A Future of Grace? Reflections on the Church Leaders’ Service

Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ decision to decline his invitation to this week’s service of reflection and hope on the centenary of partition and the creation of Northern Ireland was handled gracelessly, with considerable confusion and a stunning lack of communication.

But the controversy provoked by Higgins meant that far more people on the island were paying attention to what was said and done at the service, which was organized by the Church Leaders’ Group and took place at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh.

[The Church Leaders’ Group is comprised 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.]

There’s no doubt the Church Leaders’ Group had an enhanced public platform, and to their credit they used it to apologize for the churches’ roles in promoting division and violence. Church of Ireland Archbishop John McDowell spoke the strongest words:

Now, as a church leader I am sorry that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we didn’t do more to become peacemakers, or at least to speak peace into the situation. Too often we allowed the attitudes around us to shape our faith, rather than the other way around.

Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin also said:

I have to face the difficult truth that perhaps we in the churches could have done more to deepen our understanding of each other and to bring healing and peace to our divided and wounded communities.

I think that Martin should have omitted the word ‘perhaps’.  But at the same time, Martin is the church leader for whom it must have been most personally difficult to participate in the service. [Martin speaks about his initial reservations about the service, and how these were addressed, in a podcast released during the week.]

These confessions build on the Church Leaders’ Group’s St Patrick’s Day Statement. At the time I called it ‘the churches most comprehensive confession ever for their historic contributions to division and violence.’

With all its elements taken together, the service of reflection and hope surpasses the St Patrick’s Day statement and invites everyone on the island to consider how we can build a better future.

An orientation towards the future was provided through young people’s participation in the service. They challenged us not to let the hard-won gains of peace slip away, and to be mindful of challenges that affect us all, like climate change.

Equally powerfully, Methodist President Rev Sahr Yambasu pointed towards the future by invoking a figure from Ireland’s ancient past – St Patrick. Given the service’s location, it could have been easy for reflections on Patrick to come off as trite or contrived.

Rather, Yambasu told the story of Patrick the slave, reminding us that Patrick’s return to Ireland after escaping bondage was an occasion of grace:

Patrick had every reason to hate the Irish and seek for vengeance. But he didn’t. Instead, he forgave and was forgiven. Consequently, the history of this place could be summarised in one word: GRACE – unmerited concern for the good of the other.

Yambasu, a native of Sierra Leone who has served for more than two decades in Ireland, said that:

I speak as one whose people were bought, sold, and used for profit; whose continent was partitioned without any reference to or consultation with its inhabitants and owners; and whose colour is seen as sufficient excuse to ignore their equal humanity with others.

He returned to the theme of grace eight times in his address, which was the spoken centrepiece of the event. In the penultimate paragraph, he gave his fullest exposition:

Embracing different others is not about promoting oneself. It is about creating space for each other to flourish. It is not about assimilating them into ourselves. It is about recognizing that there is something of us in the ones we embrace. It is not about ignoring justice. It is about creating space within ourselves for the perceived wrongdoer in hope of reconciliation. That is what GRACE is. It is choosing relationship over being right. This is what Christianity is and should be about. That is what Christian practice is.

Two years ago, Jamie Yohanis and I published a book called Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles, based on research conducted in partnership with the Presbyterian Church. Its title was taken from the words of Rev Terry Laverty. When he was a teenager, Laverty’s brother, who was in the RUC, was killed in an IRA ambush. After describing his own struggle to come to terms with his brother’s death, Laverty said he wanted to extend an invitation to ‘anybody who is struggling as a result of violence and trauma to consider grace.

Yambasu’s words are challenging and make me wonder if we are ready for the hard work of considering grace, and creating a future that is grace-filled.

The service also raises questions about whether or to what extent the Church Leaders’ Group can continue to promote a reconciliation-focused agenda. As Presbyterian Moderator David Bruce noted in a podcast released last week, statements by church leaders are often forgotten. He added that grassroots feedback they had received about the St Patrick’s Day statement indicated that it had something of a galvanizing effect, raising hopes for further action.

But even a high-profile event like this service could soon be forgotten, so in some ways that puts the ball back into our court: the people of this island, of all faiths and none. The future is up to us. How will we respond?

[You can listen to historian Maggie Scull and me discussing the service on today’s Sunday Sequence, during the final ten minutes.]

You can read the order of service here.