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Jo Cox's message of tolerance more relevant in NI than ever before

With Christianity under threat from aggressive secularism, the Churches have, in the late MP's words, 'more in common than divides them'. By Martin O'Brien

Published 29/09/2016

Festival-goers hold placards to remember Jo Cox at an event on the Park stage during the Glastonbury Festival
Festival-goers hold placards to remember Jo Cox at an event on the Park stage during the Glastonbury Festival
Free Presbyterians protest against the installation of Fr Edward O’Donnell

Ever since the murder of Jo Cox MP back in June, much attention has focused on what is now an oft-quoted line from her maiden speech in the House of Commons just a year earlier.

In that speech, which can be easily accessed on the internet, Ms Cox referred to the ethnic diversity of her Yorkshire constituency and stated: "What surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than that which divides us."

She was referring to a rich mix of immigrants, who ranged from Irish Catholics to Muslims from India, Pakistan and Kashmir.

Had Jo Cox not been murdered, her words would never have been highlighted in this way, but that may be little consolation for her sorrowing husband and family.

To some, those words of hers may seem like a statement of the obvious, but the fact that they have now seeped into wider culture following her death - I heard them picked up in a BBC discussion a week or two ago - is a positive development, because there are lessons here for all of us.

And not least for those of us who claim to be Christian in a troubled world, where Christians are very probably at this time the most persecuted of all religions - something that has only appeared to have dawned on the mainstream secular media relatively recently.

According to Open Doors, the self-described Christian persecution watchdog, on average 322 Christians are killed because of their faith each month and 214 churches, or church properties, are destroyed.

The worst countries are, they say, North Korea, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan, in that order.

My mind returned to that assertion of Jo Cox, that far more unites us than divides us, when I caught up with a couple of recent local news stories that were reported in this newspaper.

The first story concerned the installation of Fr Edward O'Donnell, parish priest of St Brigid's in Belfast, as the first-ever Catholic canon of St Anne's Cathedral and the accompanying protest outside the cathedral by a small group of Free Presbyterians.

The appointment of Fr O'Donnell as an ecumenical canon is a welcome and courageous initiative by the Dean and Chapter of St Anne's and a significant development in inter-Church relations in this city, where bridges of one kind or another are surely more wholesome than walls.

It reflects in a concrete way the reality that what unites the vast majority of Christians across so many denominations - not least their baptism and, of course, their belief in the tenets of the Apostles, or Nicene Creed - is infinitely greater than what divides them.

That general point was well made both by Dean John Mann and by Fr O'Donnell in their respective and complementary statements. Dean Mann said: "His (Fr Edward's) presence in St Anne's will be a source of strengthening the already important ecumenical bonds that we have. Our unity in Christ is important to us both." Fr O'Donnell said: "Our common faith in Jesus Christ commits us to strive for reconciliation and unity - that unity, wonderfully described by the great Lutheran theologian, Oscar Cullmann, as 'unity in reconciled diversity'."

That Free Presbyterians chose to protest this commendable ecumenical advance will have surprised nobody. They are opposed, in principle, to such developments and their right to register their public opposition in an orderly way, as they did, must be respected - however baffling and, indeed, offensive is their apparent failure to accept Catholics as Christians, as the latter and other Protestants accept them as part of the Christian community.

Then there was the story about a religious pamphlet, or flyer, that was distributed to a primary school in east Belfast by Hope for Youth Ministries (HFYM) being described by the parent of a four-year-old child as "sledgehammer Christianity".

HFYM is the respected Christian youth evangelical organisation, based in Dromore, Co Down, that runs Bible clubs and missions, the popular summer camps at Tollymore Forest Park and an annual outreach to no fewer than 250 schools throughout Northern Ireland.

I do not know the background to this story, only what is in the public domain, but an organisation like HFYM would not be allowed such access to schools, nor to run those summer camps, without a welcome from appreciative school principals, RE teachers and parents and some necessary preparatory work.

On the face of it, a four-year-old child receiving a flyer out of the blue containing references to sin "and all the wrong things I have done" may find it all a bit scary, which makes me think that the necessary groundwork may not have been done in this isolated case and that the content should have been more age-appropriate.

I am sure that the very last thing the likes of HFYM would wish to do would be to cause the slightest upset to young children, or to cause concern to parents.

This story appears to be an unwelcome distraction from the central mission of Hope for Youth Ministries, which is important and good. And that is to introduce children to Jesus Christ, children who may know little, or nothing, about Him and whose parents, who may have drifted away from their faith and may not have darkened the door of a church for years, may be grateful that someone is taking on the responsibility of suggesting that there is more to this world and to the living out of life than the eye can see.

Regardless of where people may be on the Christian spectrum, there should surely be a realisation that, in the face of aggressive secularism and worldwide persecution, we have as a community, to paraphrase the late Jo Cox, far more in common than divides us.

Citizens have an opportunity to take that more fully on board when we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year and when Pope Francis (or his successor) visits Northern Ireland in August 2018.

  • Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and a former award-winning BBC producer

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