Church Leaders and Conflict Societies

On Monday, September 19th, Radio 4's "Beyond Belief" program hosted three men who are experts in the intersection of religion and the Northern Irish conflict ("The Troubles"). The primary focus was on the role of church leaders during that time and currently. The entire conversation is available on the Radio 4 website, and is free to listen to worldwide. 

Ernie Rea, the host of the program, introduced the contributors; a Presbyterian minister (Rev. Dr. John Dunlop), a Catholic priest (Father Gary Donegan), and an academic expert (Prof John Brewer), before asking them a series of questions about specific clergymen during the Troubles. They all shared specific moments and memories which stand out for them, careful to distinguish between institution and individuals. The conversation focused particularly on a few men who are distinguished as religious peacemakers before asking the contributors what they thought the role of the Church was in the future of Northern Ireland. 

All of the men (as there were no women either interviewed or referenced on the program) called for participation of the church leaders in the current peace process. While Northern Ireland's conflict is certainly in a different phase than it was prior to 1998, I am among those hesitant to call it a "post-conflict" society, opting instead for the idea of "frozen conflict". Thus, for me, the pertinent question is about the role of public religion as the citizens of N.I. navigate the patchy ice. In their own ways, the men all alluded to this reality. 

While NI is the most statistically religious society in Western Europe, the numbers of the non-religiously affiliated are growing. That shift alone is interesting, but particularly interesting when one considers the point that Prof Brewer made at the end of the program. 

In addressing a point about victims and addressing the past (a ubiquitous topic of public conversation in Northern Ireland, by the way), Prof Brewer remarked that Northern Ireland "needs a moral vision that paints a shared future that the churches should contribute to, or in fact, lead. A moral vision that encourages us to not forget, but neither does it lock us in the past."

As churches wrestle with declining membership and therefore declining budgets, will they isolate themselves for survival, or engage with public discourse in a prophetic or visionary way? The participants in this program all called for church leaders to remember the call of Christ over the call of their institution, and to be peacemakers in the style of the Sermon on the Mount. These are not small asks, even if they seem logical or easy to say. 

For anyone interested in the role of faith communities in conflict societies, I'd definitely recommend this brief listen.