‘Being Christian in Ireland Today’
Symposium explores theological, political and ecological viewpoints
The Church may have lost its dominant position in Irish society but there is plenty of hope for Christians today. That was the resounding message from Ecumenical Bible Week’s 2019 symposium which took place in the Holy Cross Diocesan Centre, Dublin, last Thursday (June 13).
Three speakers – the Revd Dr Patrick McGlinchey of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, the Rt Hon Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, and Patricia Devlin who is an environmentalist and part of the Orlagh in the City Eucharistic community – tackled the subject: ‘How can we be Christian in Ireland Today? Voices of Hope in a Secularised Ireland’. The thought–provoking discussion, covering the spheres of theology, politics and ecology, was chaired by Archbishop Michael Jackson.
Church and Theology
Proceedings were opened by Dr McGlinchey who outlined the changes which ushered in the secular age. Increased media influences challenged the monolithic religious culture; Vatican II brought about changes in understanding among the faithful which had a knock on effect on the younger generation; there was a distancing among the church–going population; and clerical sexual abuse and institutional cover up alienated people.
However, he said he was convinced that this was not the end of the story and gave three reasons to be encouraged in the face of discouragement. Firstly, the end of Christendom is not evidence that the Christian faith is untrue. He said that we don’t have to mourn the time when the church ruled the roost: “Christianity is a movement, not an institution”. Secondly, the secular narrative that we no longer need God is not true to human nature. Dr McGlinchey said that we live in an age of distraction and the reality of God is not immediately obvious. Thirdly, the secular withdrawal from God will not be maintained because life will become unsatisfying.
He suggested that there were three imperatives for the Church. We must communicate Christ by living out the faith; individual Christians must allow themselves to be transformed by Christ thus making the invisible God visible; and the Church must become a community that serves.
Dr McGlinchey concluded by delivering three unshakeable grounds for hope: Christ has been raised bodily from the grave; the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church and while it may be challenged it will not be overcome; and we have a hope which is not just for this life, Christians can die well.
Church and Politics
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that while the standing of the Church had diminished, it was not the end of the story and that maybe it had to happen. “I’ve seen society changing,” he said. “It is now difficult for me as a Christian to speak publically of my Christian faith … Where tolerance is the mark of this more liberal secular society, I wonder how much tolerance there is for freedom of religious belief. I’ve seen it more so in Great Britain but it is increasing in Northern Ireland.”
Living in the public square, Sir Jeffrey said he had seen the media influence on secularising our culture. “It’s very subtle. They’ve stolen our language. They’ve learned that softening their language can win votes. But by their fruits ye shall know them. It’s what the Church does rather than what the Church knows that will help it regain influence, and by having influence I don’t mean having power,” he stated.
As an MP, he deals with people who are broken and said he could see that there was a hole in their lives. Increasingly people are experiencing mental health problems. Living in the fast lane creates pressure, he said. “When I deal with people who are broken I try to show them that there is something different in how I do business. I don’t put the Bible in front of them … but I do try to show them the love of Jesus. Jesus said that we are to be the salt and the light. I say that the salt is not the main thing but it improves the meal. The Church isn’t the main thing in our society and we have to accept that but what we have to offer can change the main thing and make it better,” he explained.
Turning to the issue of human rights, Sir Jeffrey said that social issues were now presented as human rights. He said in Northern Ireland, recognising that the narrative about abortion is changing, they have sought to push back in the debate with a new approach proclaiming that both lives matter. “We have to look at the narrative and we have to show respect. But we’re also entitled to receive respect. The media narrative tends to lean against that. People who come from a Christian perspective can be torn apart in the media. We need to stand up and say that if you believe in human rights, then freedom of expression is part of that,” he stated. He reported that the Council of Europe was exploring the concept of reasonable accommodation in seeking ways of accommodating people who have a conscientious difficulty with the laws that have been put in place.
“As a politician and primarily a Christian, I am not despondent or without hope. The relevance of the Church is still there. The message of Jesus is still there. We should be putting Jesus front and centre at the heart of what we do. We shouldn’t be afraid to say it and it concerns me that on the big debates either the media leave the voice of the Church out or that Church leaders don’t want to enter that very difficult arena,” he said. He argued that he did not feel that Christianity could not be progressive but he said he was not sure that taking the life of a baby was progressive. He added that after 30 years of Troubles in Northern Ireland, there was a lot of healing and reconciliation to be done across the island and the Church had a role to play in this.
Church and Ecology
“The house is on fire,” said Patricia Devlin. In searching for all the possible ways of being Christian in Ireland today she said this was the message that spoke loudest to her. “The message of being a Christian in Ireland today has to include ecological conversion,” she stated.
Focusing on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si encyclical, she said that climate change called Christians to seek a more equitable distribution of materials and a more equitable version of consumerism. “We who live this style of life must be aware that we can and must learn from those who have less than we have at the very point where we want more and more,” she said.
Human choice can change the tide of global warming, she stated. She added that for the first time in history we are recognising that our choices affect the environment and that we can do something about it. “Life on earth as we know it is changing. We have 12 years to get control of carbon emissions before irreparable damage is done and I pray that the ecumenical movement can grasp this,” she said. The greatest contribution Christians can make is to understand the challenge and contribute to the transformation of consciousness.
Personal, community and global economic relationships need to change and this cannot happen without a change in morality, she contended. This will affect what we eat, what we wear, what we buy, our assets, where we shop, where we go on holidays, where we educate our children … in short it will change everything. It also means changing our perception of our relationship with God, she said. The good news is that more people are now taking notice and taking action, she said.
Pope Francis’s vision for the environment is tripartite, she stated, involving God, Nature and human ecologies. She explained that the human root causes of the environment crisis stemmed from misuse of creativity and the power of technology, our anthropocentric perspective, practical relativism and our reductionist perceptions of human beings. She said the Church could contribute to change by educating for the covenant between humanity and the environment and facilitating ecological conversion. “Christians are being challenged to speak for the climate in the public square, in their churches, in their places of work and in their lifestyles,” Mrs Devlin concluded.