Belfast Telegraph

Almost 500 years on from Luther, can we manage our own reformation in Northern Ireland?

By Alf McCreary

Almost 500 years after the Reformation, the divisions in our community are sadly underlined by graffiti, in bad grammar and with even worse taste.

It is sometimes said, tongue-in-cheek, that the reasons why there are more rude wall messages about the Pope than about other Church leaders is because it's easier to spell "Down with the Pope" than "Down With the Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly".

However, abusive graffiti is no laughing matter, and therefore I welcome every initiative to create better understanding between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.

One such initiative begins next Monday when the first of a series of joint seminars on the theme 'The Unfinished Reformation' will take place at the Presbyterians' Union Theological College in Belfast.

This begins at 7.30pm and several other seminars will be held at Union College on October 2, 9, and 16.

The high-profile list of participants will include the Ulsterman Dr Francis Campbell, a former UK Ambassador to the Holy See, and currently the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary's University in Twickenham. He will speak on October 2 on 'The Roman Catholic Church and Reformation'.

On October 9, the Presbyterian General Secretary, the Reverend Trevor Gribben, will join Fr Tim Bartlett, currently Secretary-General of the World Meeting of Families, to discuss 'Areas of Concern for Presbyterians and Catholics'.

Such a seminar, involving such influential church figures, might not have been possible not so long ago. Presbyterians from the backwoods might not have been happy with their General Secretary holding talks with a leading Catholic priest in Union College, and some Catholics may not have been happy either.

Those days have gone, and even if hardliners in both camps might feel uneasy, there has been a quiet dialogue between Protestant and Catholic clergy, and others of different faiths for quite some time.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation occurs on October 31 to mark the initiative of the Augustinian Friar Martin Luther, who pinned his 95 short theological theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517 and thus started a process that changed history.

The theme of the upcoming seminars will be to examine which areas of the church have continued to be reformed since the 16th century, and in what areas does it still need to be reformed.

The objective of the series is to create a greater awareness of the Reformation, and its meaning and ongoing legacy, especially in Ireland.

These are all live topics, and while the rough edges of our religious sectarianism have been smoothed considerably in recent years, there is much still to be done.

One of the possible downsides of these seminars is that they may become mere talking shops, like so many other church gatherings.

The reality is that people today are impatient for action which will help to bring our society forward to join the real 21st century, rather than languishing in a religious and political backwater.

Shortly after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, there were hopes that the politicians and those who elect them would be prepared to turn their backs on the past and work together for a better future for all of us.

Sadly, we have been disillusioned by the constant public bickering and mutual loathing of our politicians, though we must never allow ourselves to stop hoping for something better.

Against such a background it may be a tall order for these Catholic-Protestant seminars on the Reformation to achieve any major results. However, they symbolise the fact that people are still trying to communicate with each other across the divide.

That cannot be a bad thing, but one tragic and divisive question still remains: Why, in God's name, are Protestants forbidden to share full Holy Communion with Roman Catholics some 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation?

That question would require a whole seminar to itself.

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