Faith Matters

Archbishop John McDowell: The Church must rage and lament, encourage and struggle for the common good in partnership with those who govern

In a wide-ranging address at the Church of Ireland General Synod, which met in Belfast last week, Archbishop of Armagh John McDowell spoke about Covid-19 and the Church's response to the pandemic, climate change, migration and the war in Ukraine. He also expressed concern about social media and the 'atomisation of public space' and the urged Church members to make a 'distinctive contribution to reconciliation'

The winning entries in the Church of Ireland Central Communications Board's photography competition, on the theme of 'New Beginnings', were named at the 2022 General Synod when it met in Assembly Buildings, Belfast last week. In first place was a colourful view inside Down Cathedral, Downpatrick, captured by Jeff Marshall on Easter Sunday this year as worshippers prepared to celebrate the Resurrection.

ONE of the sketches in the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special of 1977 had Eric and Ernie dressed as Roman senators. Ernie asks Eric, "Brutus, have you the scrolls?", and Eric replies: "No, it's just the way I'm standing."

However, it's not the feebleness or otherwise of the joke that's important; it's the fact that the programme was watched by over 23 million people, and almost all of us who watched it (and yes I was one of them) would have laughed our heads off. We would have got the joke.

The programme was shown at a time when in most democracies in western Europe, social capital was high, institutions were strong and there were many shared national stories.

In today's world even any public commentator would be hard put to name any public figures from the past about whose virtue broad agreement could be reached.

And of course social media is the single biggest contributing factor to this atomisation of the public space. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that social media is largely to blame following the turn it took when it became less about people connecting with other people, and more about people performing for like-minded people - dissolving social capital, chronically suspicious of institutions and (to use the jargon) refusing any meta-narrative.

The effect has been, as one commentator has put it, to turn nations into ungovernable protest movements. That in turn has led to governments even in some democratic countries, to choose to manage these divisions by deepening them rather than by healing them.

And it is important, in fact vocational, for a number of reasons, that civic society, including Churches, contribute to public debate on these matters.

The first reason is that politics is about the art of living. Ultimately the subject matter of politics is everything that happens in individual and social life and, in a properly functioning democracy, all citizens are themselves political actors to a greater or lesser degree.

In addition, from a Christian point of view, there is no aspect of my life over which God does not say "that is mine".

Successful parliaments and governments are those who become both the source and the expression of that creative social and spiritual interaction.

If I could borrow a phrase from Professor Anna Rowland's lecture in the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street a couple of weeks ago, they will create "...participatory and genuinely co-created social bodies... guided by a vision of human dignity and a just distribution of the earth's goods..."

That leads me to my second point. If Professor Rowland's description is to become a social reality, governments need middle bodies – an engaged civic sector, including the Church – who will not only rage and lament, but will encourage and struggle for the common good in partnership with those who govern.

However, for the Churches to achieve this or to contribute to it we must once again become properly and truly trans-generational bodies, who have the patience and humility to learn from those who we have marginalised in the past, particularly the young.

It would be easy to miss the hinge moment which it seems is facing much of the western world, including Ireland. Will the door to a sane and sustainable future swing open or slam shut?

Ian Gordon's photograph of a rainbow at his home parish church, in Saintfield, Co Down, on Christmas Eve 2021 took second place in the photography competition.

In five years' time will it still be the case that four out of 10 young people are afraid to have children because of how they envisage the future? Are we really prepared to say to them: "Sorry, but that's the best we could do for you"?

In 2020, in my first General Synod Presidential Address, I had talked about a need for an emphasis on reconciliation.

In order to earn the right to take part in the work of reconciliation we, as a Church and as individuals, need to acknowledge that we too share a similar burden as political leaders in that we are associated with institutions which have, at least historically, benefited from the reinforcement of distinctions between social groups.

And, as with political leadership, these differences are connected in some way with conflict.

A friend of mine was a student at the Polytechnic of the South Bank in London in the 1970s where he studied political science and sociology. Apparently there were more members of the Communist Part of Great Britain in the Sociology Department of that Polytechnic than there were in the whole of the rest of Britain added together.

At his first seminar he found himself sitting beside a very intense young man who introduced himself by saying: "I'm a libertarian socialist veering towards anarcho-syndicalism. What are you?" My friend said: "I'm a Methodist."

Not as daft, or as provincial as it might seem. No doubt as individuals we will each have views across a whole range of public policy issues which will differ widely, and will have the same validity as any private citizen's view on whatever subject is under discussion.

However, our distinctive contribution to reconciliation is as disciples of Jesus Christ, and I think we should remind ourselves of that very often.

It is in the light of that primary, comprehensive and conclusive allegiance that we should find most of our analytical tools and our vocabulary to address any subject matter, including reconciliation.

We should be clear in everything that we say publicly and privately that we are contributing to the discussion and achievement of a reconciled society as Jesus' disciples, and that the message and ministry of reconciliation that we find in the New Testament, and as we have experienced it ourselves, is at the core of our understanding of every meaning and context of reconciliation.

This is because God is not only the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but also the Creator of the world.

The Christian experience of reconciliation is not transactional. It is not a case of me bringing my change of heart to God, which he then is almost obliged to reward by forgiveness and reconciliation. It is the presence of Jesus that creates my change of heart and I am his debtor for my repentance as for everything else in those transforming experiences and encounters.

Pauline Carson's panorama of Lough Melvin, taken from Garrison, Co Fermanagh and looking across the border to the Leitrim Hills, won third place in the photography competition.

Christian reconciliation is dependent on Christ and mediated through him. But Christ Himself and all the reconciling virtue associated with him are themselves mediated to us in numberless ways.

As disciples we might consider how we can mediate that reconciling virtue by engaging, encouraging and exemplifying.

Engaging, not only with ourselves and our faith traditions (although that is vital and will be a good barometer of our effectiveness and sincerity) but also with other agencies and groups in civic society.

Encouraging those, particularly in the voluntary sector who seek to bring wholeness to lives that are very damaged and usually overlooked.

Continuing to exemplify, by acknowledging that we remain captive to many sub-Christian influences and are struggling towards what might be called a more repentant ecclesiology.

The hope would be that in doing so we help create the environment or platform in which self-examination can take place and where the virtue of self-suspicion is valued.

It has been our own experience that God treats us better, much better, than we deserve. And to remember his example, when as in the field of reconciliation is often the case, that our victories will be in private but our humiliations will be in public.

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