Reflecting on the Church Leaders’ St Patrick’s Day Confession: “We have often been captive churches; not captive to the word of God, but to the idols of state and nation.”

For St Patrick’s Day, the Irish Church Leaders released a joint statement which deals directly with how the churches have been implicated in the island’s troubled past. The Church Leaders Group consists of the Catholic and Church of Ireland Archbishops of Armagh, the Presbyterian Moderator, the Methodist President, and the President of the Irish Council of Churches.

The statement references 2021 as a year of important (and divisive) centenaries, then goes on to articulate what is in my judgement the churches’ most comprehensive confession ever for their historic contributions to division and violence:

We have an opportunity, in marking these events from our past, to be intentional in creating the spaces for encounter with those who are different from us, and those who may feel marginalised in the narratives that have shaped our community identity. This will require us to face difficult truths about failings in our own leadership in the work of peace and reconciliation. As Christian churches we acknowledge and lament the times that we failed to bring to a fearful and divided society that message of the deeper connection that binds us, despite our different identities, as children of God, made in His image and likeness. We have often been captive churches; not captive to the Word of God, but to the idols of state and nation.

I have long argued that the churches should publicly acknowledge their failures in peace and reconciliation, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because a failure to do so damages their current peace and reconciliation ministries.

You can read the full statement here, or watch a video of the Church Leaders reciting it:

The confession might have had more impact if it came earlier in the document (and the accompanying video): it is the sixth of nine paragraphs. Even so, it is important that the confession is there at all.

In my recent research on the response of churches to the pandemic, I found that national level inter-church relationships seem to be at a historic high. It is possible that the Church Leaders united message on the past reflects the strengthening of these relationships.

Of course, as the island secularizes, there are fewer people who expect the churches to contribute to public debates or bother to listen to Church Leaders’ statements. At the same time, the churches remain the island’s largest voluntary organizations, with potential for mobilization.

The Church Leaders frame their statement as an opportunity or invitation to help create spaces for encounter. It remains to be seen if their confession will facilitate this process. But at the very least, it is an important first step.