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Religious leaders must fan the growing wind of change

This week the Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Alan Harper used dramatic language to appeal to the dissidents to quit their violence and to work for peace.

He told the General Synod in Armagh on Thursday that he was "praying on my knees that those who remain discontent with the current political accommodation on this island may turn away permanently from violence and bloodshed and play their part in enabling the process of peace and reconciliation to come to a richer fruition".

His words mirrored those of Pope John Paul II who made a similar plea to the Provisional IRA during his Irish visit in 1979. His words went unheeded, but if people had listened to him then, much subsequent death and suffering would have been avoided.

Archbishop Harper also reminded people of the Queen's impending visit to the Irish Republic, and noted the remarkable developments in British-Irish relationships that have made this possible. He also praised the work of Belfast-born Irish President Mary McAleese and her husband Dr Martin McAleese in helping to break down divisions on this island.

In his speech to the General Synod Dr Harper also noted the recent elections in both parts of this island, and pledged that "the Church of Ireland, as a significant stakeholder in the communities north and south, will endeavour to be a constructive partner to you in both jurisdictions".

In making these points the Church of Ireland Primate was right to acknowledge a wind of political change for greater understanding that seems to be sweeping across this island, and he was also right to underline that the churches are indeed important stakeholders in this process.

One of his senior colleagues Bishop Ken Clarke also referred this week to a wind of change. He said: "The recent elections, both north and south, show the current priority for people. The old passions that once divided us on this island are being replaced with a desire for ordinary life. We are looking for leadership that addresses bread and butter issues - the ordinary things of our lives."

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Bishop Clarke said that the winds of change were illustrated for him by the recent Ash Wednesday pilgrimage to Lough Derg, often referred to as St Patrick's Purgatory.

He said: "It has been an important Roman Catholic pilgrimage for generations, and as someone from the Church of Ireland tradition I was humbled to be asked to speak on that day of friendship and prayer, on one of the most holy days in the year there."

He continued: "I was struck by the wide range of people that now attend. It is a congregation increasingly made up of Roman Catholic and Protestant people."

Bishop Clarke will also speak at a major rally in Belfast later this month, which like events in many of the churches from different denominations have been trying to cross boundaries.

This is nothing new, in one sense, because big and small churches have played an important role throughout the Troubles, even though misguided religion to some extent was a contributory factor to the conflict. However the new mood of change for political progress in Northern Ireland and elsewhere gives all the Church a new incentive to emphasise their message of peace and reconciliation.

This message will not be lost on the Presbyterians and Methodists who will change their leaders at their annual conferences in the next few weeks.

The politicians, despite their divisions, are making progress but the churches - with their still significant constituencies - must continue to create every opportunity to fan the current wind of change to encourage better political and ecclesiastical understanding.

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