Graham Spencer’s Protestant Identity and Peace in Northern Ireland: Can the Churches Contribute?

prod-identity-spencerA recent book by Graham Spencer, Protestant Identity and Peace in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2012), provides an insightful complement to a conversation that has been gathering some pace in Northern Ireland’s public sphere: What role, if any, might churches play in our post-violence transition, which right now seems stuck?

I’ve raised the question on my own blog, various clergy and ministers have had their say on the airwaves and in newspapers, and Queen’s University’s new ‘Compromise after Conflict’ blog is providing another platform for clergy to contribute their perspectives.

Spencer is Reader in Politics, Conflict and the Media at the University of Portsmouth, and has written previously on loyalism and the media and peace. Protestant Identity and Peace in Northern Ireland is rooted in his long-standing scholarly interest in the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist (PUL) community, as well as in the international literature on post-violence transitions. That means it draws on wider academic debates about the effectiveness of discourses of forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation across contexts, including the work of social scientists and theologians.

The most compelling aspects of the book are extracts from Spencer’s interviews with ministers, which range from allowing them to explain the distinctiveness of their denomination’s history and approach to church governance, to their perspectives on forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, and the role of churches in the public sphere.

Spencer does not limit his interviews to the largest Protestant denominations: Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist. He also includes the Free Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. This is not quite ‘Ulster Protestantism for Dummies’, though I happen to think some sort of popular book in that genre would not be amiss!

But it is a valuable service for readers who may be confused about what distinguishes various Protestant churches from each other, and it provides a basis for Spencer’s analysis in the latter stages of the book, where he argues that the ‘liberal’ churches are better placed to contribute to a peaceful, post-violence transition.

Spencer also includes a chapter with interview material from Catholic clergy, because as he writes (p. 6-7):

‘In the spirit of engaging with dialogue and difference which runs through the book (and with difference comes the need to respect those who don’t want to dialogue), it seems legitimate and necessary to hear what Catholic clergy have to say about their own identity and how it relates to the social and political (Protestantism after all has historically defined itself against Catholicism). Moreover, if we are to hear Protestant argument that seeks to undermine the credibility of the Catholic tradition, then the least we can do is allow Catholics the space to describe how they see themselves and the Protestants they live with.’

The historical portions of the book ably cover some well-worn ground about the importance of Presbyterianism/Calvinism/evangelicalism in Ulster/Northern Ireland, honing in on central ideas that have shaped Protestant thinking such as the importance of the ‘covenant,’ religious individualism and personal responsibility for one’s own faith, and a tendency to read the Bible (and other documents) literally rather than imaginatively – which has consequences for the way that people from the PUL community negotiate and approach political compromise.

Spencer also includes a chapter on ‘Ecumenism: A Case Study of the Inter-Church Group on Faith and Politics,’ a group whose contribution to religio-political thinking has been overshadowed (in academic work like Brewer, Higgins and Teeney’s Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland or my own Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland) by groups like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), Corrymeela and the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE). That said, Spencer shows there was a great deal of overlapping membership between the Group, Corrymeela and ISE. Indeed, the ‘think tank’ orientation of the Group probably limited its effectiveness and its influence seems to have spread through the work of other organizations, a point that Spencer could have emphasized more.

But for me, the two aspects of the book that can shed the most light in the current conversation are:

1. Recognising Different Perspectives on Repentance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Spencer’s research confirms that a long-standing idea within some strains of Protestantism remains important: That there can be no forgiveness until perpetrators repent. This is well-illustrated in a quote from Evangelical Presbyterian, Rev. Jeff Ballantine (p. 112):

‘We have terrorists who ought to be in prison but are in Stormont because the government has taken an entirely pragmatic view and allowed them in in order to try and make progress as they see it. Victims have been victimised further and the perpetrators of violence have been rewarded. But in order to have true peace you cannot ignore justice. God cannot be gracious without at the same time being just. God doesn’t forgive us unconditionally if we don’t repent. There is no such thing as unconditional forgiveness because if you wrong me and I forgive you but you have not repented then what does it mean? It becomes a meaningless expression. Reconciliation is only possible if one repents.’

Spencer contrasts this ‘conditional’ view of forgiveness with ‘unconditional’ perspectives, which urge victims to forgive without seeking repentance from perpetrators. While this might be read as placing a  heavy, undue responsibility on victims, those who advocate this approach emphasize that it can in some circumstances produce emotional release and healing for victims – that it can empower them. They also say that forgiving in this way need not involve an encounter between victim and perpetrator. Church of Ireland minister Rev Nigel Kirkpatrick articulated a version of the unconditional perspective (p. 113):

‘Forgiveness, for the person doing the forgiving, is an action that releases him from bitterness and anger. It releases him to get on with life. I relate that to God’s forgiveness which is unconditional, but there is a need to take the forgiveness being offered. …’

Given the nature of the Good Friday settlement, it seems unlikely that many people who hold  conditional views of forgiveness will ever have their conditions for forgiveness – on society-wide or political levels – satisfied.

Spencer’s interviewees raise all kinds of moral and practical questions about what can be expected from people in such a situation, including whether or not ‘forgiveness’ is even a helpful discourse to advance in the public sphere.

The examples in Spencer’s book show that the full range of perspectives on forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation have not been given enough attention in public debate. That’s not to say that definitive approaches to forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation can be agreed upon and translated into public policy. Rather, some effort should be made to understand others’ perspectives and to ask ourselves how we can live together in such a way that those perspectives are recognised and even somehow honoured.

2. The Triumph of the ‘Liberal’ Churches?

In raising the question of how churches might contribute to Northern Ireland’s post violence transition, Spencer argues that the on-going peace process ‘requires an evolving moral direction to accompany it. It needs, to put it another way, a morality of peace rather than a morality of conflict’ (p. 236).

For him, the ‘morality of peace’ requires ‘an emphasis on the common good and the inclusive story’, traits he has found lacking in the fundamentalist Protestant churches (p. 236). Therefore, he concludes, it is the ‘liberal’ churches that are best equipped to make positive contributions as Northern Ireland becomes more peaceful, pluralist and cosmopolitan.

The word ‘liberal’ (like the word ‘ecumencal’) is often used as a term of abuse in Northern Ireland, and many of the interviewees Spencer might identify as liberal probably would not embrace this term. But I can put that aside and give Spencer the benefit of the doubt when it comes to terminology. His more substantive point is that (p. 238):

‘Importantly, conflict in Northern Ireland happened not just because of political and social division and discrimination, but because of the absence of liberalism and the dominance of the literal/fundamentalist mind.

The fundamentalist message has historically been the message of conflict and because of this it cannot be the message of peace. Only the liberalist voice can be that message. Thus whilst the fundamentalist narrative finds receptiveness in a conflict situation where fears and anxieties are heightened and simplistic positions are called for, in the peace situation this narrative has little worth. … as confidence returns, a greater propensity for questioning evolves … leading to the deconstruction of conventional narratives and the emergence of new narratives and conversations.’

It’s an optimistic conclusion after reading through the chapters in which Spencer has analysed the faith-based narratives that continue to serve as barriers to forgiveness and reconciliation. Spencer himself is careful to point out that ‘the moderate voice often seems to lack emotion, determination and heat’ (p. 241) and that churches work better together on ‘an actual rather than abstract problem’ (p. 241).

For me, Spencer’s conclusions about the ‘liberal’ churches (though I would prefer to talk about politically moderate and theologically radical Christians from a variety of denominational traditions, working together in informal networks, rather than ‘liberal’ churches) raise further questions:

Is the slowly burgeoning conversation around the role of the churches in promoting reconciliation a sign that Christians are beginning to work out their unique contributions?

Is there any evidence that such Christians have found actual rather than abstract problems to focus their energy on?

Where might we hear or see examples and stories about this work, so that if it is making a difference, it could be shared and replicated?

In my work for the Irish School of Ecumenics I may be more aware of behind-the-scenes, faith-based work than most people. But I’m not yet convinced that Christians have fully realized the potential that Spencer identifies.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at