Belfast Telegraph

Church must hear voice of society to be heard itself

By Alf McCreary

Several days ago a letter-writer to this newspaper claimed that “ Older people are being ignored in most churches. I agree that we have to do things for young people, but not by excluding older people in the process.”

Two weeks ago, an elderly lady in the Republic called on people to boycott Mass on September 26 as a protest against what she claimed was the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women as “second-class citizens”.

Though the subject-matter of each of the above claims is different, they have two things in common. One is that many older people have grievances against their churches, and, second, they are now more prepared to express those grievances publicly.

There is no doubt that the churches make strenuous efforts to accommodate young people, but sometimes this is at the cost of alienating older folk.

Women clearly, are treated differently from men by the Catholic Church, a male-dominated institution. The church may not do this on purpose, but the question of the ordination of women into the priesthood, for example, remains out of bounds, and will do so for decades to come.

In Ireland where there is an acute shortage of Catholic priests and therefore a need to involve more of the laity in helping out, the idea of women sharing the challenges and burdens of the priesthood is a total non-starter.

However, if the churches show themselves incapable of changing to meet modern needs, the outlook is bleak. That does not mean that they have to change the message, but rather the way in which it is delivered in word and deed.

This week the relatively new Presbyterian Moderator, the Rt. Reverend Dr Norman Hamilton, led some 800 members of his church in a four-day meeting in Coleraine, with the theme ‘Confident in Christ’.

The purpose was to examine the spiritual depth and outreach of the Presbyterian Church which has some 250,000 members, and still represents a significant part of Irish society.

Prior to the meeting Dr Hamilton issued a press statement which was particularly revealing. He said: “We do have a message worth sharing, even if it is often despised, ridiculed or disparaged.”

He added: “It is, after all, the power of God for salvation, and if it has changed your life and mine, then it surely has the power to change the lives of other people too.”

Dr Hamilton’s words may seem defensive, but he is right in claiming that the church’s message is often despised, ridiculed or disparaged.

Many of the critics of christianity rarely darken the doors of a church, apart from attending funerals, weddings or baptisms, and much of their comments are made in blind ignorance of what goes on a grass-roots level.

That said, however, the major problem still facing the churches is to translate their message to the wider world.

It is a Christian’s choice and duty to talk about “God’s love and salvation” but this is meaningless to those who believe in neither of these concepts.

The church must try to adopt a new and more meaningful language for everyday life, but even more important, it must try to do the kind of things which show love, mercy and tolerance in action.

This means that church disputes, clerical misbehaviour and other sins of the faithful are judged more harshly by the outside world which expects better from those who are presumed to know how to behave better.

The churches will continue to have an important role, and it was interesting that our local hero, or anti-hero Alex Higgins, was given a splendid send-off in Belfast Cathedral during which he was accorded every benefit of every doubt. This showed the church’s ability to provide the context for a community tribute to a noted public figure, with all his faults.

Obviously, there is more to the church’s role than that, like helping the poor, its moral challenges to fat-cat bankers and to dastardly paramilitary dissidents.

In the end, the churches will be judged above all by their actions, and unless the established institutions listen to the voice of the people, however inarticulate it may seem at times, those same people will simply walk away.

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