The Service of Reflection & Hope: An opportunity for the Church Leaders?

Unless you’re an avid reader of the ‘Presbyterian Notes’, a bi-weekly feature on a back page of the weekend edition of the Irish Times, you probably missed it.

Yesterday this brief little column, which isn’t even included in digital editions of the paper, printed an extract from an address given last week by the Moderator, Rev David Bruce. Bruce was speaking at an event marking the part played by Union Theological College in hosting the parliament of Northern Ireland 100 years ago.

This event was attended by high-ranking politicians and church leaders, and thronged by the island’s media, all pursuing the story about why President Michael D. Higgins had turned down the church leaders’ invitation to attend a service of reflection and hope on the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland, scheduled for next month in Armagh’s Church of Ireland Cathedral.

I continue to find it perplexing that such a furore could have occurred when so many people of goodwill, the church leaders and President included, were involved. There seems to have been an unfortunate series of misunderstandings and miscommunications, well summarized in the lead editorial in yesterday’s Irish Times.

But the focus on President Higgins meant that the media missed some significant words, including Bruce’s recital of the past failings of his own Presbyterian tradition. Bruce was quoted in the Presbyterian Notes extract:

Northern Ireland’s perception of itself has suffered from a deep and bogus theological conceit from its earliest days, particularly from within my tradition, or parts of it – that it was a bulwark against Rome’s inexorable advance, that it, and the Protestant people within it were especially anointed by God, that like Israel, it understood itself to be exceptional in the overarching economy of God. … our calling is not to repeat the mistakes of imperial hubris, but to live … in such a way that we would; ‘… act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.’ This is not a manifesto for ‘a Protestant State for a Protestant people’, but a shared land which belongs to all of us, and to none of us, since in truth we are merely tenants here of the one who made it, and he is a great and just Landlord.

This is the strongest, high-profile public critique I can recall hearing from a Presbyterian Moderator about how specific aspects of the Presbyterian theological tradition contributed to injustices on this island.

(Similar critiques have been made by Christian special interest groups, like the dynamic Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland – ECONI – which was especially active in the 1990s-early 2000s; and in the work of Methodist theologian Johnston McMaster, among others).

Bruce’s words seem in the spirit of the Church Leaders’ Group’s 2021 St Patrick’s Day Statement, which I consider the churches’ most comprehensive confession ever for their historic contributions to division and violence.

As Northern Ireland struggles to deal with its past, we need more examples of those who represent institutions and movements that have sinned (to use that traditional Christian language) to step up and acknowledge those failures.

Some may say that in the case of the churches, these confessions or apologies are coming ‘too little, too late’. The fact that the wider media hasn’t really recognized the importance of what the church leaders have been saying, especially in this centenary year, may simply reflect the churches’ declining social significance.

Yet the attention that President Higgins’ decision to decline their invitation has generated may mean that more people than ever will be tuned in to what happens at that service next month in Armagh.

It’s an opportunity for the church leaders to show further leadership around repentance and lamentation – balanced with a hopeful orientation towards the future. Will they take it?

The Presbyterian Church’s report on the event, including the full text of addresses by Bruce and Prof Ian McBride of Oxford University, are available here.

Image: The Millennium Window in the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, featuring the Irish saints Patrick (lower left), Brendan (upper left), Ferdomnach (centre), Columba (lower right), and Brigid. Photograph by Andreas F. Borchert from Wikimedia Commons.