THE IRISH INTER-CHURCH MEETING
Thursday 21st November 2019
Dromantine Conference Centre, Newry.
In planning this year’s gathering the organisers suggested that it might be no harm that at the beginning of our meeting a brief presentation would be offered reminding all gathered of the origins of this, the Irish Inter-Church Meeting. It was felt that a brief overview would be a useful exercise not only for the relatively new members but also to remind all of us of the work of what one publication termed “the primary and main national ecumenical body in Ireland”. At this early stage I wish to acknowledge the research undertaken by Dr Ian Canon Ellis and the late Jesuit ecumenist Fr Michael Hurley published as the Irish Inter-Church Meeting: Background and Development in 1998 to mark the first 25 years of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, their research influenced the historical aspects of this presentation.
So, where do I start… well the obvious place is 1973
‘The Presbyterian historian and ecumenist, the Rev Professor John Barkley wrote: `the year 1973 was epoch making’, he was referring to the Ballymascanlon Conference also known as the Ballymasconlon ‘Talks’ on the September 26th which marked the beginning of the Irish Inter- Church Meetings. However, let us not forget that in Irish society 1973 is a year more famous for Sunningdale than for Ballymascanlon’.
They are not really comparable initiatives, but it is interesting to note that Sunningdale (the political agreement which involved a power-sharing executive between unionists and nationalists and a council of Ireland) did not succeed whereas Ballymascanlon (the first official meeting between Protestant, Reformed and Roman Catholic Churches in Ireland) did.
This contrast between the Sunningdale and Ballymascanlon initiatives illustrates the truth of the statement made by Gallagher and Worrall in their book Christians in Ulster 1968- 1980, that, when the Troubles broke out in 1968, “the churches were more ready than the political parties to stretch out hands of friendship”; they had been doing so for at least 10 years previously. This refers to the ‘unofficial’ ecumenical conferences that had already been held at Glenstal and Greenhills respectively. It is correct to describe these as laying the foundations which helped to make the first official meeting of Church representatives on this island possible.
I have a clear memory as a young 12 year old southern Catholic with strong family connections to the north of that first meeting as it was national news….I remember seeing on our B&W Bush TV (with the Cats ears as an aerial) the TV coverage. Pictures screened a large group of clergy in black as they emerged during a break from Ballymascanclon House Hotel near Dundalk, it was indeed news.
But let us take a step back. By asking this question: what was the road, what was the route for the Churches to Ballymascanlon?
For the Protestant and Reformed churches they began their journey to Ballymascanlon ten years earlier in 1963. They started out from Greystones, Co Wicklow, where an official Faith and Order Conference of what was then called the United Council of Churches and Religious Communions in Ireland (now the Irish Council of Churches) urged its members “to consider in what ways we ought to respond in truth and love to our Roman Catholic brethren who express their sense of fellowship with us”.
For the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland its journey to Ballymascanlon began the following year, before the Second Vatican Council had come to an end. It started out from Glenstal, the Benedictine Abbey in Co Limerick, where, at the invitation of the Abbot, Dom Joseph Dowdall, a conference involving members of all the churches was held, a conference which, to this day has continued yearly.
The churches took some 10 years to get to Ballymascanlon from their two starting places, and the journey followed a circuitous and tortuous route. It led up, into and through Northern Ireland. Happily, considerable progress in Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had been happening at the unofficial level by those who saw closer relations between the churches and their members as a Christian imperative in any case, violence or no violence.
So much progress had been made that, when the Troubles broke out, the churches did not take sides in the way they had done in the Home Rule crisis at the beginning of the century and, according to Gallagher and Worrell and ‘as they would have done a decade earlier’.
Instead the churches set about establishing official Catholic-Protestant structures. It was decided to expand their Faith and Order agenda (discussion of Baptism, Eucharist and similar questions) to include justice and peace issues.
The emergence in 1968 of the four church leaders as a working group to calm fears and to promote peace is generally regarded in the public mind as the first sign of official Catholic-Protestant co-operation.
This was followed in May 1970 by the Joint Group on Social Questions which established a working party on violence in Ireland. In 1972, in response to overtures conveyed by the secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy issued an invitation to what came to be called the Ballymascanlon talks, because of the venue of the early meetings.
This Catholic invitation to Ballymasconlon was remarkable for its inclusiveness: The Protestant and Reformed churches were invited to “a joint meeting at which the whole field of ecumenism in Ireland might be surveyed” and in which all the members of the episcopal conference would participate. However, Fr Hurley notes: ‘the unfocused nature of the terms of reference and a reluctance to address the issues highlighted by the Troubles led to considerable frustration during the first decade’.
In a publication in 1978 marking the first five years of the Ballymascanlon Conversations both Cathal Daly and Staley Worrall had this to say:
‘It was not without excitement and a sense of a momentous new departure that the delegates of all the member Churches of the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Hierarchy convened on Ballymascanlon on the 26th September, 1973. It was also with a certain anxiety as to weather we had been too ambitious, whether the meeting might fail to achieve the atmosphere conducive to ecumenical harmony’. (Ballymascanlon, Veritas 1978)
The coat of arms of Ballymascanlon House Hotel, where the conversations took place, includes the motto Festina Lente (hasten slowly). However slow, the churches were patient and persevering and Ballymascanlon has more than survived. It has become the Irish Inter-Church Meeting and is acknowledged today as “the primary and main national ecumenical body in Ireland”.
Ballymascanlon may have produced no other agreement except to meet again, but it did, and since 1973 and there have been thirty plenary meetings (including this years) making a significant contribution to the development of positive inter-church relationships across the island of Ireland.
The topics considered in 1973 were wide in their scope and academic in their treatment. They included Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage, Church, Scripture, Authority, Social and Community challenges. It is interesting to note that the topics Baptism, Eucharist, Marriage were also the first topics considered at the Glenstall and Greenhill Conferences. The beginnings of secularism in society was recognised early when papers on ‘Christianity and Secularism’ were delivered by Bishops Henry McAdoo and Cahal Daly with the latter’s references to ‘the death of God theology’ resisting any attempts to identify with Bonhoeffer’s concept of ‘ religionless Christianity’.
The years following 1973 saw the Ballymascanlon meeting establishing Working Groups on the topics already mentioned with these groups tabling their Reports for further discussion.
Dr Ellis in his essay of 1998 notes: ‘When one looks at the content of these meetings, it is clear that a major change of emphasis took place in the mid-1980s. Until then the representatives of the Churches were preoccupied with what one can only describe as an exercise in predominantly comparative theology, together with some discussion of community issues. From the time of the reorganisation of the Talks in 1984, sessions were held more or less regularly on an 18-month basis and the main items of discussion were no longer the classical theological issues but the reports emanating from the Department of Social Issues and…from the Department of Theological Questions. The Press naturally interpreted the move to hold the first Ballymascanlon as fundamentally and first of all a response to the Troubles. The media were inclined to view it as a kind of unofficial peace process. The Churches, however, viewed it in a wholly different way. It was first of all an exercise in ecumenism’. (end of quote)
Today the IICM continues to be the formal meeting between the Irish Episcopal Conference and the Irish Council of Churches. It gathers senior church leaders and lay representatives from across 15 denominations in Ireland, bringing together the broad spectrum of Roman Catholic, Reformed, and now Migrant–led, Independent and Orthodox traditions.
The meeting has changed the way it goes about its business. Where previously it received reports from committees, departments or forums, it now consciously engages the members to share the work that is taking place within their churches and to shape their own agenda and policy at a time when major contemporary external drivers for change include challenges to traditional authority, shrinking civil society space, economic austerity, increased multiculturalism, rising individualism, the democratisation of morality and growth in new social technology, all of which lead to overarching changes in the fabric of society.
A quick overview of the topics considered over the last ten years include:
2013 Vatican II
2014 Mission and Evangelism
2015 Human Rights
2016 Persecuted Church in the Middle East
At the end of the 2016 meeting we affirmed our commitment as Irish Christian Churches in 10 clear ‘affirmations’ on migration, diversity and inter-culturalism.
We reflected together about how best to respond to the many and varied needs of families proclaiming Christ to Families Today. In our pastoral care of the family we are also caring for society.
Those of us who were present and participated in last year’s meeting (2018) which took as its theme ‘Promoting the Common Good in Divided Societies’ will remember the moving and for me riveting contribution to the meeting made by a panel of young adults from Youthlink’s Apprentice Peace Programme. The young people openly shared about the challenges and pressures they and their friends have faced growing up in a divided society. We were struck by the significant pressures young people are dealing with today, where they continue to face problems of sectarianism and lack of opportunity, but the challenges are magnified under the relentless spotlight of social media. In these circumstances, coupled with the increasing availability of prescription and non-prescription drugs, it is unsurprising that struggles with self-esteem and mental health are at the top of the list of their concerns, as more and more young lives continue to be lost to suicide. In spite of this, however, our youth participants inspired us with great hope. The honesty and resilience they displayed challenged and encouraged all of us as they made an impassioned plea for young people who have made bad choices in the past to be given another chance. There is a lesson in that for us as churches as we reflect on our hopes, and our failings, as we seek to give leadership and provide pastoral care in divided communities.
Sometimes as co-secretaries of the IICM Nicola and I are asked, I’m not sure why I am here? Or, I am not sure I should be here? You are here because you have been nominated, asked or chosen to represent your church or faith community. If there is any pressure you feel it should only be that you, that we, are following in the footsteps of wonderful pioneers of godly centred human ecumenical friendships begun in 1973. So, be assured you are the right person and you are in the right place and we look forward to your contribution in these days.
‘But let us remember any consideration of Inter-Church relations brings us back to the radical source of all evangelisation, namely, as Benedict XVI writes in his letter ‘God is Love’ ‘the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (Desus Caritas Est, .n.28).
The Irish School of Ecumenics motto floreat ut pereat perhaps should apply to us also: may the Irish Inter-Church Meeting flourish in order to perish. However, as this year’s theme “Church in a Changing Public Square” attests to We have still work to do…..TOGETHER !
IRISH CHURCHES’ AFFIRMATIONS ON MIGRATION, DIVERSITY AND INTERCULTURALISM
We affirm our commitment as Christian Churches:
1. To recognise and appreciate cultural and ethnic diversity as gifts of God, and to ensure that these gifts are reflected in the life of the Church.
2. To foster faith communities where the rights of each person are respected and where scope is provided for each person’s potential to be realised.
3. To work towards inclusive communities, paying particular attention to addressing racism and xenophobia in attitudes, actions, practices and policies.
4. To explore and adopt ways of worship, systems of administration and other structures so that they fully respond to and reflect the Church membership.
5. To defend the rights of migrants in accordance with international and national laws and standards on migration.
6. To advocate for the rights of all migrants, and in particular their right to family life.
7. To support and assist migrants in appropriate, practical ways in their efforts to integrate in Church and society.
8. To establish networks with migrant-led Churches and chaplaincies by fostering co-operation and collaboration with them in providing pastoral care and support to migrants.
9. To seek the development of appropriate services for migrants and to draw attention to the need for public services generally to be responsive to the circumstances of migrants.
10. To work together as Churches and to network with people of other faiths and none to promote a greater understanding between denominations and other faiths and none, ensuring the growth of a society based on respect, dignity and equal rights for all its members.