Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: If traditionalists refuse to embrace social change, they will be left behind

By Alf McCreary

There was a time not so long ago when a Methodist President addressing a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis would have made big headlines.

A Presbyterian, the Reverend David Latimer, addressed such a conference in Belfast a few years ago and created a stir, partly because of his glowing praise for the then Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

Last week the outgoing Methodist President, the Reverend Dr Laurence Graham, talked to the large Sinn Fein gathering in Belfast, but his speech went largely un-noticed, partly because Presbyterians were being criticised by politicians, media commentators and some of their members (and one prominent ex-member) for their theological narrowness towards same-sex couples and their children, and also their rudeness towards their Scottish counterparts by stopping Moderatorial visits to Edinburgh and Belfast.

However, the Reverend Dr Graham's speech deserves attention, as did his presence on a Sinn Fein platform.

He reminded his audience that "reconciliation is a never-ending process" and underlined how everyone agrees that in the Troubles there was no military victory for anyone.

Reverend Graham also pointed out that when commemorations are carried out "in a glorifying, celebratory, victorious way, it hinders reconciliation and increases pain, instead of fostering healing".

He further urged the major parties to "unite around what you agree on, which is that you want the best for all people. Get on with that, start working together on issues that matter to people, and let all the issues of sovereignty and so on which divide us follow on in due course."

It was a wise speech, but I wonder how much the hard-headed Shinners took in. Their main policy is a united Ireland, but one never knows what sinks in to those carefully calculating heads, or what they make of an honest, decent man like Laurence Graham trying to offer them good advice.

Many years ago, another honest, decent Methodist, the late Senator Gordon Wilson, was taken blindfolded to talk to the Provisional IRA in Donegal. He came home in despair, and wondered if he had wasted his time, but who knows what the Provos thought of that meeting afterwards? And who would have guessed then that the armed conflict would end, provided we can take the Republicans' word for this?

The sight of a Methodist leader on a Sinn Fein platform is evidence that the situation here is changing. So too was the sight of the Orange Order welcoming Leo Varadkar to Belfast.

As a friend said to me: "At a time when the Presbyterians were painting themselves into a corner on same-sex issues, the Orange Order was welcoming a gay Taioseach to their headquarters. What a funny old world."

Funny indeed, but also serious. Arlene Foster is undoubtedly serious in reaching out to the GAA, Muslims and the LGBT community, and all in one week or so. It was probably the greatest conversion since St Paul on the road to Damascus.

Whatever her motive, fair play. At least the DUP is beginning to realise that reaching out to others is the only way it can maintain the Union.

We are living in fascinating times. The outcome of Brexit may do more to alter the shape of politics on this island than 40 years of violence.

Those churches and parties that do not discover how to embrace the pressure for change on social and other issues, while still holding to their core beliefs, will lose out.

The trouble is, those who see themselves as holding the best of the past seem unable to embrace the best of the present and, hopefully, the future.

So don't overlook the fact that an outgoing Methodist President talked to the heart of Sinn Fein last week and tried to impart a few home truths.

That would not have happened 20 years ago in 1998, the year when the Good Friday Agreement opened new paths that we are all still trying to find and understand.

Things are changing whether we like it or not, so we had better begin to embrace it.

Belfast Telegraph

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