Faith Matters

Rev Norman Hamilton: We have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values

The 4 Corners Festival starts today, seeking to bring fresh understanding and help build new relationships. It's much-needed, says the Rev Norman Hamilton, who says that against the backdrop of political inertia and lack of good government, the Churches need to find ways to stand together and offer a 'new narrative for the future'

Rev Norman Hamilton
Rev Dr Norman Hamilton

I am usually an optimist, but I want to start on a rather downbeat note and then quickly bring the tone and content to a much more positive level.

At the moment, I am deeply pessimistic about the return of a devolved government.

Devolution must not be seen as an end in itself, though to read and hear what is being said in public, you would think it was.

What we need is good government - and there is absolutely no public conversation about what difficult decisions will need to be taken and the consequent impact of them.

I also think that the tone of political debate in recent weeks and months has greatly set back any worthwhile discussion about what it means to heal our land.

We are a long way from reconciliation being at the heart of the Executive; TBUC - Together Building a United Community - seems impoverished within government, even if it is helping at local level.

In a recent article in the Irish News, Bishop Noel Treanor wrote this: "Known for our care for the stranger, for our response to disaster scenarios throughout the world, we urgently need leadership in offering a new narrative for a radically new future which is opening before us in a dwindling and ever more interdependent world and here at home.

"We need prophetic, imaginative and courageous leadership which offers a new narrative for a dawning and challenging future..."

Authentic Catholicism cannot allow itself to be nationalism or republicanism at prayer any more than the Protestant Churches can allow themselves to be unionism at prayer. One might even be tempted to say that we have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people 

This was paralleled on January 18 in a talk given by Professor John Brewer at Queen's University.

Among his points were four suggestions. "Uncouple the practice of religious faith from the practice of cultural religion," he said.

"Faith commitments need to be separated from the formation of ethno-national identity, such that the churches should preach loyalty to Jesus Christ not Ulster or Mother Ireland as believers' principle identity."

Second, the Churches should "show unity around the key Christian principles of forgiveness, mercy, compassion, empathy, grace and justice - principles that define Jesus' new covenant rather than fragment".

"These canonical precepts are sorely needed as people emerging out of conflict try to learn to live together in tolerance," he said.

Third, inter-denominational and inter-religious respect between faith-based organisations and communities should, said Prof Brewer, "model the culture of tolerance, respect and compassion that the Churches aspire to realise in society generally, making religion truly non-partisan".

Fourth, "the Churches should develop a public role in which they become part of the solution in dealing with the legacy issues of the conflict," he said, adding: "This means not hiding behind a veil of personal piety but entering the public square and contributing to public debate."

I agree. However, as an ordinary Presbyterian minister, I am struggling to figure out clearly exactly what we should be saying, and I am struggling to figure out how any message that is non-PC - not politically correct - can be heard.

Authentic Catholicism cannot allow itself to be nationalism or republicanism at prayer any more than the Protestant Churches can allow themselves to be unionism at prayer.

One might even be tempted to say that we have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people.

The 4 Corners Festival is wonderful, not least because it brings fresh understanding to people and develops substantial and robust relationships.

My hope and challenge is this: as the understanding develops and the relationships develop, can we find ways of standing shoulder to shoulder with one another, and together begin to articulate in public what Bishop Treanor and Prof Brewer are asking - a new narrative for the future, which spells out the importance of forgiveness, generosity, compassion, thoughtfulness.

As Philippians 2 so magnificently puts it: "Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others."

  • The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian moderator and convenor of the Church's Council for Public Affairs.
  • The 4 Corners Festival starts today with an event exploring political loyalism 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement. The role of the Churches in reconciliation, the legacy of the Troubles and organ donation are among the other items on a varied programme, with music, talks, drama and walks also taking place. The festival continues until February 11. More information at 4cornersfestival.com, on Twitter and Facebook.

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