This week the funeral took place in Rostrevor of the Reverend Cecil Kerr, and he was described by the Bishop of Down and Dromore Harold Miller as “a unique person with a unique ministry at a uniquely important period in Irish history.”
Many people outside, and inside, the mainstream churches, may not have heard of Cecil Kerr, but I recall him as a gentle and visionary man who had the courage to set up the Christian Renewal Centre, a coming together in the name of God, which was a revolutionary idea. In the hot-house atmosphere of Northern Ireland this was, to some ultra conservative worshippers, akin to treason.
The Christian Renewal Centre, which Cecil Kerr founded with his wife Myrtle, gained the trust of forward-thinking Catholics and Protestants who saw the need for Christians to explore and share what they had in common, rather than that which divided them.
It seems hard to believe nowadays that such religious apartheid was woven into the very fabric of Northern Ireland not so long ago.
Mixed marriages were variously frowned upon, and I am not talking about homosexuals and lesbians in civil partnerships, which are not marriages in the true sense anyhow.
The atmosphere has mellowed, and mixed marriages between a Protestant and a Catholic are fairly common, though there are still families whose relatives, sadly, refuse to attend such religious ceremonies.
The Christian Renewal Centre at Rostrevor gained a national and international reputation, and Protestants and Catholics came together to share residential or daily meetings to share with one another. This amounted to visionary witness at a time when we needed Christians to lift their heads above the parapets of their own narrow denominations.
Cecil and Myrtle Kerr and their friends and colleagues were not the only people to tread on that new and uncertain path of ecumenism which to some ultra conservatives was, and to others remains, a dirty word.
From the mid-Sixties the Corrymeela Community, under the inspired leadership of the Rev Dr Ray Davey and others, blazed the trail of reconciliation, even at the time when Captain Terence O’Neill was conducting his ill-fated campaign to bring about reconciliation in politics.
The other day a smart young woman surprised me by asking me seriously, “Who was Terence O’Neill?”. It is amazing how political and church leaders, and indeed all of us, are so quickly forgotten.
Another name to be remembered is that of the Jesuit Fr Michael Hurley who helped to set up the Columbanus Community on the Antrim Road, with the support — tacit or otherwise — of the Catholic Church.
The then Bishop of Down and Connor Dr Cahal Daly was a regular visitor to this strange but important hybrid on his doorstep where Catholic and Protestants (mostly clergy) lived in community with one another.
In these days of better community and church relations it is important to remember these lone voices from the past which helped to make Northern Ireland a better place for all of us.
They all had two qualities in common — vision and courage. Both are still necessary, and not least courage. For example a Derry Catholic priest called last weekend for talks with republican dissidents, to try to make them change their ways.
This is an example of quiet courage by a lone priest who is voicing what many others are afraid to say — that sooner or later the dissidents, like the Provisional IRA of old, must be persuaded about the long-term futility of violence.
Such courage from the grass-roots of Catholicism is commendable at a time when its senior clergy — decent men as they are — seem sadly in denial about some of their Church’s major shortcomings.