Debating the Churches’ Role in the Peace in Northern Ireland

This morning’s Sunday Sequence featured a substantial debate (about 35 minutes into the recorded programme) on a new book,Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (Oxford University Press 2011), written by sociologists John Brewer, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney. The debate was framed in an opening vignette by presenter William Crawley in uncompromising terms, when he summed up its key message as: ‘the main churches here walked away from their moral responsibility to give leadership during the Troubles.’

The book was launched on Saturday at Clonard Monastery, and that’s where I got my copy, so I haven’t yet had time to read it. I think it’s always best to refrain from commenting on the content and merit of books that I have not read (there will be another time for that), but this morning’s debate was remarkable both for the degree of disagreement among the panellists, and for the substantial amount of time devoted to it.

The panel discussion lasted for 45 minutes, which allowed the five panellists, Fr Tim Bartlett, Denis Bradley, Rev Lesley Carroll, Rev John Dunlop and Brian Feeney, some time to make their views on the book known. Usually panel debates on Sunday Sequence are no longer than 15 minutes, so when there are multiple panellists it often means that people don’t have enough time to say what they think.

I hope the time devoted to the debate is some sort of indicator of how seriously Christians in Northern Ireland will evaluate the claims made in the book. I’m a Christian, and I work for the Irish School of Ecumenics (an institution that has a history of encouraging Christian engagement with the peace process), so questions about the role of the churches in the past and in our precariously peaceful present are important to me.

So for me, part of my interest in the book is motivated by what Carroll, near the end of the discussion, identified as one of the ‘key messages of the book’, namely, that ‘before the Troubles kicked off, the church didn’t understand the role it was playing in terms of [contributing to] the divisions.’

She said that now that Northern Ireland has emerged from the ‘other side’ of the Troubles, the book contends that the churches have ‘reverted to type.’ If that is the case, the churches ‘really need to pay attention to that’ and therefore ask themselves whether they can be playing a more positive social role in our present and future.

The debate opened with a recorded interview with Teeney, who claimed that the most effective Christian peacemakers were mavericks who acted largely without the knowledge or backing of their church institutions, and that it was a failure of leadership that the churches did not produce policies or strategies on how to engage more effectively to end the violence.

Most of the panellists disagreed strongly with various claims made in the book, with only Bradley offering an endorsement of the book’s overall argument, saying that, ‘this book gets it right. Its general analysis is the correct one.’

I think Bradley’s more positive assessment of the book is based largely on his agreement with the authors’ claim that religion has played a significant role in the violent history of Ireland. This doesn’t have to mean that people were killing each other over various differences in religious doctrine, but it does mean recognising that  religion has contributed to structuring our segregated society – for example, through promoting segregated education, discouraging ‘mixed marriages’, and the like. This is a sociological rather than a theological or devotional view of religion, and I think that Christians are naïve if they fail to recognise this particular insight from academia.

Feeney, on the other hand, was most outspoken in his criticism, stating plainly: ‘I didn’t like the book.’ Feeney also denied that religion or the churches were significant contributors to violence or to peace, at one point saying that the authors are ‘confusing an ethno-political dispute with an ethno-religious dispute.’ Feeney, it seems to me, doesn’t recognise as valid the sociological view of religion that I’ve presented above and indeed, he spent a significant part of his air time disparaging sociology.

Dunlop, who served for seven years as the convener of the Presbyterian Church’s Church and Government Committee, provided some interesting insights into what it was like to be involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations. But he said Teeney’s ‘polemical’ introduction to the debate and a lecture given by Brewer back in March had framed the debate about the book in too adversarial a manner, and could unfortunately keep people from ‘taking this book seriously.’

Dunlop added that he thought the book could have devoted more time to evaluating the positive grassroots contributions of religious peacemakers (although I would add that this has been done to some extent in other books, such as Ronald Wells’ Hope and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, Maria Power’s From Ecumenism to Community Relations, and my own Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland).

Bartlett thought that the book overstated the extent that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was unaware of the actions of priests such as Fr Alex Reid, and understated the ‘critical role of church leaders in modelling good relationships.’

Carroll said that a question ‘missing from the book’ was what the churches thought they were doing during the Troubles – especially if, as the authors contend – they were not ‘doing’ enough at an institutional level to promote peace.

I appreciated the robustness of the debate, and I hope it serves to get Christians talking – not just about what their churches did in the past – but how they can contribute to our future. Unfortunately, the book is available only in hardback, and the publisher’s price is a prohibitive £60.

But I also appreciated the remarks made by Rev Ken Newell and Rev Harold Good at Saturday’s launch. As appropriate for the event, both Newell and Good focused on the book’s recognition of Christian peacemakers – rather than the book’s condemnation of institutional failure.

Newell provided some perspective on the psychological processes of people working against the odds in the face of challenges like the violence in Ireland. Rather than choosing to retreat in despair, he said some people choose to confront their fears and their self-doubts and to take great personal risks to do what they think is right. He said that such people can provide hope in the midst of social despair, and he was glad that some of their stories had been told.

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