4 Corners Festival & the Irish Churches Peace Project

Five minutes of prayer around Belfast City Hall was the most public Christian response to the flags issue in Belfast. With the carols about the ‘Prince of Peace’ sung at Christmas, what else should the church be doing to bring peace and stability to the situation?

The church’s role in the Troubles will long be a subject of debate with accusations of a lack of leadership weighed against individual grassroots peacemaking and relationship building.

Planned long before the protests began, a new festival runs in January, organised by a cross-denominational group of individuals in Belfast.

The 4 Corners Festival “seeks to inspire people from across the city to transform it for the peace and prosperity” and its events “re designed to entice people out of their own ‘corners’ of the city and into new places where they will encounter new perspectives, new ideas, and new friends”.

The festival overlaps with – but does not supplant – the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A series of events – music, prayer, storytelling, architecture and discussion – will culminate on Saturday 26 January at 11.30am with a symbolic act of worship occurring in four corners of Belfast before congregating in The Dock café in Titanic Quarter for lunch and worship.

  • North – Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church, Antrim Road
  • East – St Dorothea’s Church of Ireland, Gilnahirk
  • West – St Oliver Plunket Roman Catholic, Lenadoon
  • South – Belfast South Methodist Church, Lisburn Road

It’s a thoughtful festival, and time will tell whether it plays a role in achieving its vision of “bringing Belfast together”. That may largely depend in how the events capture the imagination of people who wouldn’t normally badge themselves as peacemakers. It certainly builds upon the collaborations and friendships (eg, Fitzroy-Clonard) that have built up over the past twenty or thirty years.

In a separate initiative, EU Peace III money – along with contributions from OFMdFM and the Irish Department of Environment, Community and Local Government – is being invested in another church initiative, the Irish Churches Peace Project. A partnership involving the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, the Church of Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches and operating between 2013 and June 2015, the £1.3m scheme has three aims:

  • to promote sustained and well facilitated cross-community dialogue particularly focusing on the contentious issues that need to be addressed in order to develop good relations and promote reconciliation;
  • to support local inter-church/cross-community groups in their development of new grass roots initiatives that will contribute to the lasting peace;
  • to facilitate a process by which the main denominations speak more frequently in the public sphere with a united voice on social and political issues, and through that to model positive cross-community cooperation and undermine the vestiges of sectarian politics.

In some ways these are activities that you’d expect local denominations to be doing (and they are) without funding support from Europe and NI/RoI governments. Though perhaps the injection of public cash denotes the importance that those public bodies see in churches boosting their work on the ground to facilitate peace?

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  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Alan, and three cheers for every expression of active goodwill. But I see four problems for what local journalists call ‘the four main churches’ in any project relating to a shared future.

    The first problem is that on a given Sunday three of the four main churches (CoI, Presbyterian and Methodist) may together contain less worshippers than the non-main-Protestant or evangelical churches (Elim, Free P, Baptist, Independent Methodist, Brethren, Nazarene, plus a multitude of autonomous mission-halls).

    The second problem is that a large number of younger Catholics are semi-detached both from their church and from its leadership.

    The third problem is that some of the clerical peacemakers are about as much use as Boo Boo Bear. I’m talking here about a world which I know quite well. In that world I have encountered every imaginable species of inutility from well-meaning daftness to oleaginous conceit.

    The fourth problem is that in many Protestant churches old-fashioned unionism is part of the overall package.

    It will be an excellent thing if ordinary Christians involve themselves actively in peacemaking, but as far as formalized ecclesial structures are concerned I should prefer to go by an old British dictum and ‘keep religion out of it’.

  • David – on point one it is disappointing that the census figures released so far don’t break down into that level of detail. It would be great to be able to monitor the changing dynamic of modern Christian membership/attendance.

    I’ve updated the post to note that the project is a “partnership involving the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, the Church of Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches”.

    ICC isn’t all inclusive, but on top of the usual suspects it does include :

    The Antiochian Orthodox Church
    The Greek Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland
    The LifeLink Network of Churches
    The Lutheran Church in Ireland
    The Moravian Church (Irish District)
    The Non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland
    The Religious Society of Friends
    The Rock of Ages Cherubim and Seraphim Church, (Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim)
    The Romanian Orthodox Church in Ireland
    The Russian Orthodox Church in Ireland
    The Salvation Army (Ireland Division)

    Still a lot missing …

  • David Crookes

    Thanks for that information, Alan! I stupidly left out the Reformed Presbyterians who don’t vote in elections, which has nothing to do with being peacemakers.

    A lot of church affiliation even in NI is nominal, as the following apocryphal story will show.

    Three churches — one Methodist, one Presbyterian, and one Church of Ireland — were afflicted with bats. At an ecumenical gathering their three ministers were discussing how they had dealt with the vespertilian invaders.

    ‘I blew a dog-whistle at mine for a whole afternoon,’ the Methodist man said, ‘and all I did was give myself a headache..’

    ”I put out drugged food for mine,’ the Presbyerian man said, ‘waited till they were all asleep on the aisle, put them in a suitcase, drove out thirty miles into the country, and released them. They were all back in the church next day.’

    ‘You gentlemen know nothing,’ said the CoI man. ‘I baptized and confirmed mine, and I never saw one of them again.’

  • David Crookes

    Alan, please let me make a wee nyerpy addendum to the last posting. People who are active members of well-filled ‘non-main’ churches sometimes send their children to a school whose committee is chaired by the minister of a near-empty ‘main’ church. One thing that we need to address, either now or in the New Ireland, is the woeful representation of ‘non-main’ churches on school committees.

    Aside from the matter of education, ‘non-mainers’ often see the four-main-churches tetrarchy as a smarmy and unrepresentative creation of the meeja.

    By the way. There are still some WITLESS LOSERS talking about a new something-or-other ‘that will accommodate Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter’. Can we put the utterly stupid word ‘Dissenter’ to bed for ever? It means NOTHING in the modern world.

  • David – your comment made me search for figures for NI denomination breakdown. It seems that 1991 was the last time the census explicitly captured Baptist and Brethren etc. Charting the 2011 figures which were released in December 2012 shows that while the “big four” have a lot of buildings which may be under-utilised, they do make up the lion’s share of worshippers … unless people fill out their census forms incorrectly!

    ‘Other Christian’ accounts for 5.76%, down a little – percentage wise – from 6.07% in 2001 (up 2,000 in raw numbers).

    The ‘None” and ‘Not stated’ do muddy the overall statistics, but not to an extent it would be possible to conclude that the “four main churches … together contain less worshippers than the non-main-Protestant or evangelical churches”.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks for that clearly presented piece of information, Alan. I don’t know if it’s possible to check up on the veracity of people who say things on their census forms, but it certainly looks as if I was wrong to say what I did.

  • Turgon

    David Crookes,
    I am not sure but I suspect you are correct at a local level if possibly wrong on a whole of NI level.

    Take the situation of Protestant churches in various parts of Northern Ireland.

    In Co. Fermanagh there are very few Presbyterians. I suspect Independent Methodism, Brethren, Free Presbyterianism, Baptists and other small denominations may individually be just as strong in some parts of the county and collectively I suspect account for more church goers than Presbyterianism.

    In contrast in North Antrim / East Londonderry there are very few Methodists. There would almost certainly be more Reformed Presbyterians than Methodists.

    As such at an overall level the three main Protestant churches may well be the major representative denominations. However, at local levels one (or possibly more) of the supposedly main denominations would actually be smaller than the so called minor denominations.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks a lot, Turgon, that is what I had in mind, going on what a schools history inspector once called my own ‘antidotal evidence’. In several parts of the province the minors easily outnumber the majors in terms of regular attendance.

  • Since the spreadsheet was still open and it was easy to paste into the Fermanagh figures from the Census …

    And another quick one to look across local government districts

  • David Crookes

    Thanks again, Alan!

    Turgon, I wonder if certain people ever exaggerate the regularity of their own churchgoing as certain other people are said to exaggerate their proficiency in a language other than English.

    Would it be worth comparing what people say on their census-forms with information about congregational sizes derived from church websites?

    There is a parallel waiting to be drawn here with the number of persons who are said to hold a particular political principle, and the number of those persons who actually vote in elections.

    Here is something that a wise man told me years ago. He had found a notable difference between what people said to him about their wide range of interests when he was interviewing them for a job, and what they were actually prepared to do once they’d got the job.

  • Zig70

    Maybe skewed in life by the people that you would be introduced to as a religious man are often Baptist or FreeP. As an aside, I was suprised recently that Baptists won’t celebrate a mixed marriange with a Catholic. Is that a quirk of the Pastor or the church as a whole? Surprised me more that both of them are regular attenders at the church that refused them.

  • Zig70 – like all denominations (or groups of churches) there is diversity and a width of opinion in the Baptist Union. I’ve been at a wedding in a Baptist church that included fulsome participation by a priest (well, a curate at the time).

  • IrelandNorth

    Whilst voluntary unity is invariably a good thing, even amongst competing Christian orthodoxies, is there not even a fleeting possibility that the Kingdom of God may in fact be a Republic of Heaven? Whilst Constantinian Christianity is considered reducible to neo-Aristotelianism, and Aristotle was a pupil of Plato – autor of “Republic”, is this not anecdotal evidence that the realm of metaphysicality is more democratic than imperial. Hence the above inferred “terminological inexactitude” of Orthodox Christianity.

  • Zig70

    Thanks Alan.