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Bishop Trevor Williams' Article on The Hard Gospel Project & Implementation

Bishop Trevor Williams
Bishop Trevor Williams

The Church of Ireland’s 'Hard Gospel Project' – Dealing with Difference and Challenging Sectarianism
By the Rt Revd Trevor Williams

This article appeared in The Irish News, under the title, 'Living positively with difference is another global challenge for us', Thursday 26 March 2009.

The current financial crisis is not the only problem of global proportions. Global warming is another and a third is the challenge of living in a global village. Living with people from other cultures and ethnic backgrounds has enriched communities. But in some places rivalry has escalated into hatred and violence.  Living positively with difference is another global challenge. We should know.

The fear, community tension and violence which surrounded the Drumcree standoff for many years may have had at least one good outcome. The service in Drumcree Parish Church prior to the parade and what followed, raised difficult questions for the Church of Ireland.  It has led the Church of Ireland to examine its need to change.

In 1997 the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, the Church's highest governing body, declared unequivocally that the Church was opposed to sectarianism. Nothing remarkable in that – what would you expect a Church to say? What was significant was that the Church decided to follow up on its statement. It decided to find out if the Church itself in any way contributed to sectarianism. It undertook a study of the attitudes and opinions of Church of Ireland members, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The result of that study showed a deep desire within the clergy and lay membership of the church to find ways of dealing positively with difference in our relationships both within the Church, and in wider society. 

Northern Ireland is well trained in the blame game – finding the fault that lies with the other side. Our instinct is to demand 'the others' change. But the only change we can bring about is to change ourselves. This is what the Church discovered through its study of sectarianism and is what led to the Hard Gospel Project. The aim of the project was to address issues of sectarianism within the church, and to avoid being hypocritical. It was Jesus who summed up God’s law in two commandments 'love God … and love your neighbour as yourself' – this is the 'hard' gospel. To call yourself a Christian Church and not follow this most basic Christian teaching is indeed hypocritical. But the challenge is quite radical when you live in a context of sectarianism. One of the aims of the project sought to express this: 'to model in its own structures and ways of being, the relationships and values with regard to overcoming sectarianism, community conflict and dealing with difference, that it will promote in wider society.'

The project received funding from the International Fund for Ireland, and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, and was welcomed as an ambitious attempt at institutional change to overcome sectarianism. The three year project came to an end in January this year. Three members of staff delivered, among other things: a wide range of programmes, resource materials and meetings throughout the 32 counties. Materials for parish study groups were produced, an audit of the committees and structures of the church was undertaken to see who was being excluded, a project on meeting the needs of Loyalist communities in the North, a counterpart programme with immigrant communities in the South, and a study of the experience of border Protestants. These can be accessed on the Hard Gospel website www.hardgospel.net.

It was Seamus Heaney who coined the phrase 'whatever you say, say nothing', which reflects the difficulties we have in speaking together about contentious issues. So a series of seminars were held under the banner 'Beyond the Box' dealing with issues such as, 'Where there is no vision … Leadership in the Protestant/Unionist community'; 'Remembrance … whose story is it anyway?' and 'Racism … the new sectarianism'.

In the three years of the Hard Gospel Project new ground has been broken for the Church of Ireland. Now that the Project is complete, the Church faces its greatest challenge. Will it make a lasting difference to the Church? Will the structures of the Church be more representative? And, perhaps the greatest challenge of all, will the Church continue to find ways of stimulating discussion with the wider community on the pressing issues of the day? That will test the effectiveness of the Hard Gospel Project. Within the Church of Ireland there is energy and enthusiasm to tackle this challenge.

A Hard Gospel Implementation group has been formed to assist the process. Living positively with difference is what the Hard Gospel Project was all about and after all, it’s doing what Jesus told us:  'to love your neighbour as yourself'.

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