Christianity under fire from both outside and from within
The end of another calendar year is an appropriate time to reflect on the big religion stories and trends of 2015. Religion has played a major role globally, through the onslaught by secularism against Christianity in the West, and the continued savage onslaught from Isis and its allies.
The appalling attacks on Paris this year were a stark reminder that the militant Islamists are targeting the West because - as Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn reminded us - they have an utter contempt for our cultural, religious and social values.
This global so-called 'holy war' being fought by militant Islam will be with us for a very long time, and there are likely to be many more casualties, not only in the Middle East, but also much nearer to home.
In the face of such an onslaught, the recent well-meaning report by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss was a timely reminder of the comparative decline in religion within the UK.
Nearly half the population say they have no religious affiliation, only one in six claims to be Anglican, and the established denominations are declining, while numbers are rising in the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
It is therefore no surprise that the older churches nearer home are becoming more conservative, and are circling the wagons to try to preserve the purity, and the exclusivity, of their doctrines.
A good example of this is the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which made the wrong kind of headlines this year on same-sex marriage. It voted foolishly at the tail end of the June Assembly not to send a representative to the Church of Scotland General Assembly next year because the Scots approved of the appointment of gay clergy in churches that would accept them.
Also, the Armagh Presbytery took Draconian measures to deal with a female minister because of her views on same-sex marriage. Instead of encouraging discussion, the Irish Presbyterians seem bent on stifling debate, and if the conservatives continue to dominate the Church as they have been doing, they will end up long-term in a holy huddle talking only to themselves.
The Anglicans also created some of the wrong headlines this year, with embarrassing - and sad - rows in some of its churches, notably in Knocknamuckley and Newry. These, in turn, raised questions about the difficulty of appointing outsiders who do not understand fully - or perhaps not at all - the deep complexities of church life in Northern Ireland.
The Catholic Church has had another year of dealing with the aftermath of the clerical child sex abuse scandals, and, while the tribunals continue, that dark shadow will continue to hang in the air, despite the efforts of the hierarchy to move on.
Many of these trends and developments do not alter the dedication and faithfulness of countless church members who continue to bring help and comfort to those in need. These unsung heroes are the people to whom the Churches at large owe enormous debts, while all these other challenges and scandals are being dealt with in high places.
The day the Churches stop showing comfort, love and understanding to people in need is the day that the Church at large will start to go out of business. Their goodness is often taken for granted, but what really defines the Churches in the world is how they reflect true Christian values in dealing with the bad news.