‘… We have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people’ – Rev Norman Hamilton

‘One might even be tempted to say that we have politics that is almost devoid of consistent Christian or gospel values, yet which is endorsed by thousands of Christian people’ – Rev Norman Hamilton

Those are strong and sobering words from Rev Norman Hamilton, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Convenor of the church’s Council for Public Affairs, speaking at a prayer breakfast last week in advance of Belfast’s 4 Corners Festival (1-11 February).

With talks resuming in Stormont yesterday about restoring power-sharing, Hamilton’s comments raise serious questions about the ‘Christian or gospel values’ that motivate the politicians who identify themselves as Christians – and, of course, about the values of the Christians they represent.

Hamilton has spoken in the past about the need for a ‘civic reconciliation’ that is informed by gospel values and concerned about ‘the common good, about apology, about trusted relationships, consensus or generosity of spirit.’ 

The full text of Hamilton’s address has been posted on the Contemporary Christianity blog. It is organised around two themes:

  • His pessimism about the return of devolved government: ‘devolution must not be seen as an end in itself, though to read and hear what is being said in public, you would think it was. What we desperately need is GOOD government. I also think that the tone of political debate in recent weeks and months has greatly set back any worthwhile discussion about what it means to heal our land. We are a long way from reconciliation being at the heart of any new Northern Ireland Executive, and that fact alone makes high quality government seem very elusive.’
  • How Christian churches ‘should respond to the deepening quagmire that is our politics.’

The 4 Corners Festival sees itself as a Christian response to the lack of reconciliation and the political quagmire that Hamilton speaks about (disclaimer: I am on the organising committee of the festival).

Now in its sixth year, the festival ‘seeks to inspire people from across the city to transform it for the peace and prosperity of all.’ The programme features events in all four corners of the city, a strategy designed to entice people out of their own (usually segregated) corners of the city ‘where they will encounter new perspectives, new ideas, and new friends.’

Two events early in the festival explore possibilities around the themes Hamilton raised: politics; and the churches’ contributions to the lack of reconciliation at all levels of our society.

The festival kicks with an event exploring political loyalism 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, ‘A conflict frozen in time?’, on Thurs 1 Feb at 7 pm in St Michael’s Church, Craven Street, off the Shankill. It features a panel discussion with Prof Monica McWilliams, former Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; Rev Ken Newell, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who has been engaged in reconciliation work both publicly and behind the scenes for many years; William McQuiston, who served over 12 years in prison and was a prison spokesperson for the UDP and Martin Snoddon, who served 15 years in prison for UVF activity and now has been heavily involved in grassroots peacebuilding. The evening will be accompanied with sketches by the Shankill’s own “Heel and Ankle” Theatre Group. (Read Winston Irvine’s Irish News article about the event here).

Then, on Sunday 4 Feb at 7.30 pm in the Skainos Centre, 239 Newtownards Road, I’ll be chairing a seminar, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ on the role the churches can play in promoting peace and reconciliation today. The contributors for this event include Rev Dr Heather Morris, Rev Steve Stockman, Fr Brian Lennon SJ and Rev Karen Sethuraman. There will be music by Caroline Orr and a Q&A afterwards.

The full festival programme, which includes music, prayer, storytelling and discussion, can be found here.