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No more Mr Nice Guy ... Churches need to get tough with politicians

By Alf McCreary

During the Stormont crisis the Church leaders have been urging the politicians to work together better. We routinely expect this advice from church leaders, but there was no reflection of the righteous anger felt by people who are furious that our politicians have brought us into this mess in the first place.

Nor is there any reflection of the shame which I and other people feel that we cannot produce politicians to run our affairs properly.

Outside Northern Ireland, people look on us as a political basketcase and they do not want to hear anything more about our pitiful self-pity and sectarian confrontations.

This sense of anger was reflected in a letter to the Belfast Telegraph this week from a reader concerning the words of the Presbyterian Moderator the Reve Dr Frank Sellar.

The letter noted that: "For many, the Stormont crisis has been fuelled by greed, a lust for power, the lack of integrity and, most of all, the total lack of humility.

"I do trust that the Moderator, when he next speaks, rather than skirting round our issues, will do so with clarity and directness, like salt that stings in an open wound."

To be fair, Dr Sellar was the first Church leader to come up front when he said: "I call on all involved to show a willingness to listen carefully to each other, to honour and value one another and to work constructively in partnership."

His words were an honest attempt by a decent man to pour oil on troubled waters, but others may think that there is not a hope in hell's chance that he will be heeded by a large number of our politicians.

So far they have failed to do this, so why should they suddenly become reformed during a bitter election? Anyone who watched the Stormont debate on Monday would have been taken aback, as I was, by the utter loathing between members of the two main parties, and the contempt between the DUP and the UUP.

One of the first Church leaders to recognise the harsh realities is the Methodist President the Rev Bill Mullally who picked up on Arlene Foster's unhelpful and typically DUP remark about a "brutal election".

He said: "Realising that the political temperature has been raised, and that words such as 'brutal' are being use to describe the type of election people can expect, I ask that such language be absent from the vocabulary of any of our political parties."

However, some Church leaders still prefer a decidedly soft approach.

The Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Richard Clarke wrote privately to the political leaders, without revealing publicly their general content, and he also urged his own members to pray for God's guidance "and to seek to say and do only that is for the common good of all".

This is what Christians are expected to do anyway, and people might think that they are entitled to know broadly what their Primate was advising the political leaders to do.

The Catholic Primate Dr Eamon Martin advised the politicians not to "resort to predictable, wearisome slogans, or denigrating, divisive language".

Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance asked people to pray for an election based on issues rather than identity.

The Corrymeela leader Padriag O Tuama called for politicians to demonstrate inclusion, and to "follow these gestures with action".

All of this is well-meaning, but will the politicians pay any heed?

What is missing generally from the Church leaders' statements is the courageous cutting edge of a strong Old Testament prophet, and of Christ Himself, when speaking the truth to power.

For too long our kindly Church leaders have tried to place a helpful arm round our woeful politicians' shoulders, but what they also need from time to time, like now, is a hefty verbal kick up the backside.

Festival message is reconciliation

On a more hopeful note, the organisers of the 4 Corners Festival have announced that it will take place this year from February 3-12.

The co-chairs, Fr Martin Magill and the Presbyterian Rev Steve Stockman, believe that: "Reconciliation will not drip down from Stormont, but has to creep up from the grass roots."

How right they are, and their initiative should be given every support, as we face into one of the most difficult periods in recent history. Let's share what we have in common, and not still argue about our divisions.

Gracious words for McGuinness

The Presbyterian Rev David Latimer has paid a warm tribute to Martin McGuinness on his retirement.

It is also good that many Protestants wrote to him about his illness, and wished him well.

Martin McGuinness, despite his past, became something of a statesman in reaching out with grace. Sadly, apart from Ian Paisley, there was little grace from the DUP.

Fearing for the US under Trump

This week I viewed, with sadness, the final press conference by President Obama and watched the departure of a really good man, despite his failings  as well as his successes.

Last night I also watched the inauguration of President Trump, and I feared for the future of America and the wider world.

Most US Presidents routinely declare "God Bless America." Now it is a message from all of us "God Help America".

Time will show whether the people chose their President wisely or not.

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