Rev Ken Newell, a former minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast, is best-known for his ecumenical peacemaking during the Troubles. Newell partnered with his friend the late Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard Monastery, and a group of committed laity from their congregations, to develop the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship.
This small group, rooted in joint spiritual practices and a commitment to listening to people with different points of view, became an inspiration for inter-church activism on this island and around the world.
Earlier this year, Newell published a memoir, Captured by a Vision (Colourpoint, 2016) which details his involvement in peace initiatives, including developing Clonard-Fitzroy and secret discussions with republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. In his introduction to the book, Newell writes (p. 9):
… I am writing a memoir because I have had the unexpected and extraordinary opportunity to participate in, or at least to view up close, some of the most important events in the recent history of Northern Ireland. I accept that readers of this book may be more interested in those events than in me. … This is the story of the events as I saw them.
But it is less Newell’s descriptions of events and more his reflection on how his own attitudes and beliefs changed that make the book so compelling. With frankness and at times, with humour, Newell provides insight into how someone from a self-described conservative evangelical background ended up crossing so many religious and political boundaries.
The book is fundamentally an account of a spiritual journey, guided by a vision that Newell believes was inspired by God, and sustained by Christians he met along the way.
It is the spiritual journey aspect of the book that may be most interesting for readers. How did a man who was a chaplain for the Orange Order in 1965 end up as a chaplain to Belfast’s first Catholic and nationalist Lord Mayor in 1997? How did a man suspicious of Catholicism come to affirm Catholics and Protestants as integral parts of the church, united by Christ?
There are small, poignant moments on this journey – as well as big events and turning points:
As a child, throwing stones at Catholic worshippers going to church in North Belfast: ‘Out of the side of my eye I noticed a man turning around and looking at us with an expression of sadness. In later years I wondered if he had prayed for us’ (p. 25).
As a young man, walking by St Patrick’s Catholic Church with the Orange Order on the Twelfth – and feeling a twinge of conscience as he noticed worshippers praying quietly inside.
As a young man, the steady, daily discipline of studying the scriptures and theology – which spurred him to ask questions about his conservative upbringing.
As a young family man, going to Indonesia as a missionary – only to discover an Irish Catholic priest already there, who seemed to be a missionary especially designed for him. Fr Noel Carroll from Dundalk had driven six hours from his own base to meet Newell and his family when he heard ‘there are three Irish Presbyterians living here’ (p. 54).
The friendship between Newell and Carroll was a precursor to his friendship with Reynolds. In fact when Newell returned to Northern Ireland he carried a hope that God would gift him with the friendship of a Catholic priest in Belfast.
Newell also describes how the horror of two particular events convinced him that his Christian vocation was one that should be focused on peacemaking. During Bloody Friday in 1972, Newell was in his car about 300 metres from the Oxford Street bus station when it exploded – ‘Thick smoke was billowing everywhere but it could not muffle the screaming and the crying’, p. 51. Although he was soon departing for Indonesia, Bloody Friday made him carry with him a desire to contribute to change in Northern Ireland.
The second event was the death of three young children out for a walk with their mother in 1976 (the same incident that led to the formation of the Peace People), only months before he began his decades-long ministry at Fitzroy.
This ministry was one marked by sadness, opposition and joy –
- Sadness when going with Fr Reynolds to jointly visit people bereaved by the Troubles,
- Opposition when protesters inspired by the Rev Ian Paisley boisterously disrupted a Clonard-Fitzroy event featuring the Presbyterian moderator and a Catholic bishop (p. 107ff); or when Newell received personal threats for ‘betraying’ his community,
- And joy when in the company of like-minded souls at Clonard-Fitzroy, as they sustained each other through friendships, prayer, and joint spiritual practices.
It was also a ministry marked by courage. It took courage to host events like the debate between the moderator and the bishop. But it also took courage to enter into places where there was a risk that there would be rejection – for example, in the visits to grieving families. But in some such moments, this bravery provided a space for grace to work and inspired Newell and his collaborators to further courageous acts (p. 113):
… During the prayers one of the Fitzroy children, a boy of seven manoeuvred his way across the room towards an elderly woman who, I assumed, was a grandmother. She had been sobbing quietly and inconsolably. … Without saying a word, he put his arm over her shoulder and she slipped her arm around his waist. It was a moment of unifying grace I will never forget.
These visits convinced me that if our two communities were only more prepared to journey into each other’s sorrow rather than to grieve in isolation, they could release a river of healing into a deeply wounded community. They also tipped my equivocating mind towards saying yes to an invitation from Fr Alec Reid to participate in a private dialogue with Sinn Féin. I was now convinced that what is not befriended is not redeemed.
Newell’s confessed purpose for writing the book is to offer readers ‘a personal challenge to become active participants in whatever part of the world they call home.’ This is especially his prayer for Northern Ireland, where peacemaking remains ‘a vocation worth embracing’ (pp. 13-14).
Newell is convinced that: ‘personal change is usually the ground from which the vocation to peacemaking grows,’ and his book provides plenty of examples of how this was worked out in his own life and that of his collaborators (p. 11).
But Newell is also acutely aware that his generation – the generation of Christian leaders who contributed to peacemaking during the Troubles – Frs Reynolds and Reid, Rev Harold Good, Geraldine Smyth OP, Rev Lesley Carroll, Fr Michael Hurley, Canon David Porter, to name a few – are deceased or remain a minority.
Newell’s vision now is that a new generation of Christian peacemakers will turn their attention to the unfinished work of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, his memoir may offer potential ‘converts’ to the vocation of peacemaking some inspiration. But it could also prove a compelling read for those with no interest in undertaking their own spiritual journey.
For them, Newell’s account provides a better understanding of the motivations of Christian peacemakers, how Christian leaders were enabled and constrained by denominational structures during the Troubles, and an enthralling human story, clearly and passionately written.