The Irish Council of Churches (ICC) — an all-island body with membership from Protestant, Orthodox, Reformed, and independent church traditions — marked its centenary with a joint service of worship at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. With the theme of “Celebrating our Reconciling Vision of Hope”, the special service also marked the 50th anniversary of the Ballymascanlon Talks, which led to the establishment of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM), the means by which the ICC continues to engage and collaborate with the Catholic Church.
The service was led by the Very Rev. Stephen Forde (Dean of Belfast Cathedral) and the preachers were the Most Rev. Eamon Martin (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland) and Rev. Dr Harold Good (former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland).
Rev. Good asked all present, whether from church or state or civic society, “What can each of us bring to [our shared vision of reconciliation] of our sadly fractured community?” To those from the community of Christian faith, he suggested the words “humility” and “hope”:
“It is in humility that we as churches recognise … that we do not have a monopoly on the things which make for peace… All of us, from whatever sector we have come, have something distinctive to bring. And it is in humility that we confess we have not always been obedient to the Gospel entrusted to us. Too often we have been silent when we ought to have spoken, and too often we stood back when others fuelled the flames of sectarianism and strife.”
Rev. Good spoke of a culture of despair as a glum message not lost on young people when considering their options for the future. But he doesn’t want to counter this with a benign optimism which ignores the painful realities of the daily world: “Hope looks at the world as it is and responds with a determination to change it.”
To drive home this point, Rev. Good referred to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, not on the day King delivered it at the Pool of Reflection in Washington, but months later, after a series of burnings, bombings, riots, and mayhem; King said, “I still have a dream!”
Archbishop Eamon Martin began with his boyhood memory of the church leaders meeting up 50 years ago, when others marched in protest: “I knew instinctively that something special was happening in Ballymascanlon — it was a beacon of hope in dark times.”
Archbishop Martin also referred to shortcomings, citing a 2021 Church Leaders’ message that sometimes “we have failed to bring to a fearful and divided society that message of the deeper connections that binds us, despite our different identities, as children of God”.
He then called upon those present:
“Let us re-commit to being the peacemakers, the healers, the reconcilers that our Saviour longed for his followers to be, even though we know that our ongoing pilgrimage toward unity will always involve risk — just as it did for the pioneers of the Inter-Church bodies that we are commemorating today.”
Archbishop Martin suggested an important role that the IICM could facilitate:
“At a recent Irish Inter-Church Meeting it was agreed that ‘our friendship allows us to go together places where it might be difficult for us to go as individuals’. In recent years trust has enabled us to facilitate together shared spaces for encounter, dialogue, healing, conversion, and reconciliation. There have been initiatives at Church leadership level and — even more importantly — on the ground, in partnerships between groups of Christians at parish, congregation, and community level. We long for more of this. For it is only in safe, shared and prayerful spaces, inspired by the Word of God, that the truth of our divided past can be sensitively unfolded and hopes enkindled for renewed encounter and healthy relationships on this island.”
An unresolved issue in Northern Ireland is how to deal with its troubled past. With the service attended by members of the public and government representatives — including Chris Heaton-Harris MP (Secretary of State for Northern Ireland), Councillor Christina Black (Lord Mayor of Belfast), and Simon Coveney TD (Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment) — Archbishop Martin mooted how the churches collectively may assist:
“Peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness on this island can only be progressed if we bring to light the truths about our troubled past that remain hidden and festering, and engage in respectful conversations across our communities about what we mean by a shared future. It may seem ambitious, but might we in the Churches offer to help develop an agreed truth recovery process to address the legacy of pain and mistrust that continues to hang over us? And might our Churches also work together to create spaces for dialogue at parish, congregation, and community level so that all voices can be fully heard about the kind of society and values we want for our children and grandchildren?”
Speaking after the service, Bishop Andrew Forster (ICC President) thanked everyone who attended the event to share the significant milestone in inter-church relations on the island: “In eternity, 100 years is but a blink of an eye, not even that, but in the context of our human story a century is a significant moment.”
Bishop Brendan Leahy (IICM Co-Chair) added, “I think those who attended each of these historic events 50 and 100 years ago would want us today to be grateful that after all that has happened on this island over the past century, we were able to join together to worship God… In humility, may we serve and love one another in and across communities, and in doing so, work for the common good.”
Irish Council of Churches
The Irish Council of Churches was founded in 1923 at the height of the Irish Civil War. It is the formal national body through which its member churches formally engage, dialogue, and act on a wide variety of issues. It was established by its member churches and funded by them.
The ICC Executive meets four times a year and is made up of church general secretaries and other nominated representatives from across the range of Protestant, Orthodox, Reformed and Independent church traditions. The President is the public representative of the Council and serves for two years.
Irish Inter-Church Meeting
In 1973 in the midst of the Troubles, the Council began historic talks in Ballymascanlon with the Catholic Church, which over the course of time became formalised as the Irish Inter-Church Meeting. The meeting is coordinated by a committee which also meets four times a year. This Inter-Church Committee is formed by the leadership of the churches and made up of 50/50 representation from the Irish Bishops Conference and the Council.
The ICC constitution describes it as “Christian Communions in Ireland willing to join in united efforts to promote the spiritual, physical, moral and social welfare of the people and the extension of the rule of Christ among all nations and over every region of human life”.
This mandate stems from the original constitution that established the United Council of Christian Churches and Religious Communities in Ireland in 1922. There were seven founding member churches at the Council’s first meeting in January 1923 (Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church, Non–Subscribing Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church, Moravian Church, Congregational Union, and the Religious Society of Friends/Quakers).
Cross-published at Shared Future News.