Ireland writers group, based around the verses 1 Peter 2:9-10. Peter’s first letter is an encouragement to the newly baptised to live holy lives and to answer the calling shared by all the baptised to proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord.
Today, Latvia is a crossroads where Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox regions meet. Because of this unique location, it is home to Christians of many different traditions, but no single one of them is dominant. Gathered together by the Archbishop of Rīga, members of a variety of church communities and projects in Latvia were asked to reflect on the chosen theme and the experience of their work.
The main service is inspired by the verses from Peter’s letter and Jesus’ metaphors of salt and light which are important cultural themes for Latvia.”
I’ve been involved with the Forum, and hence with this service, for around eight years now, as secretary, chair and then secretary again, and it’s always one of the most inspiring and enjoyable events of the year. If you’re in or around Enniskillen, do come along and join us.
Over the past couple of years I’ve spent quite a lot of time, mainly at Fermanagh Churches Forum, events, thinking and talking about the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, both of which have their centenaries this year. Now we’re into 2016, and the fur is beginning to fly, depressingly near to the trajectories that had been predicted. I don’t imagine that anyone particularly wants to read my personal opinions on the Easter Rising (though I may not manage to resist the temptation to pontificate at some point) but perhaps there are a few starting principles that may be helpful.
1. To commemorate is not the same as to celebrate. This does not appear to have occurred to Arlene Foster in her interview in the Impartial Reporter. We commemorate many historic, communal and religious events without necessarily feeling any allegiance towards their protagonists or sympathy towards their objectives.
2. None of us needs to pick a side. There are people who view the Rising as an unmitigated Good or Bad Thing, but many more who take a more nuanced view; approving of some aspects, regretting others, acknowledging that we have the benefit of hindsight and recognising the oddities of human nature and the randomness of chance. That’s what thoughtful people do, and no one needs to feel awkward about it.
3. There is something especially ambiguous about events at this sort of distance. More recent, and it’s mostly politics; further back and it’s just history (how many people still agonise over the morality of Henry V’s sieges?). That’s not bad, but it makes everything more complex.
4. This is a hugely emotive event. I’m not any sort of nationalist, Irish or British, and as a mongrel of Welsh, Scottish and English, peasant and yeoman ancestry, I have no particular emotional allegiance to any nation state. And yet even I feel my heart beating faster as I read about the Easter Rising and its consequences. If it has such an effect even on me, it is no surprise that strong feelings arise in those with far more sense of identification with one party or another. An acknowledgement of these emotions, and a calm space in which to deal with them, would take us a long way.
5. As in all conflicts, there are forgotten casualties, usually the weakest. It is sad to hear that, at the Dublin Castle ceremonies, only the names of the Volunteers were read out, and not those of the hundreds of civilians killed, including forty children under seventeen. Whatever our views of the rights and wrongs of the Rising, these should surely be first in our memory.
Today’s news story in the Impartial Reporter, that Phil Flanagan is to pay libel damages to Tom Elliott, is depressing on many levels.
The two local politicians, one a Sinn Fein MLA (but not selected for the May elections), the other, since last May, the Ulster Unionist MP for our consituency , have had regular media spats over the past few years, and it was probably inevitable that it would end up in court sooner or later.
Inevitable but unedifying. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is an area with wonderful people, close communities and uniquely beautiful landscapes, but also with serious problems: low wages, fuel poverty, a brain drain of its intelligent and creative young people, a lack of investment in economy and infrastructure, and most recently the threat of fracking and the reality of serious flooding. Both Phil and Tom are aware of these problems, and, in their own ways, anxious to alleviate them.
And yet they have devoted considerable time, energy and passion that could have been spent in seeking solutions to our region’s difficulties, in attacking one another and the traditions for which each stands. In this, of course, they are not alone. The politics of our constituency has for far too long been dominated by its demographics; a near-equal ‘balance’ between Catholic and Protestant which has locked us into an extended and pointless squabble, like a chess game where neither can win, but neither is prepared to accept a draw.
The ironic thing is that the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone aren’t like that. I’ve spent much of this week helping to organise Enniskillen’s next service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We in the Fermanagh Churches Forum do this every year, and have done since long before my time. At first the service had to be held in ‘neutral’ secular venues, but now it rotates between four churches in the town: Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Church of Ireland. This year it will be hosted by Enniskillen Presbyterian Church on Thursday 21st January at 7.30pm.
If you’re in the area, do come along, and see the reality of the shared community which so many of us live daily, and which our mainstream political parties so tragically fail to recognise.
Cherishing the baby: a personal view
The philosopher Charles Taylor has identified three strands of secularisation in the modern West: the withdrawal of religion from public institutions, the decline in religious belief, practice and commitment and the cultural conditions in which a belief in God is no longer axiomatic. As Jonathan Rowson of the RSA puts it:
“This form of secularisation is not about people no longer believing in God, but a deeper recognition of what it means to have a religious worldview in the context of so many worldviews, when they are often not the easiest to have or to defend publicly.”
The work of the Fermanagh Churches Forum might be seen as an exploration of this third strand, of what it means for us to be authentically Christian in a society polarised not only by its traditional divisions but also by an often bitter debate about the role of religion in a diverse and shared future. We have constantly to hold the tension between an acknowledgement and celebration of what is good about our faith and an awareness of the ways in which it has been and can be still complicit in destructive systems and patterns of behaviour.
How can we cherish the baby while giving the bathtub the thorough scouring it so urgently needs? Our autumn and winter programme has given us the opportunity to ask ourselves this question in relation to three core Gospel imperatives: of non-violence, justice for the poor and peacemaking.
During Community Relations Week in September, at the Manor House Hotel near Enniskillen, we held a conference entitled A Bridge Between Two Distinct Worlds: Remembering the Past and Looking Towards the Future. Organised by Eileen Gallagher, supported by Fermanagh and Omagh Council and facilitated by Dr Johnston McMaster, it concentrated on two crucial events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. As the programme explained:
“The focus is less on history and more on how we use memory. It will look at the limitations of re-enactment, the paradoxes of memory, what we forget to remember, how we honour the dead without glorifying violence and how we take our own responsibility for building a different future without being controlled by voices from the grave.”
These two 1916 events represent huge instances of what C.S. Lewis called “Christianity and …”; in these cases nationalism and its sedate elder brother patriotism. There are dual temptations for us here: either to identify with ‘our’ tribe, buying into the core myths of blood sacrifice and a warrior god, or to distance ourselves entirely, refusing to see any connection between our own faith and that which, at least in part, motivated their actions and attitudes.
It is vital, if we are not to make the same mistakes again, that we find alternatives both to uncritical repetition of those violent myths and to a crass dismissal of those who fought and died as credulous fools. The first may lead to something like a direct re-enactment of those old tragedies, but so may the second. If we do not acknowledge and deconstruct the glamour of violence in the service of religion, we and our children are in danger of falling prey to it once again, the disease all the more virulent when we have had no inoculating exposure.
Our response to poverty, and in particular to the poor within our own society, brings out similar tensions. Traditionally Christians have been sporadically good at ‘charity’, though with such cold strings attached that the word bears little relation to its synonym of love. But we have been fairly useless, with a few notable exceptions, at striving for the social justice which should be charity’s bedrock and underpinning.
As with the issue of violence, some are tempted to justify oppressive behaviour, the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, with new religiously-sanctioned categories: ‘strivers and shirkers’, ‘hard-working families and scroungers’. Or, at the other extreme, we might want to say that our failures as Christians have been so legion, so humiliating, that the relief of the poor ought to be taken out of our hands altogether, left to the state or to secular professionals.
This would be a pity, as faith-based groups can, with care and humility, bring something particular to their tasks. At our AGM in October we heard vivid and passionate presentations from two such organisations which deal with particular aspects of poverty: the Trussell Trust with crisis hunger and malnutrition; Christians Against Poverty with the multiple burdens of individual and family debt. Both of these are principally assisting rather than campaigning groups, but there is something about the simple starkness of a foodbank amidst glossy supermarkets, of honest debt advice against the jaunty backdrop of payday lending adverts, that speaks more eloquently of inequality’s obscenity than any number of speeches.
And finally peacemaking. As I write, we are about to hold the third in a series of five seminars, again faciliated by Johnston McMaster, on the theme Still Up for the Challenge? Reconciliation in a Crisis Society. We have been looking at the concept of reconciliation, at the cluster of prophetic words which surround it and at the history of our churches in Northern Ireland and the many opportunities which have been missed.
The easy responses here are either to cling to our traditions, ‘my Church, right or wrong’, or to reject them entirely, washing our hands of any hope that Christians, so long enmeshed in the conflict, could possibly be part of the solution. But the whole premise, so far as I can see, of the existence of interchurch groups such as the Fermanagh Churches Forum is not only that we can play such a role, but that we must.
Treading with great care, remembering always the hurt that has been inflicted in the name of charity, the violence in the name of the Prince of Peace, the exclusion in the name of truth, we have a path to follow. Narrow it may be, overgrown in places, heavy underfoot and hard to discern in the dim light, but we know it is there, and it leads us on. As we draw to the end of 2015, I thank all those who walk with us, across Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and our small earth.
(Article written for the CONNECT inter-churches fora newsletter)
I’ve been busy this week with the Fermanagh Churches Forum (of which I’m the secretary), particularly in making arrangements for our AGM the day after tomorrow. It’s open to all, of any faith or none, and this year features talks about the work of the Trussell Trust and Christians Against Poverty. For more details and links, please take a look here.
Here’s a picture, from this week’s Impartial Reporter, taken at our recent FCF Conference at the Manor House Hotel, and below is its text coverage. It’s great to have a local press which supports this kind of cross-community peacemaking initiative.
Talking of the Impartial, Rodney’s book launch last night was a great success, with a smattering of the of the great and the good, and plenty of us ordinary mortals as well. Here are my feet, relishing the red carpet ….
… and Rodney performing one of his dialogues with the irrepressible Fr. Brian D’Arcy. Meanwhile the video was shown in wide-screen format, not the most flattering, but none of us minded.
I was especially pleased to see a large donation bucket for the wonderful Aisling Centre prominently displayed on the bookstall. The Aisling Centre is a non-profit organisation which provides professional counselling and psychotherapy, promoting hope, healing and growth. Many of us in Fermanagh have personal reasons to be enormously grateful to the centre and its staff, and Rodney couldn’t have chosen a better cause to share in his special night.
With my Fermanagh Churches Forum hat (with a secretary bird’s feather?) on, I’ve been collecting names for our forthcoming conference as part of Community Relations Week. It will feature the brilliant Johnston McMaster, and will explore an issue of acute importance to us all: how we remember the key events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme.
The conference is open to all, and free of charge, though it is necessary to book in advance, so that the Manor House staff know how many of their delicious lunches to prepare. To book a place, just send me a message by Thursday evening at the latest.
Here are the details:
Fermanagh Churches Forum Conference (in association with Fermanagh and Omagh Council)
Venue: Manor House Hotel Enniskillen
Date: September 29th 2015
10.00am – 4. 00pm
‘A Bridge Between Two Distinct Worlds: Remembering the Past and Looking towards the Future’.
A day conference exploring how we can remember the two crucial events of 1916, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. The focus is less on history and more on how we use memory. It will look at the limitations of re-enactment, the paradoxes of memory, what we forget to remember, how we honour the dead without glorifying violence and how we take our own responsibility for building a different future without being controlled by voices from the grave. The exploration will bring ethics and memory together and build a bridge between two very distinct worlds, the past and the present/future.
10.00am – 10.25am: Registration – Tea / coffee on arrival
10.40am – 11.10am: Dr. Johnston McMaster: ‘The Challenge to Ethically Remember in 2016’
11.10am – 12.00 noon: Interactive Group Discussion
12noon – 12.45pm: Questions and Answers. Facilitated Plenary Discussion
12.45pm – 1. 45pm: Lunch
1.45pm – 2.15pm: Dr. Johnston McMaster: ‘god and Nationalism: The Abuse of the Sacred in War and Violence’
2.15pm – 3.00pm: Interactive Group Discussion
3.00pm – 3.40pm: Questions and Answers. Facilitated Plenary Discussion
3.40pm – 4.00pm: A Way Forward for 2016?
4.00pm: Closing Reflection
Yesterday’s Lenten lunch was at the Methodist church, and my friend Patricia, who led the reflection, based it upon the thoughtful, moving and challenging Prayer for Lent and Easter* by Dr. Deidre Homer. The prayer begins with the much-loved words from the prophet Micah:
“What does the Lord require of you? Only to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Only that, and yet how much it encompasses. The Prayer of Confession which follows includes the words:
“We ask that you would lead us into action:
give us strength to be a voice crying for justice and peace.
Help us to step into another person’s shoes,
or if they have no shoes
then not to be afraid to take off our own,
peel off our preconceptions and assumptions,
uncurl and spread out our toes, and
tread in their footprints.”
At times like this, with so much clamouring going on about the election and pacts and ideologies and strategies, it’s easy to be deafened to what really matters. Thank you, Patricia, for reminding me.
*The full prayer can be found on the Prayers of a Pilgrim website here.