Belfast Telegraph

Why living in the past prevents us from embracing a brighter future

By Alf McCreary

The arson attack on St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church in Belfast this week is a reminder that some people here have learned nothing from the past, and want to condemn us to an acrimonious future.

As Bishop Treanor has said: "Places of worship hold deep significance for the entire community and for their congregations and they should not be targeted."

I know only too well the distress caused when my own church - Whitehouse Presbyterian - was severely damaged by arsonists several years ago.

Thankfully it was beautifully rebuilt through the work of the congregation, with the support of many, including those from Catholic churches.

This was the one silver lining during a dark time, and I sympathise with the people of St Patrick's Church.

People on both sides also have sympathy for those involved when Orange halls or GAA buildings are targeted by arsonists in the totem-pole tribalism of our society.

It is one thing to condemn it, but how do you change the minds of those who wear their disgusting sectarianism like a badge, whether it is against Protestants or Catholics, or Muslims or any group or individuals who hold different views?

There was a time when I believed that Northern Ireland was near the top of the places where people go out of their way to give and take offence.

We are still a very "offensive" society, and as a friend of mine said this week: "If you had left Northern Ireland for a year, and switched on the radio and television when you got back, you would find that nothing had changed."

We go on and on squabbling and now, with the furore over Donald Trump, a boorish and alarming Presidential bull in an international china shop, plus Brexit, the taking and giving of offence seems to be a way of life everywhere. There is not a great deal we can do directly to change Donald Trump or the sometimes bizarre way in which the American and UK political systems are played out, but what can we do in Northern Ireland to create better understanding?

Most people, except those living in a political parallel universe, are dreading the upcoming election, and so far there are no signs that our politicians have realised how unattractive they are, or how they are so ill-equipped to run our affairs.

The DUP and Sinn Fein are locked in their usual "Not An Inch" confrontation, and while the smaller parties are trying to make us think and vote differently, I suspect that a large number of people will continue to vote on Orange or Green lines. I hope that I am wrong, but the ballot box is still a great discerner of unchanging tribal loyalties, in a changing world.

If we can expect little from most of our politicians, what about our church leaders? Are they prepared to move from the past and encourage us to embrace a brighter future?

This depends on their starting point. Is it better, for example, to note the unsavoury aspects of the earlier career of Martin McGuinness but recognise the sincere efforts of a reformed man, or is it easier - and not particularly Christian - just to remember the dark background and to blast him for the bad bits?

Next week, in a system as clouded in mystery as a session in the Sistine Chapel, the Presbyterians will elect a new moderator.

A recommendation from me for any candidate would be the kiss of death, so I will merely say that most church-watchers already have a good idea of who might win the election.

In the process, however, is it too much to ask the small number of people who will elect the moderator to think of a candidate who can help contribute to the leadership and bridge-building of society at large, and not just the faithful in the Church itself?

The current moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Frank Sellar, has tried to do so, with limited success during his year of office, but at least he has tried.

The burning of a church or a secular hall on either side of our wider community is a surface reminder of the deep sickness that still lies at the heart of our society.

Belfast Telegraph

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