The following is an abridged version of a paper presented by Bishop John McDowell (Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher).It was presented to ‘Belief in the Future: Religion and Changing Identities’, by The Irish Association for Cultural, Economic and Social Relations, on 2nd July 2019
It’s one of those clever titles isn’t it. Will people in Ireland still have religious belief in years to come - will religious belief still contribute to a person’s identity? Even if they do, what authority or influence will such believing have in Irish life and culture?
I have been asked to briefly say something, from my own perspective about identity and religion. Obviously, what I will have to say is going to be limited and not just by the time (which is fine by me). Limited in that I am speaking for myself and not for the Church of Ireland (although perhaps it is worth noting that it has been said that in the Anglican Tradition one is free to believe almost anything, provided that is, you don’t hold the belief too fervently).
Limited also in that my experience of life, including religious life in Ireland, is much more of the North than the South, although I serve in a cross-border diocese. Limited also in that I am not going to mount a defence or even try to explain how Christian belief is a legitimate intellectual response to the phenomena of the world and a positive and creative way of interpreting that world.
Religious belief and shaping who we are
So, is religion and religious belief likely to continue to be an important factor for shaping who we are and where we belong? The answer would appear to be yes - but for fewer people and perhaps in a more intentional manner. For the sake of brevity let’s say that in the past religion has operated in two ways - one negative and the other positive. Negatively as an ethnic identity marker but positively (and these can overlap) as a means of community formation and social action.
In Northern Ireland at least, most people until fairly recently weren’t simply born into a family. They were also born into a tribe with whom they were expected to demonstrate immense social solidarity throughout their lives. Holding the line; keeping up the side. And to some degree religion reinforced that sense of solidarity as it tried to control and direct human behaviour by defining norms and censuring unacceptable opinions.
Paradoxically in Northern Ireland just as this ethnic solidarity was beginning to break down we adopted a political settlement which completely institutionalised those same divisions, at least in the sense of law making.
Although it won’t be truly verifiable perhaps until the census of 2021, current polling suggests that in terms of politics Northern Ireland will become 40% nationalist / 40% unionist / 20% other, and with the ‘other’ on the increase. We will all be minorities and although there is little sign of it yet, that will, in time drive political and religious accommodation.
Church and the future
So, I think one of the things which the Churches need to do to ensure that religion continues to shape who we are, is to accept responsibility for the past and for the fact that we continued to address matters of public policy and private morality with a tone of voice which most people, including most believers, had long since surrendered any desire to hear. We need to accept the reality, that most Irish people (North and South) including those who have religion as a large part of their identity, are very happy (indeed would prefer) to live in a pluralist society and would never want to return to the quasi-theocracy that existed in Ireland for much of the 20th Century.
To give two brief examples of this disposition. In the Northern Ireland Assembly every Catholic member (both nominal and committed) opposed the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Church in how they voted on the issue of marriage equality when it was debated. As an aside it is perhaps worth noting the irony that every Protestant (who in the past may have complained about Catholic’s being priest-ridden) voted in accordance with the teaching of their respective churches.
The second example is that it is now clear from survey evidence that many ‘religious’ people abstained from voting in the 2018 Repeal the 8th Referendum, not because they were indifferent to the issue of abortion but because they didn’t want to restrict the freedom of others.
Secular or pluralist?
I have deliberately used the word pluralist and not secular for two reasons. The first is that I think it is a more accurate description of what society and power structures are like in Ireland today. Secondly, because I don’t want to confuse it with the form of secularism which exists in, say France, known there as laicité, where a specifically religious voice appears to be squeezed out of public dialogue altogether.
Religion and people with a strong religious identity will still have a word to say in the future but it will never again seek to be the only word or the last word.
That respect for the freedom of others which is at the heart of Christianity will begin to assert itself once again as the last vestiges of Christendom (still operating on the fringes of Europe including in Ireland) recede. What will then emerge will be a pluralist Christianity in a pluralist Ireland. No longer able to be categorised as simply Catholic and non-Catholic but in the immense diversity that you see in the places like USA or South Korea at present.
However, because its origins will be different from those of the US or South Korea it will look and feel different. It will operate in societies which have a strong Welfare State history and allegiance but will also give people with a strong religious identity scope for social action which is not part of a proselytising strategy, but a no-expected-return contribution to the common good.
So, yes there will be belief in the future and its worth believing in.
A new book entitled Protestant and Irish was launched on 6th March in the Royal Irish Academy, Dubin, by Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys TD. Another took place at Carlow College on 12th March, with Dr Martin Mansergh performing the launch.
In 1989 Edna Longley remarked that if Catholics were born Irish, Protestants had to “work their passage to Irishness”. With eighteen essays by scholars with individual perspectives on Irish Protestant history, this book explores a number of those passages.
Divided into three themes – ‘Belonging’, ‘Engagement’ and ‘Otherness’ – the essays deal such diverse topics as the shifting nature of loyalty (and loyal to what), Protestant businesses, mixed marriages, Protestant revolutionaries, and the place of humour in explaining how Protestants came to terms with a different world.
The authors are Ian d’Alton is a Visiting Research Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Irish History (TCD) and Ida Milne, lecturer in European History in Carlow College.
There is a stand-out sentence in David Park's novel 'The Truth Commissioner' that reads: " “Day after day, it's as if the dam is breached and out pours a torrent of rising levels of hurt that have been stored over long winters of grief.”
Of course, in Northern Ireland there is no such Truth Commission but, rather, a continuing battle over the past that poisons the present.
Recently, there has been one of those periods of remembering, within which the dam was breached; this in the remembering of October 1993 and that week that stretched from the Shankill bomb to the Greysteel shootings and the six killings in-between - Martin Moran, Sean Fox, James Cameron, Mark Rodgers and brothers Gerard and Rory Cairns.
The dam was breached in the recalling and telling of stories from the rubble of 1993, from the ambulances and from the homes visited by the horrors of that week. There are people who will never forget and they must be heard.
I spoke on this at the launch of Professor John Brewer's latest books (The sociology of compromise after conflict and The sociology of everyday life peacebuilding).The event was at Queen's University on October 31st. Brewer's work and that of his research team is important in its listening to the experiences of those directly touched by conflicts in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa.
Around 200 stories were logged; research that records personal experiences and the needs of those who have been hurt. These are not political scripts or lines, and this work will make an important contribution to the continuing discussions, debates and dialogues. Often, we find that those who have been hurt the most give the most to peace-building efforts.
And why is it important that we listen to and hear and record these experiences? Because when we remember we also forget. Two days before the Shankill bomb, John Gibson was shot dead at his home on the outskirts of north Belfast. The day after the Greysteel pub attack, reserve police constable Brian Woods was shot and died days later. In our remembering, they become forgotten people; lost in the blizzard of the conflict years.
The legacy process currently being developed in Northern Ireland is far too political in its design and intention. We need a past process - not a police process or a prison process. Sending a small number of people to jail is not addressing the past. We have watched as the negotiating process has become a political play.
So, what do we need to do?
We need to hear and record the stories of those who want to tell them. Those academics, along with others who have experience in this, should help design that process. That there has been no decision yet on a pension for the injured is one example of the political play and delay.
We need to de-politicise legacy, and we need to work out how the maximum amount of information is achieved to address the many unanswered questions.
The past must not be repeated.
What will the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 deliver - the structure that includes an Historical Investigations Unit and an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval? Can the two work together?
For decades, politics has been part of the problem, and the political agreement of 2014 has become a disagreement and a battle, within which there is no healing.
How do you lift the past out of that fight? How do you stop us from shovelling our experiences on top of future generations? There is much to think about as the Northern Ireland Office considers the responses to its recent consultation and the next steps.
Brian Rowan is a journalist and an author - including ‘Unfinished Peace’