Belfast Telegraph

Why relations between the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Ireland are as good as they have ever been

While the forces of secularism appear to be vanquishing all before them, the very public debates on abortion and same-sex marriage have led to a remarkable convergence of interests among the main Christian denominations, says Martin O'Brien

When the history of the Christian Church in Ireland during the first century of the third millennium is written, how much attention will be given to impactful developments that have made big headlines in recent days and weeks?

Like that decisive referendum result potentially paving the way for abortion on demand in the Republic and the Presbyterian Church's decision to uphold the Christian teaching on marriage - that has been an important tenet of the Abrahamic religions since ancient times - and reduce ties with what they consider the wayward Church of Scotland, their "mother Church" and the United Reformed Church.

And what of the impending visit of Pope Francis to Dublin and to the Marian shrine at Knock in Co Mayo? Will it register any more than a footnote?

There is, of course, no way of knowing how these very different events will play out - only time will tell. However, it is evident that significant things are happening on our Churches' landscape that impact on wider society.

The Republic voted last month for permissive laws on abortion - that would have seemed unthinkable only a short time ago - against the wishes of the four main Churches and, most notably, against the express teaching of the Catholic Church in a country where 78.3% of the population self-described as Catholic in the 2016 census.

Not only that, many people who would somehow consider themselves Catholic (including some politicians) cheered the referendum result at Dublin Castle, a spectacle that a considerable body of people - including some Yes voters - considered distasteful in the extreme.

It is also evident that the Presbyterian Church's decision at the General Assembly last week to reaffirm traditional biblical teaching on marriage has caused much hurt and not a little soul-searching within parts of the Church, particularly among those who have gay family members.

What is one to make of all this? By any reckoning, all the Churches - and especially the Catholic Church - took a clobbering when the referendum ballots were counted.

However, I did not see any observer make the point that the undoubtedly convincing Yes majority of 66.4% (just short of two-thirds) would not have been sufficient to change the constitution of your local golf club.

However, legitimate analysis of the rebuff for the Christian Church in the Republic and of the angst caused by the General Assembly decision should not overlook something important - indeed, remarkable - that has been happening, given Ireland's historical divisions.

Inter-Church relations between the main Christian denominations in Ireland have never been better, in contrast to the strained relations between Dublin and London, not to mention the poor relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Some may think that is no big deal. Aren't they Christians, after all, who are called to love one another?

But those who remember the perennial story of whether the Presbyterian Moderator of the day would worship - or even take tea - with the cardinal of the day know better.

Six weeks ago, I revealed in The Irish Catholic newspaper that Ireland's main Protestant leaders had written to Pope Francis last December to say that they considered the impact of a visit by him to Northern Ireland could not be underestimated in terms of the promotion of peace and reconciliation throughout the island.

Francis is not coming to Northern Ireland in August, mainly because the Vatican is concerned a visit might distract from the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, as well as possibly exacerbating tensions over Brexit. But the north is understood to be on the Holy See's radar in the context of a possible stand-alone papal visit at a later date. Relations between the main Christian Churches have been improving steadily in recent years, reflected in convergence on a range of issues, most notably on their opposition to abortion and to the redefinition of marriage.

Or, to put it another way, their support for the inviolability of all human life and their commitment to marriage as ordained in scripture.

But the greatest and arguably most testing challenge for those Churches is to forge common ground on post-conflict issues and a highly-placed source in Rome told me last week that visible progress on that front would strengthen the case for a Papal visit to Northern Ireland.

One often hears criticism of the Churches from people who claim to be Protestant, or Catholic, who say that the Churches should "loosen up" and "move with the times" and adopt a more "flexible", or "liberal", approach.

For those people, however well-intentioned, the Churches have fallen short, because, by not embracing the rights agenda around the ideology of total bodily autonomy, they are lacking in compassion for a woman in a crisis pregnancy. And by not signing up to the redefinition of marriage, the Churches are, it is said, not showing love and compassion for those in same-sex relationships.

One must wonder if such critics are Protestants and Catholics in the true sense; people who adhere to the authentic teaching of their respective Churches.

There was a timely intervention in this newspaper on Wednesday by Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, a former Presbyterian Moderator.

Using words that hardly any committed, practising Christian of any denomination could contest, he wrote: "Looking on and reading much of what has been said and written (since the General Assembly), it may seem that the Church is out of step with society. That's not surprising. Since the days of the early Church, the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord has often placed Christians at odds with their surrounding culture.

"That is why the New Testament writers encourage us not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). We are called to honour and love Christ, even if this means we do come into conflict with society's prevailing views on this and other issues."

A key challenge for the Churches in Ireland in the face of an ever-persistent, aggressive secularism in both parts of the island, is to build on all that common ground and make common cause to government and others on the issues they are called before God to tackle - especially in relation to matters of social justice, such as poverty, deprivation and addiction.

Given the prevailing tide of modern culture, the Churches of tomorrow will be smaller, but more committed and missionary, which people remain in out of choice, rather than out of social conformity.

Freed from the burden of pomp and privilege, they will, their adherents hope, guided by the Spirit, have the space to become what Pope Benedict XVI (drawing on the English historian Arnold Toynbee) called "creative minorities".

Or as what Benedict, the-then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, foresaw in 1997, when he said: "Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterised more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world - that let God in."

Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and award-winning former BBC producer

Belfast Telegraph

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