Presbyterian Moderator ignites debate on bonfires

dr-frank-sellar-uu-chaplaincy-lectureThe Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Frank Sellar, delivered the 2016 Ulster University Chaplaincy lecture last night. An audience of around fifty guests listened to the twenty five minute address delivered in the Belfast campus as part of the cleric’s week long tour of the North Belfast Presbytery.

Speaking under the title of ‘A City of Hope, Leadership and Compassion’, Dr Sellar acknowledged that “with the continuing dismal story of war, refugees and economic uncertainty, for many around the globe and in this city, it’s not unreasonable to question whether there is any real hope to be had in the world.

He contrasted hope with optimism, referring to German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.

“Both have to do with positive expectation, and yet the two are very different.

“Optimism has to do with good things in the future that are latent in the past and the present. The Future associated with optimism is an unfolding of what is already there. We Survey the past and the present, then extrapolate about what is likely to happen in the future and if the prospects are good, become optimistic.

“Hope on the other hand, has to do with good things in the future that come to us from ‘outside’, from God. The future associated with hope is a gift of something new.”

Dr Sellar listed some of the “increasing reasons” Belfast has to be optimistic: a lessening of interface violence, movement at Twaddell Avenue, three relatively peaceful summers, evidence of urban renewal, and the ONS poll that suggest Northern Ireland is the happiest region to live in all of the UK. And he used the familiar Presbyterian symbol of the burning bush to explain about the “hope that comes from outside [from God]”.

“A flourishing bush, burning yet alive, pointing forward to a vibrant and flourishing people released from the shackles of the past and liberated for the freedom of a future in the promised land.”

He developed three points from Augustine’s convictions, based on Miroslav Volf’s book A Public Faith.

1. God is not an impersonal force in the world, but a person who loves and can be loved in return.

2. To be human is to love; we can choose what to love but not whether to love.

He mentioned the decision at June’s General Assembly to embark on “an 18 month project to uncover a wider story about our responses to the Troubles … to recognise what was good and to identify and reflect upon the times when the church failed to be faithful peacemakers.”

[Ed – reading John Brewer and Gareth Higgins’ book Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland would be a good start.]

“Every society has its idols that obscure the glory of God and the Children of Israel likewise had their own golden calf, which needed to be named and shattered and the Christian church is no different. But through our Vision for Society https://www.presbyterianireland.org/Utility/About-Us/Statements/Vision-for-Society-Statement.aspx statement which acknowledges past failures to live countercultural lives, yet also affirms that Christian peace building is seminal to Christian discipleship, we determine to live in a way that points to Jesus who loved God perfectly and perfectly loved people made in his image and challenges us to face our own and contemporary society’s modern idolatry and self-centredness.”

But it was the third point that garnered a front page headline in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph.

3. Human beings will flourish and be truly happy when they discover joy in loving the infinite God and our neighbours in God.

“I started off by referring to the bush where the unsuspecting Moses encountered the divine and his priorities were holy transformed. Here in North Belfast we also have many fires.

“Dotted over this city at certain times of year in both communities are bonfires, which give off the toxic fumes of heat rather than light.

“Given our history and fortress mind-sets, while celebrating and commemorating the past divisively, they are also a danger to the environment, property and human wellbeing. They are not bonfires fuelled by inclusiveness, respect and healing, but a means by which we pass on to succeeding generations the sins of our fathers.

“Human flourishing and true happiness is when, like Moses, the heart is captured by an affection beyond self to loving God and our neighbours more than anything else. Is it too much to hope that at least as much effort might go into creating an environment of inclusivity about bonfires as into cake making?”

Dr Sellar then gave examples of “light in the darkness” across the city of Belfast, including the new worshipping community of Carnmoney Presbyterian in the MAC, foodbanks, the Wave Trauma Centre, and the Nightline service.

beltel-frank-sellar-bonfire-headlineNorth Belfast MLA Nelson McCausland described the moderator’s comments as “ill-considered and inaccurate”. Reminding readers that the traditional Eleventh Night bonfires “celebrate King William of Orange’s arrival in Ireland and the subsequent Glorious Revolution”.

“Is he suggesting that these historic events were ‘the sins of our fathers’ and that they were somehow sinful?”

TUV councillor Jolene Bunting said:

“Many of the original fires were lit by Presbyterians to welcome William III, as they feared for their future on the island of Ireland had he not arrived to fight James II. Bonfires don’t commemorate the sins of our fathers – rather they commemorate the sacrifices they were called upon to make for their faith.”

But name one bonfire in North Belfast – or anywhere in Belfast – that doesn’t have any tricolours, election posters or sectarian graffiti burnt on it? The beacons tend to be well managed and intentionally free of sectarian and hateful displays. But most bonfires burn political and cultural emblems. That does sound sinful.

Oddly no quotes from republicans about their impression of Dr Sellar’s comments which were aimed at “both communities”.

Given the coverage on this morning’s Nolan phone-in and continued news reports throughout the day, the Presbyterian Moderator has certainly ignited a discussion about bonfires.

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