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Politicians could learn from church prayer week aimed at reconciliation

Published 14/01/2017

Big move: Catholic archbishop Sean Brady (left) and Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames were invited to the Annual Presbyterian General Assembly
Big move: Catholic archbishop Sean Brady (left) and Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames were invited to the Annual Presbyterian General Assembly

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on Wednesday and this will help to focus our thoughts on unity, and our lack of it. It has been taking place since 1908, and cynics might ask "What has it actually achieved?"

This topic began to make headlines locally during the heyday of the late Rev Dr Ian Paisley who led his theologically-blinkered Free Presbyterians against ecumenism.

Despite this, some pulpit exchanges between reformed clergy took place, but ecumenism remains a dirty word in parts of Northern Ireland, and few Roman Catholic priests have been allowed into Protestant pulpits.

Such exchanges have been highlighted at showpiece services held by church leaders.

Such displays of solidarity are welcome, because they give a lead to others down the line, but the record of church unity here has been poor in too many places.

A few years ago there was uproar on the floor of the Presbyterian General Assembly on the morning after the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast Alex Maskey attended the opening night ceremony.

Only a spirited rearguard action by several Presbyterian ecumenical 'old hands' smoothed over the crisis, and prevented bad headlines coming out of Church House.

On another occasion Ian Paisley led a protest by grim Free Presbyterian pastors outside Church House when the incoming Moderator the Rev Dr Ken Newell bravely invited the Catholic Primate to attend as his personal guest, and Cardinal Sean Brady equally bravely accepted. I doubt if there would be a similar invitation in the current climate.

Church unity in Ireland has probably gone as far as it can. There was never any prospect of a structural Church unity, in the sense that all churches would one day become united in a single organisation. Indeed the whole purpose of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is for greater understanding, rather than for structural unity itself.

Total unity would be stifling to those people like me who welcome variety in our worship. Nevertheless, the aspiration for a unity of Christian purpose is to be commended.

In that respect the Irish Churches have done much to transform the religious apartheid of the past into something that is more acceptable, but there is still much to be attempted, and achieved.

The obstacles to real unity still remain. There is strong opposition to integrated education, particularly, though not exclusively, from the Catholic Church.

There is also little possibility of the Catholic Church accepting shared communion in the fullest sense, and until they do, people like me will continue to feel discriminated against in a society where Protestant churches have opened their doors to all Christians who wish to share in their communion services.

Despite their shortcomings, the Churches have set a much better example of trying to overcome barriers than have our hapless politicians.

The 'ya-boo' sectarian politics at Stormont have been a total disgrace for a long, long time.

The politicians do not understand how much we disrespect most of them for the harsh and parrot-like repetition of their tired messages, for their constant self-justification, for their refusal to listen to each other, and for their pathetic inability to work together for all the people.

Sadly, the voters may still re-elect the same old faces, and we will continue to stumble along in our provincial Orange versus Green political bog, while the world passes us by. We deserve better than this.

The challenge is whether we can shock the politicians here out of their sickening tribal comfort zones.

In the meantime we should thank God that our churches, despite their shortcomings are still trying to point to a better way ahead for all of us.

Ironically, the theme for this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is 'reconciliation'.

This is something that has been conspicuously absent at Stormont, and as a result, look at the mess we are in now.

Belfast Telegraph

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