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Archbishop Richard Clarke speaks on religion and society at the Merriman Summer School

Press Releases

Added on 16/08/2013

Archbishop Armagh at MerrimanThe Archbishop of Armagh, The Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, participated in the Merriman Summer School in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare last night (Thursday 15th August) by giving a paper at a panel discussion entitled ‘An Anglican and Catholic view of religion and society in the two Irelands’ alongside Dr Geraldine Smith, Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, TCD. The overall theme of the Summer School this year is ‘Ireland North and South: two societies growing apart?’

In his paper, Archbishop Clarke said, ‘If the different Christian traditions in Ireland wish to be of help rather than hindrance to a future common good throughout the island, we must openly recognise the cultural differences that have grown up not only between our different traditions but within our own traditions.’

With reference to Northern Ireland, Archbishop Clarke said, the Church ‘…must be ready always – even at a cost and with the possibility (even the likelihood) of being open to manipulation and misrepresentation – to make itself available as peace–makers or peace–brokers, and these are not the same thing.’

In conclusion, the Archbishop said: ‘A formula that has proved to have particular value in examining the life of local parishes and dioceses might be of value in finding some consensus about the present. This process is to seek honest and sometimes painful answers to three searching questions: “What were we once that we are no longer?”, “What truly are we now?”, and “What might and should we become, that we are not yet?” If we could ever answer those three questions, as different Christian traditions, as local communities, and as political leaders, in a way that met genuine agreement across the board in Northern Ireland, there would be the possibilities of hope and a constructive future.’

(Archbishop pictured above at the Summer School – photo: Merriman Summer School/Brian O’Neill)

The full transcript of Archbishop Clarke’s paper is given below:

An Anglican and Catholic view of religion and society in the two Irelands

As I began my preparation for this paper I found myself repeatedly asking a question of myself, ‘But just how many Irelands are there?’ I found that I was not thinking particularly about two jurisdictions, or differing political standpointsand ideologies (whether mutually exclusive or not), but of something more nuanced and rather less accessible to classification – the varying cultural perceptions of what this island (north and south) actually is or is meant to be.

There are in fact several different cultures of Irishness that are each immensely deep–rooted in our history, although they do naturally develop and recast themselves through time and political and economic circumstance. But all of these cultures reserve respect. I am using the word ‘culture’ here in a fairly standardised way to describe the collective mindset or identity that will distinguish members of one group of people from another group, an identity that is both expressed and socially transmitted through a combination of shared symbols, values, behavioural patterns and extended communal experience. And in the Irish setting, it is difficult to keep religion out of this kind of discussion for very long. We Irish seem to have a particularly ingrained habit of reinforcing our cultural identities with an extremely focussed view of precisely who and what we are not, and religion is unfortunately far too helpful to us in that regard.

Turning now to religion in general, I should explain that one of my foibles for many years has been to avoid – as far as possible – writing or speaking of different Christian churches, but instead to think of different traditions within the Christian Church. This is partly based on my own theological understanding of how I believe the Church in its wholeness should be conceived– as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, encompassing different traditions rather than as a series of squabbling fiefdoms each imagining that it possesses the totality of what the true Church is. But there is more to it than this.

The use of the word tradition suggests far fuzzier edges than the walls that seem to be implied by the words ‘church’ or ‘denomination’. A tradition may indeed assert distinctive core teachings or spiritual emphases that will distinguish it from other traditions, but each also has its own broader culture, which will of its nature represent far more than the precise delineation of a particular community. It is not casual relativism to suggest that any and every religious tradition is set in a wider context than itself with social and political aspects to that context which will change with the particularity of circumstances, and that these external factors will inevitably modify some aspects of the religious tradition itself in the process.

And there will be local cultural differences even within traditions. I can say with absolute certainty that in many respects Irish Anglicanism and English Anglicanism are culturally very different, although they belong together within an Anglican family. I cannot be as confident in any ideas I might suggest about other Christian traditions, but observation would suggest to me – for example – that French Roman Catholicism and Irish Roman Catholicism are dissimilar in many respects, as would also be Scottish and Irish Presbyterianism. All of which brings me to a central point – perhaps the central point – in what I would like to communicate, namely that if the different Christian traditions in Ireland wish to be of help rather than hindrance to a future common good throughout the island, we must openly recognise the cultural differences that have grown up not only between our different traditions but withinour own traditions, and particularly in the ninety years since the partition of Ireland. This is not necessarily an easy thing to do; most of our traditions cherish the fact that we are (so to speak) ‘All–Ireland’ communities and, totally regardless of the part of the island from which we hail, we value the internal unity we represent and rightly so.

Speaking for my own tradition– the Church of Ireland – we constantly accentuate the fact that we are a single entity. Because provincial, diocesan and parochial boundaries obviously pre–date partition (and even county structuring) by centuries, several of our dioceses and a number of parishes are cross–border. The General Synod of the Church of Ireland now meets in alternate years in Dublin and in Armagh, there is a long tradition of clergy ‘crossing the border’ to take up appointments in the other political jurisdiction and, on a personal note, I have done precisely this, having recently been appointed as Archbishop of Armagh, although a southerner by birth and upbringing who has served almost all his ministry in different parts of the Republic of Ireland. (Armagh is of course itself a cross–border diocese, encompassing the whole of County Louth, although most of its population is within Northern Ireland.) Continuing in this personal vein, I would want to say that I have been happily delighted by the welcome I have been given in Armagh and have received no indication that I am regarded as an ‘outsider’. I would hence be very reluctant to underplay the essential sense of one–ness that pertains throughout my own tradition. However, the Church of Ireland – for all that it covers the whole island of Ireland – has also been immensely punctilious when it comes to recognising fully the two political entities. When the former Irish Free State was declared a Republic in 1949, the Archbishops, Bishops and General Synod immediately made it mandatory that the rulers and governments of each jurisdiction were to be given full recognition and support in the public liturgy within those jurisdictions with absolute precision (even within a single grouping of parishes straddling the border, depending on the geographical location of the particular church building).

The history of Ireland – in particular since Partition – has over the years and decades inevitably and inexorably given a different cultural complexion to different geographical areas within all our Christian traditions. Not to blame either James Craig or Eamonn de Valera in isolation, but was it not inevitable that when (in the 1930s) Craig could speak of Northern Ireland as having ‘a protestant parliament and a protestant people’ and DeValera, on the other hand,could speak of Ireland as being ‘a Catholic nation’ this mode of thinking in the political sphere would impact directly on the cultural self–understanding and sense of identity of both the Roman Catholic and the reformed traditions, north and south? Neither Craig nor De Valera were originating the ideas they enunciated; they were reflecting the thinking of the majority communities in each of their political contexts. There was a crucial difference. The reformed traditions in the southern state constituted a very small minority of the total population. In Northern Ireland, Roman Catholics were a considerably larger minority, at least a third of the overall population (and now, of course, far more).

As one who grew up in Dublin during the 1950s and 1960s, I can now reflect back on the feeling I had at that time that although I was authentically Irish as far as I was concerned, I was somehow not expected to regard myself as such by the majority faith tradition. I have written elsewhere of what I regarded as a ‘benign apartheid’ that existed at that time. There is no doubt that although the reformed traditions were treated with understanding by the government of the Republic of Ireland (particularly with regard to facilities for denominational education) there was the sense of belonging to a separate minority that was valued, but more as a protected species threatened with extinction than as fully part of the native population. I remember, even at the time, finding this strange because, havingsome interest in history even then, I somehow grasped that this notion of what constituted ‘authentic Irishness’ was a relatively modern and artificial construct. I knew that there was a strong protestant strand within Irish nationalism – Wolfe Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, stretching on into the constitutional nationalism of Isaac Butt or Charles Stewart Parnell – a strand which, although never a majority stance with the reformed traditions, should neverhave been written quite so readily out of Irish history. It rankled that a protestant culture had been artificially sidelined from what was conceived of astrue Irishness.

But in the Republic, the different interest groups inevitably each played the game to their own advantage. In general members of the Church of Ireland and other reformed traditions relaxed into their role as exotic minority. Roman Catholicism was permitted to be extremely influential politically in the Republic, and understandably did not pass up the opportunity. And political parties all realised that, whatever for the divisions between them based on civil war rifts, playing their role as religiously loyal components within ‘the Catholic nation’ was necessary in order to maintain voter support. This consensus continued for decades. Periodically the minority traditions would raise their voice in dissent and would, to be fair, be heard with conscientious respect. There are still elements of this traditional arrangement visible today, although a new and voluble secularisation in the public square has most certainly changed the nature of things.

Almost as an aside here, I would comment (perhaps unnecessarily in this context) that there is a massive difference between ‘secularism’ which separates clearly the roles of government and of religious institutions, and ‘secularisation’ which seeks to remove any religious voice from public discourse. Secularism is a perfectly reasonable political position. Secularisation is an ideologically–driven and often emotive reaction against what is perceived as the pernicious influence of religion and in particular the institutions that religion has produced. From my perspective – as a Church leader – a fair–minded secularism does not constitute a difficulty of any kind. Secularisation is a different matter, in that the enforced removal of anyexpression of specifically religious values from public discourse is a danger to democracy itself. The voice of religious faith should indeed simply be one voice among many in the public square, but its coerced silencing does not create a neutral value–system (there is no such thing) but merely opens the door to other philosophies which may be far more dehumanising and even demonic than anything we might anticipate.

The vociferous secularisation that is the new chic not only among the chattering classes but seemingly also in elements among the political class has changed the relationship between the Christian Church and the political system. I do not believe that any religious grouping believes any longer that it should expect to be listened to in public on the basis of its inherent authority alone. What it has to say must make moral sense to the intelligent secular mind if it is to be given any credence and this is no bad thing. Interestingly also, I believe that there is a new understanding between those of the different Christian traditions and those of other religious faiths that there should be a mutual support, even if not necessarily a complete mutual agreement, when people of religious faith speak in the public arena. This is not a matter (in the words of the famous aphorism often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, whether correctly or not) of hanging together so that we will not hang separately. It is, I am convinced, a recognition that the voice of religious faith should be heard with respect, from wheresoever it may emerge, and however courteously it should be expressed. This too is part of the new dynamic between religious faith and the public arena in our new Ireland.

Turning to Northern Ireland, we naturally find a very different relationship between religious faith and political life. My own take, as an observer of Northern Ireland (although far more than a detached observer) for over forty years and now a recent resident, is that the greatest danger facing us is to imagine that things have in fact settled down and will settle down further if nobody panics. Panic may never be a sensible response to anything, and it does seem true that at present the vast bulk of the population is relatively settled, notwithstanding the scenes of mayhem on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere that still appall and depress us in equal measure, in addition to the reality that there remains a dissident republican movement that is well capable of reminding us that, for them at least, ‘the war’ is not over. But divisions have not been healed, blind frustration and inchoate anger remain social realities in many places (as we still see with increasing frequency on our television screens), and there is still profound hurt and grief within all the communities of Northern Ireland, none of which has been assuaged. And, let us be clear, there are more than two communities in Northern Ireland:

There are those for whom the present Northern Ireland is merely a transitional stage to a unitary state encompassing the entire island of Ireland. There are those for whom this eventuality must be resisted at all costs, and for whom continuing British sovereignty is core to their identity. There are those who will genuinely tolerate either possibility, provided that violence is not involved. And there appears to be a reasonably sizeable cohort, revealed by the most recent census (and perhaps overlapping with the group just described), who are content to regard their identity as simply, ‘Northern Irish’.

Following on thirty years of destruction, murder and near–civil war, and the uneasy peace that followed, the present governance structures for Northern Ireland have been painstakingly built around what amounts to institutionalised stalemate. To think of this as a basis for a ‘shared future’ seems over–simplistic. One ‘side’ with political power retains a vision of reaching, step by quiet step, theholy grail of a united Ireland. (Whether the other part of Ireland, now reeling in morbid introspection in the grip of a recession, has the remotest interest in such an outcome is highly doubtful but this, in the context of internal Northern Irish politics, does not appear to be as relevant as it should be.) The other ‘side’ with the exact balance of political power in Northern Ireland wishes at all costs to counter the advance of Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland, and to retain the political connection with the United Kingdom. There is no doubt that some fine work has been done for the common good of the people of Northern Ireland by the Northern Irish Assembly, but this cannot obscure what are the core underlying agendas – neither of them dishonourable per se but nevertheless mutually exclusive – for those who between them hold all the political power in Northern Ireland at present. There can only be hope of a shared future when ‘the present’ becomes a more open and examinable place. The alternative is paralysis, and paralysis in a democratic system is a catalyst for the overthrow of democracy itself.

Historically (and through into the present), the lines between nationalism and unionism have for the most part followed the borderlines between the Roman Catholic and reformed traditions respectively (although this may not be quite as clear cut today as previously). The different Christian traditions have hence inevitably been associated with particular political standpoints and, it must be admitted, have been happy to reap benefits in terms of denominational allegiance from this. But, let us be clear, this situation is eroding fast and, at present, any involvement and engagement – certainly of younger people – in the life of many parishes and local congregations is becoming more dependent on the nature and quality of the worship encountered and on a Christian way of life that is commended by such engagement, than by existing familial or ethnic affiliations. Without the Church ever becoming exclusivist, this development must be energetically encouraged into the future.

What else can the Church in Northern Ireland do? First, it must be ready always – even at a cost and with the possibility (even the likelihood) of being open to manipulation and misrepresentation – to make itself available as peace–makers or peace–brokers, and these are not the same thing. It seems that there is still some remnant of public respect in Northern Ireland for an integrity and impartiality that the Church in its different traditions can offer to opposing factions in seeking resolution of differences. We should never forget that many different denominations, particularly at local level and through the courage and steadiness of many local clergy and laity, have achieved local successes in this capacity over many years and have sought to be a presence for good in local communities, even in the most inauspicious of circumstances. This should not be demeaned by anyone.

On the larger scale, if any route through the present paralysis – engendered by the careful counter–balancing of equal and opposite political perspectives on the future status of Northern Ireland – is ever to be found, It can only be when new ways are found to view the present, but they can only be outside the box in which we are presently imprisoned.

A ‘shared future’ remains a political cliché until we are publicly agreed about the realities of the present and the past. A formula that has proved to have particular value in examining the life of local parishes and dioceses might be of value in finding some consensus about the present. This process is to seek honest and sometimes painful answers to three searching questions: ‘What were we once that we are no longer?’, ‘What truly are we now?’, and ‘What might and should we become, that we are not yet?’ If we could ever answer those three questions, as different Christian traditions, as local communities, and as political leaders, in a way that met genuine agreement across the board in Northern Ireland, there would be the possibilities of hope and a constructive future.

I have no idea how many Irelands I may have uncovered, but I suspect that there are indeed more than two.


 

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