Leaders of Ireland’s mainstream Christian traditions will hold a “Meditation and Hope Service” in Armagh, Northern Ireland on October 21, 2021, marking 100 years of the “Partition of Ireland and the Formation of Northern Ireland.”
But church services are controversial, highlighting tensions on both sides of the border. In September, Irish President Michael D. Higgins said he would decline his invitation because the name of the event was not politically “neutral.”
As an Irish-born scholar working at the intersection of religion and international relations, I believe that the hype surrounding Higgins’ invitation has overshadowed an important story. Despite a history of sectarian strife, cooperation between Roman Catholic and Protestant church leaders in Ireland has deepened in recent years, and churches increasingly act as a united front on important social and political issues.
The Church Leadership Group brings together the top leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist churches in Ireland, with jurisdiction over the entire island, and the President of the Irish Council of Churches. The five men are coordinating more closely than ever on peacebuilding, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent political events like Brexit.
More than just bunching up
The churches have traditionally wielded significant influence in Irish politics and society. However, they have all experienced significant declines over the past couple of decades as more people say they do not identify with any particular religion. Abuse scandals within the Catholic Church have contributed to this trend. (However, declining attendance does not necessarily mean that faith is falling at the same rate, reflecting what British sociologist Grace Davy calls “faith without belonging.”
Archbishop John McDowell, head of the Anglican Church of Ireland, told me in a recent interview that the growing collaboration of churches is not due to their diminishing size or influence – that they do not “come together to keep warm because it’s getting colder. out. “Indeed, despite Ireland’s long history of conflict, fueled by political and religious divisions, official relations between churches have always been collegial.
Rather, the recent rise in ecumenical activity has been fueled by a new generation of Church leaders who grew up in Trouble, three decades of political violence in Northern Ireland, and share concerns about current problems. A recent analysis by Queen’s University shows that interchurch collaboration at the national level was “more frequent and cohesive during the pandemic than possibly ever in the history of the Irish church.”
Britain established the border separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the island in May 1921, and since then this border has dominated Irish politics.
The north was predominantly Protestant and the south was Catholic. In the same year, the south gained independence from Great Britain.
From the late 1960s to the 1990s, Trouble pitted nationalists who wanted a united Ireland against unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in Britain. Most of the nationalists were Catholic, while the majority of the Unionists belonged to the Protestant majority of the territory.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended most of the violence, which left several thousand people dead. To try to prevent further conflict, the agreement also introduced a form of power sharing based on a model called “consocialism.” While consociative democracy is designed to maintain social peace in societies with deep ethnic or religious divisions, it can also perpetuate divisions and make it difficult to bridge them.
Indeed, aspects of Northern Ireland’s society, such as the education system, continue to be divided along sectarian lines. More than 9 out of 10 children attend schools divided by religion, but the situation is slowly changing and a significant part of the population supports integration.
Brexit and the border
One of the goals of the Good Friday Agreement was to make the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland less lightning-conductor. This contributed to the development of cross-border cooperation, the destruction of military installations and the provision of citizens with the opportunity to move freely between north and south.
But Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has put the border back at the center of politics. According to the “Northern Ireland Protocol” agreed between the UK and the EU, Northern Ireland remains within the EU’s single market to avoid a “hard border” on the island of Ireland. However, this means that some goods coming from other parts of the UK must be checked when entering Northern Ireland. Essentially, the Johnson government designed the “Irish Sea Border” to keep the land border open, but the idea has angered unionists who believe it separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
A group of church leaders quickly realized that Brexit could threaten a fragile peace. As Archbishop McDowell noted in an open letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July 2019, the “border” is not just the de facto line separating north from south. It is a division that “runs through every village and town in Northern Ireland, and in some parts of Belfast it is so complex that it takes the form of very tall brick walls topped with barbed wire.”
Church leaders also acknowledged that the post-Brexit era will require difficult economic transformations. They worked on a consultation document to inform local communities and interchurch groups about the likely local, regional and international impact of Brexit.
Church leaders from a group of church leaders tell me that the combination of growing social and political pressures with the simplicity of virtual meetings – a byproduct of COVID-19 restrictions – means the group is much more common.
Meanwhile, in late 2020, discussions began on how to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland. The jubilee evokes a wide variety of emotions amid political divisions, which is why Church leaders have framed the event as a place for “reflection and hope,” rather than celebration or mourning.
On St. Patrick’s Day, a Group of Church Leaders published a joint message to mark the anniversary. Emon Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, acknowledged that churches have sometimes abused their power in the past, complaining that “too often we have been captive churches, not captive to the word of God, but to the idols of the state and nation.”
As Archbishop McDowell told me recently, “What has happened in the past is that churches have tended to draw our flavor from the communities we have been in, rather than trying to convey a single message to a divided society.”
The ongoing controversy over Higgins’ presence has revealed a degree of polarization reminiscent of times gone by. Public support in the south quickly intensified around the president and remains high: 68% approve of his decision to decline the invitation. Irish commentators and academics in the south have made a compelling case that partition celebrations could never be politically neutral.
During the discussion, the Church Leadership Group issued a statement explaining the purpose of the ministry and asking for prayer support.
“First and foremost, we want to gather in prayer to heal the relationship,” they wrote, “and thereby demonstrate a renewed commitment to working together for peace, reconciliation and the common good.”