Belfast Telegraph

Why the Churches need to show more Christian charity

By Alf McCreary

Recent reports of friction within the Church of Ireland parish of Knocknamuckley in mid-Ulster make for lively reading, but when religious folk fall out it is sad.

Such reports are rather like a married (or nowadays possibly an unmarried) couple having a major row in public, whereas the unedifying details would be better kept to themselves.

From my experience, these Church rows usually make headlines only after a long gestation period, when private differences spill over into the public domain after someone tips off the media.

It would be as inadvisable to take sides in the Knocknamuckley Church dispute as it would be to intervene in a domestic row. When that happens, both sides are liable to turn on the intruder.

Hopefully Bishop Harold Miller will bring about reconciliation in this unhappy parish but, when things have developed so far in private and in public, the outcome may end in tears.

That said, however, the Knocknamuckley Church is not the only one in dispute.

The people of that parish are currently making unhappy noises, but there are other Churches where disputes are, or have been, taking place.

In the current edition of the Presbyterian Herald, Joe Campbell - a member of the Presbyterian Church's Conciliation Panel - reveals that in recent years, more than 70 congregations have used that service.

Mr Campbell notes that: "In almost all of the cases coming to the Presbyterian Church's Conciliation Panel, the disputes were not over some theological issue, rather the overwhelming number were about personalities, power and broken relationships." All of this is so depressing.

He also outlines the familiar results of a bitter Church conflict, especially when the local presbytery (or indeed the local bishop) is brought in to the dispute. "Normal congregational life is disturbed, and people often take sides. However, in far too many instances a sullen heaviness and sadness descends over the fellowship.

"Relationships may be broken, individuals and families take sides, which may, sadly, even carry on to future generations and become a blight on the congregation".

In one sense, the history of the Church at large is littered with disputes. Even Christ's disciples worried selfishly about a celestial pecking order, and there were many New Testament rows.

Later on the Church universal split into Orthodox and Catholic versions of Christianity, and in the West there was a huge divide between Rome and the Reformed faith.

Despite the many attempts at ecumenism and reconciliation since then, the significant differences remain, and they don't look like being resolved any time soon.

Church disputes in Constantinople or Rome or Geneva or the less exotic venue of Knocknamuckley Parish between Lurgan and Portadown are evidence that people find it difficult to live up to the highest Christian standards and that, ironically, they need more than ever to take the teachings of Christ to heart.

As Joe Campbell notes: "If only we would be kinder, more forgiving and open-hearted." Almost everyone, including those directly involved in a Church dispute, would agree with him.

It should be stressed, however, that the majority of Churches seem to live in relative peace, but it is those in a bitter dispute that do so much harm to Christianity. When that happens, the many critics of the Church at large say: "I told you so".

As one Roman Emperor noted sarcastically: "My, my, how those Christians love one another."

Disputes within Churches are evidence of our collective human weakness, but what really matters is how we deal - or fail to deal - with them.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph