‘The message is not the problem’
What does it mean to be a Christian in Ireland today?
‘What does it mean to you to be a Christian in Ireland today?’ was the question pondered by panellists in this year’s Ecumenical Bible Week Thinking Allowed event last Thursday (June 13). Speakers raised a wide range of challenges facing society, and Christians in particular. But they also brought stories of hope and encouragement.
Sharing their thoughts in the Holy Cross Diocesan Centre in Dublin were Bishop Pat Storey, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare; the Revd Jools Hamilton, Methodist Chaplain at Trinity College Dublin; Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin; and Julia McKinley, development officer for the National Bible Society of Ireland. The panel was chaired by Patricia Carroll of the Archdiocese of Dublin’s Office of Evangelisation.
How is this not good news anymore?
Bishop Pat Storey opened by suggesting that being a Christian in Ireland today meant a “whole lot of bother”. “Many of us find ourselves on the wrong side of culture and swimming against the stream of cultural norms,” she stated, adding: “It’s almost got to the stage that if the Church says ‘yes’ then society says ‘no’ and if the Church says ‘no’, society says ‘yes’.”
However, she said she loved the Church and wholeheartedly believed in its future. She had no doubt that God would take us through these confusing times. “The Church in Ireland is not used to being questioned, ignored and hated. And, hands up, some of it is our fault. Our place in society has almost been overturned in the last few years but this could be an opportunity. When I talk to people who don’t go to church, they still have a spiritual thirst … We still have the same product to bring to market but our marketing needs to change. How have we managed to lose the message? How is this not good news anymore?” she wondered, stating “The message is not the problem, we are.”
Bishop Storey suggested that there was only one response to the decline in traditional denominations – the passion of personal faith. “I can only bring my own story. I know Jesus Christ has changed my life. My one job is to tell that to others. I must communicate love – He loves you. Yes, there are challenges and we have some regrets but there is hope because He is hope. What is it like to be a Christian in Ireland today? It’s fantastic. God is love and that love is offered to whoever takes his hand,” she concluded.
What is God doing and how do I join in?
The Revd Jools Hamilton brought his perspective as chaplain to both students and staff most of whom, he said, are not interested in the Church. They do, however, have questions about God and they are searching. Drawing on Luke Chapter 4 he said the challenge is to see the activity God is engaged in outside our walls – outside our churches.
He told the story of a student, ‘Niamh’ (not her real name) who was baptised in the church but who did not grow up in faith. She was studying theology in TCD and flourishing in her faith. She was also gay. He said that one of the Christian student groups she attended found out and presented her with a book to guide her from the darkness and sin in her life. She came to Jools about it and he later wrote a blog about her situation. He was contacted after his blog post by a conservative Christian couple who noted that whatever their opinions, everyone should be aware of “the radical inclusivity of the Gospel”.
“Where is my hope?” he asked. “Where ever we look outside our walls. When we recognise where the spirit of God is active. When we change our message from ‘what I’m bringing you’ to ‘what God is doing in us’. Church historian Dermot MacCulloch said that the most miraculous thing about the Church is that it is still here. There are days that it gets me down but it’s still here and God is still active and present outside our walls. Will we have the courage to ask, to pray, ‘what are you doing and how do I join in?’”
Faith is Always a Risk
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin observed that sometimes if you profess yourself a Christian today “it’s like going to an ecological meeting wearing a fur coat – you’re not welcome”. He referred to the wretched man in Romans Chapter 7 and said the wretched man would not be found prominently in books on evangelisation or promoting youth ministry. But he said he likes the wretched man. He said it is important to avoid settling into a comfortable faith or what he termed “comfort zones of self–buttressed certainty”.
For many today in their search for meaning, the question of God and Jesus Christ keeps cropping up, the Archbishop said. In questioning the desire to reject God, questions of who God is are opened up. “For me, being Christian in today’s world is one who is haunted by Christ not one who is in certainty of faith. Being Christian is one who recognises the uncertainty of faith. Faith is always a risk,” he stated.
Archbishop Martin said that the Church is visionary and is never a closed fellowship of the like–minded. “We are encouraged to reach out to all of secularised Ireland,” he said. He said that in dealing with the issue of child abuse in the Church, many took the opportunity to reject the good will of the Church and of Christ. They were angry with the Church, he suggested. The answer to this will only come from men and women of integrity who can go out into society and who can bring the news that faith can add that extra dimension to society.
What is the question people are asking?
While browsing the self–help section in Easons, Julia McKinley said she was struck by the range of subjects covered: organisation, decluttering, hygge, mindfulness, minimalism, Marie Kondo’s multi–million selling book. “What is the question people are asking?” she wondered. “What is the yearning inside us?”
She suggested that one of the things we so crave is peace. “We’re looking for it in colour schemes, apps on our phones, scrolling on public transport. We feel busier and busier, yet all the time we are striving for peace,” she said. She said that increasingly there is a phenomenon of ‘stopping without stopping’. Our phones are never truly off and down time is simply ‘non–work’ rather than stopping totally.
“If peace is a fundamental craving, is there anything that we as Christians can offer?” Julia asked. “Is there anything from Scripture that speaks into this yearning?” She explored what peace means – defined as ‘lack of war’ or ‘tranquillity’. The Hebrew for peace is shalom meaning wholeness, safety, welfare. “One challenge with the modern world is the continual draw of social media. We are aware of the news, not only locally but globally. This can be overwhelming. The question is, who is standing in front of me and how can I see to their shalom … Being a person of faith in Ireland requires a connection of faith with shalom at our core. Perhaps seeing to the shalom of our brother is one way of moving forward,” she concluded.