Faith Matters

Archbishop John McDowell: Building respect and seeking fresh insights into the 'new Ireland'

In a wide-ranging address to the Church of Ireland General Synod, which met online last week, Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell spoke about the importance of relationships and reconciliation, as well as the centenary of partition and the founding of Northern Ireland - topics which have caused controversy around a Church service in Armagh later this month

St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, where services were held during last week's General Synod. The Cathedral will also host the centenary Service of Hope and Reflection in Armagh later this month.

I SAID last year that I was concerned about certain currents and developments in diplomacy and politics in and between these islands which had the potential to eat away at many of the gains, particularly in Northern Ireland, secured, for instance, by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and agreements on legacy.

Those pressures remain and have, if anything intensified. And they will continue to do so as long as Northern Ireland is governed by policies which primarily respond to the needs of places other than Northern Ireland, wherever they may be.

Indeed the whole of Ireland is beginning to be redolent of how it was in the 17th century, with the warring superpowers of Europe slugging it out for supremacy, but leaving behind social and political divisions which will be found difficult to heal.

Nowadays the weapons are not made of iron and steel but of bitter words and the manipulation of facts and emotions.

Sometimes opposing sides can pull so hard at either end of the diplomatic rope that the knot becomes so tight that it is very difficult to untie.

This matters to those whose primary allegiance is to the God of Peace whose Apostle urges us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in this island we inhabit.

In that spirit, I want to pay a public tribute to the late Pat Hume, who died at the beginning of September. Her quiet, utterly unseen, steely, consistent and life-long work for peace and good relationships on this island and between these islands was of incalculable value, and I thank God for every remembrance of the work she did and the influence she had and, pass on our deepest sympathy and the assurance of our prayers to her family.

In public discourse on these islands we have been in danger of reverting to a situation where we look on someone with whom we disagree as (to borrow a phrase) "an Amalekite to be smitten hip and thigh".

Strong feelings are inevitable, they well up in us. Strong and misleading words are not; we can control them and be careful with them. In God's creation words are ordered to truth. And the truth always ages well.

Above all, good Anglo-Irish relations matter more than ever before. It has not been unusual for me in episcopal ministry to have been in a parish in Northern Ireland in the morning praying for Her Majesty the Queen and in a parish in the Republic of Ireland in the afternoon praying for the President.

Indeed it is one of the great privileges of ministering in an all-island Church to do so. But if it is to mean anything and have any integrity, then I must not just pray, but also work for the good of both places.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has, I think broadened our horizons. It is a worldwide crisis; a global pandemic. And the Church of Jesus Christ is a world religion. "For God so loved the world..." gives some faint indication of the breadth and depth of His love.

Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell, who delivered his General Synod Presidential Address online.

We are now called as citizens, and as Christians to respond to the challenges of creating a new world based on a new set of relationships.

Relationships matter. The path which Jesus Christ opened up for us to enter into a new relationship with his Father, and the implications that has for all other relationships.

Perhaps our relationships with one another in church are a good place to begin to reclaim that life. A life of simplicity and truth and forbearance which is a life of service in the places where we live. We are a family, and as I never tire of saying, families get their vigour and interest from where brothers and sisters differ from one another, rather than where they are similar.

As a Church with members throughout this island, we have a vocation to model how to maintain a sort of non-political unity in the face of those forces; of differences within the family.

To give one example, this centenary year of the founding of Northern Ireland and of Saorstát Éireann had the potential to be divisive with differing interpretations of those momentous events becoming flashpoint for bitter words and a hardening of attitudes.

To some extent the restrictions required to control the spread of Covid-19 have blunted the edge of any extravagant commemoration of these events. Of course, that doesn't relieve us of the responsibility to reflect critically about them, and to do so within a particularly Christian frame of reference.

And the foundational principle of that frame of reference for us is "You shall love your neighbour as yourself". In any case, as the late John Hume often said: "A country is its people."

It was for that reason that the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) tried to make a modest, although I think important contribution to the year in our St Patrick's Day Statement.

In that Statement (and in broadcasts and other events since) we were able acknowledge the shortcomings and failures of ourselves as Churches but also point to the good things we had inherited in this prosperous part of the world.

The leaders of Ireland's main Churches - pictured giving a message for St Patrick's Day this year - have worked together closely during the pandemic and in considering the 'decade of centenaries'

Let me quote something from that statement: "[Churches] have an opportunity, in marking these events from our past, to be intentional in creating spaces for encounter with those different from us, and those who may feel marginalised in the narratives that have shaped our community identity.

"That will require us to face difficult truths about failings in our own leadership in the work of peace and reconciliation.

"As Christian Churches we acknowledge and lament the times the times we failed to bring to a fearful society that message of the deeper connection that binds us, despite our different identities, as children of God, made in His image and likeness.

"We have often been captive churches: not captive to the Word of God, but to idols of state and nation... Churches, alongside other civic leaders, have a role to play in providing spaces outside political structures that give expression to our interconnectedness and shared concern for the common good."

We were able to write and work together in this way because we had taken the time (and to some degree the pandemic had provided us with the Zoom time) to meet together and to share our stories and reflections.

Although each of us undoubtedly has some sort of political leanings, we tried to consider these important historical events simply as disciples of Jesus Christ, who have been called to a particular form of leadership in the service of the Kingdom: our first and ultimate allegiance.

I don't want to exaggerate what we have been doing or what we have achieved. We were talking together and to a degree also working together; we weren't governing together, as we ask our political leaders from different traditions to do.

Nevertheless it was an honest attempt to respect differences. And 'respect' is the key. When you respect someone and they know that you are listening to their words without passing judgment on what you can't hear or see (the intentions and secrets of their hearts) then, over time, a genuine communion develops and the differences seem not to matter as much as the bond of peace.

Later this month we will be holding a Service of Hope and Reflection in Armagh to allow a very wide range of people from north and south, young and old, and from different ethnic backgrounds to come together to reflect on the differing narratives of our shared history but multiple experiences of the partition of Ireland and the founding of the state of Northern Ireland.

The preacher at that service will be the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, Dr Sahr Yambasu, originally from Sierra Leone, who will bring the fresh insights of 'the new Ireland' to us.

Behind all of this lies the deeper question of 'What way do we want to live?'

Here is an answer, but not the answer, from an unusual source, at least for a northern Prod.

In a subsequently much parodied and derided radio speech which he made on St Patrick's Day 1943, Éamon de Valera talked about the island he and his generation had dreamed of.

It would be, he said: "...the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit... the home of a people living the life that God desires that men should live."

The language is dated and over-gendered, but in a more modern version, what is wrong with returning to a much simpler way of life in view of the spoliation of the Earth's resources and the exploitation of poor people in poor countries to keep us richly secure?

And who wouldn't want their children to be healthy and to be relieved of the persistent worry as to what will happen to them if they get sick or when the grow old?

To live in an integrated society of men and women, living at peace with themselves and their neighbours, and who have had their humanity deepened and not stunted by living the life that God desires.

Why, as a Church, would we not move heaven and earth to play our part in achieving these things?

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