In November 2013, I wrote a blog post for Contemporary Christianity highlighting some research findings about what Christians on the island of Ireland think about reconciliation. Among one of the most significant findings is that Christians across all denominations rated individual forms of reconciliation very highly. But when they were asked about social or group forms of reconciliation – such as reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants – their enthusiasm waned. Among self-identified evangelical men, group reconciliation barely seemed to register as important at all.
But self-identified evangelical women rated social or group forms of reconciliation much more highly, at similar rates as other self-defined types of Christians.
Given that the public face of evangelicalism is usually male and – stereotypically it must be said – somewhat combative, for me this raised questions about how public discussions about reconciliation might change if more evangelical women took part.
Could evangelical women be empowered or encouraged to share how they see reconciliation and how they practice it?
Might this bring some fresh and creative ideas into the conversation and nudge it further along?
The data I am referencing came from a two surveys I conducted in 2009: one of faith leaders (clergy, pastors, and ministers of various religions), and another of laity on the island of Ireland. The surveys found that amongst all expressions of Christianity, evangelical men were the least likely to have a ‘high’ view of reconciliation.
[The ‘high’ view of reconciliation was calculated in this way: Seven questions were asked about the importance of reconciliation (two about reconciliation with individuals and five about reconciliations with groups) and respondents were asked to select for each, one of five levels of importance. The level they chose in each question was rated on a score of 1-5 (lowest importance to highest), and the scores from all the questions were added together to give a number in the range 7-35. A score of 28 or more was deemed to be high since it meant that the respondent had selected levels of importance over all seven questions with an average score of 4. Thanks to Christopher Morris for performing this analysis. The five group forms of reconciliation were: between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, between Catholics and Protestants on the island of Ireland, between people of other religions, between other religions, and between people of different ethnic groups. The surveys were part of an academic research project funded by the Irish Research Council.]
Non-evangelicals consistently thought that group forms of reconciliation were more important than evangelicals did. When all faith leaders, male and female, were considered together, 52% of non-evangelicals had a ‘high’ view of reconciliation compared to 39% of evangelicals. Among the laity, 45% of non-evangelicals had a ‘high’ view of reconciliation, compared to 31% of evangelicals.
But when the responses were broken down by gender, male evangelicals were almost off-the-charts in terms of their indifference (or perhaps hostility?) to (group) reconciliation. Among non-evangelical laity, 46% of women and 42% of men had a ‘high’ view of reconciliation. Among evangelical laity, 47% of women – but just 20% of men – had a ‘high’ view of reconciliation. The most striking figures are that among male evangelicals, 90% rated reconciliation with God as very important (selecting number five), 60% thought reconciliation between individuals was is very important, but only 13% thought reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is very important.
Perhaps these findings are not surprising. After all, some expressions of evangelicalism are known for their focus on heaven and disregard for ‘the world’ (pietism). And the dominant public face of evangelicalism, once described as ‘Paisleyism’ (a term which might be revised to ‘Paisleyism without Paisley’ after Paisley’s stint as First Minister?) which is dominated by male pastors and politicians, would not be expected to promote group forms of reconciliation.
By way of contrast, group reconciliation was important for the evangelicals who form the backbone of the organisation I originally reported this research for – Contemporary Christianity. Under its previous name, Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), these evangelicals wrote the groundbreaking document For God and His Glory Alone (1998). ‘Reconciliation’ is one of the 10 biblical principles discussed in the document, which emphasises assuming responsibility as a group and reconciling with another group: ‘As Evangelicals, we must accept our share of the blame for any way in which we have contributed to the alienation felt by many of the minority community in Northern Ireland.’
But the survey results indicate that the message of For God and His Glory Alone has not gotten through to evangelicals on this island … except, perhaps, to some evangelical women.
If evangelical women are excluded from public debates on reconciliation, the insights they have accumulated through years of experience are in danger of being lost.
As an academic, it is easy for me to conclude that ‘further research’ is needed to find out more about evangelical women and reconciliation. That may very well turn out to be a future project for me, and for other scholars. But in the meantime, I hope we start to hear more about what evangelical women have to say about reconciliation.