23 February 2017

Anglican Studies (2016-2017)
6.2: The Good Friday Agreement
and its consequences: a reflection
on the ‘Hard Gospel’ Project

Drumcree Parish Church ... is this the image of the Church of Ireland that many have around the world?

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Thursdays: 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon, The Hartin Room.

Thursday, 23 February 2017, 11 a.m.:

The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its consequences: a reflection on the Hard Gospel Project



The Church of Ireland has been a polite church. Since disestablishment, we have been a Church that has found it difficult to relate prophetically to the wider political culture, and even to the wider culture itself.

Reconciliation means being reconciled to God and reconciled to one another.

But “how reconciled” are we with one another?

To what degree do we need to be reconciled with ourselves:

Reconciled with our past:

Franz Kafka Café in Prague … ‘a people without a past are a people without a name’

One of the symptoms of a dysfunctional family is shown when those who have been hurt in the past try to deal with those hurts in the present and are told by other members of the family that they would be better off to forgive and to forget.

But it is impossible to do both, to forgive and to forget. Unless we remember, we cannot reconcile ourselves with the past. And failing to remember the past creates a dysfunctional identity in the present, which leaves us, therefore, with no possibility of moving forward, honestly and equipped, into the future.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, offers a series of reflections on the importance of memory as the root from which the self-understanding of their identities by individuals and groups emerges. In one of the essays in his book, Kundera analyses the writings of Franz Kafka and comments:

Prague in his novels is a city without memory. It has even forgotten its name. Nobody there remembers anything, nobody recalls anything … No song is capable of uniting the city’s present with its past by recalling the moments of its birth.

Time in Kafka’s novel is the time of humanity that has lost its continuity with humanity, of a humanity that no longer knows anything nor remembers anything, that lives in nameless cities with nameless streets or streets different from the ones they had yesterday, because a name means continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name.

In his essay, Milan Kundera explores the theme in relation to the way in which an attempt had been made by the state authorities to change the awareness of the identity of the Czech people since the end of World War II. An attempt has been made to erase the nation’s memory, and through this the identity of the people has been eroded.

As Kundera notes, when he quotes his friend Milan Hubi approvingly:

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.

The culture, traditions, songs, religious commitment, political ideas embodied above all in the literature and the poetry of the community are important vehicles communicating and challenging the identity of the society.

But in many instances, in the Church of Ireland, we have forgotten the culture, tradition, songs, commitment, politics, literature and poetry of the community of which we are part. And by erasing that memory of the past we have found ourselves stumbling around in the dark of the present, with road signs or street names to help us find our place.

In the past, there has been such a separation between Catholic and Protestant culture in Ireland that it has been a deep chasm that is reflected in cultural and even in everyday life until quite recently.

The tower of Saint Columba’s Church, Colpe, near Drogheda, closed since 1996 … are there Protestant bats and Catholic bats in the belfries? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I do not know how extensive the problem of bats in the belfry is for your parish. But there are two principal bat species in Ireland: now one type of bat favours attics and the other favours more open spaces. But in church ruins in Ireland, there is a preponderance of attics in the ruined Church of Ireland parish churches, so that there was a rumour recently that Irish bats were divided on sectarian grounds: Protestant bats and Catholic bats.

But culturally there has been a big divide between Protestants and Catholics even on the playing fields: rugby was essentially a Protestant game, played in Protestant schools, to which middle class Catholics were invited under sufferance. While Gaelic football and hurling were almost exclusively Catholic – well, those were the perceptions. The Irish language was perceived – on both sides – as being the preserve of Catholics, and of Republic Nationalist Catholics at that: and this despite the fact that the first book printed in Irish was The Book of Common Prayer, that the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, a Rector’s son, was a Professor of Irish and one of the key figures in the modern revival of the Irish language.

There were different perceptions of what to expect on each other’s farms, in each other’s homes, how each other set standards as employers and employees. A Russian diplomat who had been posted in Dublin many years ago returned to Moscow and wrote about his perceptions of Ireland. He claimed he could know whether he was at a dinner party in a Catholic or a Protestant household: Catholics arrived late and left late, Protestants arrived early and left early.

But this cultural chasm, this gap that reinforced behavioural patterns, has also deprived us as a Church of finding easy opportunities to be reconciled with our past, with our present, and with our future.

Connecting with the Past:

The present reflected in the past … the lights of Main Street shops seen in the windows of Saint Iberius Church, Wexford. But we are often unaware of the great stories of the Celtic saints who founded and built up the church in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are many things in the past that I cannot be reconciled with. As Archbishop Rowan Williams reminded the Lambeth Conference in 1998, it is very hard for us to accept that we are members of the Body of Christ when we consider that the body includes people in the past who waged crusades, who carried out the Inquisition, who linked mission and colonialism. But they are dead, and they remain part of the Body of Christ, of the one Church I confess as part of the confession of faith each week. I can do nothing to excommunicate them now. I must accept that I will be reconciled with the past, including the ugly past, in Christ’s own plan for the future.

Not being reconciled with our past has deprived many of the Church of Ireland of the great riches our neighbouring churches find it easier to claim.

A few years ago, we had a visit here from the House of Bishops of the Church in Wales. Back in the 1990s, while I was at a course in the College of the Ascension in Birmingham, a group of Welsh ordinands who realised I was testing my own vocation to ordained ministry, presented me with a small book on Celtic spirituality. It was a kind and generous gesture. But our failure to reconcile ourselves with the past has made Celtic Spirituality in Ireland something for ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. And that has deprived ‘us’ of so many riches.

We are unaware of the great stories of the Celtic saints who founded and built up the church in Ireland. We are unable to understand the wonders of the great, carved high crosses that speckle the Irish countryside. We are unable to understand the significance and the spirituality that lay behind the founding of many of our cathedrals and parish churches.

In many Irish towns and villages, it is virtually certain that the Roman Catholic parish church will have a name like Our Lady of the Rosary, or Our Lady Queen of Peace … But, invariably, Church of Ireland Cathedrals and parish churches stand on the original monastic site in a town or village, and carry the name of the founding saints, names that are often unpronounceable for the tongues of semi-Anglo-Saxon Church of Ireland parishioners. And if they do not know how to pronounce those names, we know less about the monks and abbots who bore them: Saint Flannan (Killaloe, Co Clare), Saint Carthage (Lismore, Co Waterford), Saint Colman (Cloyne, Co Cork), Saint Finn Barre (Cork), Saint Fachtna (Rosscarbery, Co Cork), Saint Laserian (Old Leighlin, Co Carlow) ...

It deprives us of some of the wealth and the insights of the founding fathers and the founding mothers of Irish Christianity. The cathedral in Kildare, a small market town 50 km south-west of Dublin, is dedicated to Saint Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland and a woman who was abbot of a mixed community of men and women. During the debate on the ordination of women in the Church of Ireland, I cannot recall one reference to Brigid as one of the apostles of Ireland, nor any reference to the popular mediaeval depiction of Brigid as a mitred abbot.

Tallaght’s mediaeval tower and the pinnacles of Saint Maelruain’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For many years, I worked in Tallaght parish on the margins of Dublin. Externally, this is a marginalised, urban deprived area. A large shopping centre and dull drab housing make up a city that does not even have its own council or mayor, yet it is big enough to be Ireland’s third city.

The Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Maelruain’s, stands on one of the earliest monastic sites in Ireland, associated with the Ceilí Dé movement, an early reform movement in the Celtic Church, and such a centre of learning that it was once known as one of the ‘Eyes of Ireland.’

In the early 19th century, the last remaining monastic buildings were demolished to provide building rubble to erect a new parish church. Memory was erased, was bulldozed.

The end of the Luas Red line at The Square in Tallaght … a city where memory has been erased (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today in a dormitory city, where people feel they have no roots and where they have no sense of continuity, the only common focus is a pyramid-shaped shopping centre known as ‘The Square.’ If only the church had retained its memory, those people could have found a sense of identity, a sense of rootedness, in a centre of prayer and worship that dates back through the centuries, and that should be giving them hope for the future.

If we are not aware of the stories of our past, if we are not aware of the riches of the iconography of our saints from the past, then we have been truly impoverished – but not for the sake of the Gospel.

The attitude that Celtic Spirituality is ‘something for them rather than us’ is dangerous: in other ways too. If we leave it aside, then we abandon it to quacks and those with fertile religious imaginations; but also fail too to tap into one of the spiritual vocabularies used by thinking and questioning people today; and we fail therefore to understand their agenda and their questions on faith topics. And that is a failure in mission too.

In addition, we are unable to understand how hurt in the past lives in memories, even unarticulated memories, and has shaped attitudes to us today.

In recent years, there has been a series of scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland: allegations of sexual abuse, the physical abuse of children in homes run by religious orders, the tales of a bishop and his secret mistress …

But we have forgotten that each one of these controversies dogged the Church of Ireland in previous generations, along with rectors who were flogging and hanging magistrates and bishops caught in scandalous positions with naked sailors in London taverns.

But there was worse: as we have seen in our survey of the history of the Church of Ireland, for generations the bench of bishops of the Church of Ireland provided the working majority of the Irish House of Lord, where on their own initiation, they pushed through iniquitous laws aimed against Roman Catholics and remembered to this day as the Penal Laws. Invariably, until the Act of Union was passed in 1800, two out of three of the highest offices of state in Dublin were held by members of the House of Bishops.

Over the past 200 years or more, the Orange Order has been seen one of the strongest vehicles for perpetuating sectarianism on this island. Admittedly, in many parishes, the Orange Order is a benign and benevolent, organisation. Its older members regard it as merely quaint that Roman Catholics are excluded, in the same quaint way that ‘ladies’ are excluded from membership. But so too in the past Presbyterians were excluded from membership. We have allowed ourselves to forget that this organisation was formed firstly to protect the interests of the Church of Ireland as the established church, at a time when the prelates and the landed aristocracy combined to form what was known as the ‘Protestant Ascendancy.’

Transition from past to present

Fear of the past, and clinging on to the memories of past fears, also immobilise us in the transition from the past to the present.

Fear that innovation or moving towards ownership of the insights of modern liturgical thinking will deprive us of our identity and make ‘us’ more like ‘them.’

A few examples:

An increasing number of parishes are being amalgamated, so that often we have one rector or parish priest serving six or seven churches. It is impossible for one rector to visit all of these churches on a Sunday morning. But when someone suggests a Saturday evening liturgy – and Roman Catholics have long had Saturday evening Mass – the main objection is likely to be unuttered but thought in terms of: ‘They do it, so we should not.’

This attitude deprives people of the opportunities to worship at the weekend and to have their rector stay long enough at the church door afterwards to give them pastoral attention and a listening ear, instead of racing off like Michael Schumacher to the next ecclesiastical pit-stop.

This attitude deprives people of an opportunity to have regular sacramental ministry.

This attitude deprives them of sharing the same worshipping experiences as their neighbours, because if we cannot worship together then at least if we can worship at the same time as a community it can engender an amazing sense of a shared worship life in small towns and villages.

Our fear of the liturgical movement and liturgy innovation has left us afraid not just of bells and smells, but of candles and icons, of the healing ministry, of aural confession, of our priests wearing our Sunday best on Sundays.

The Present:

The Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral … the use of the word reconciliation in the Irish context was probably inspired by Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The beginning of the story of reconciliation in Ireland is a little bit more difficult to trace.

As the violent clashes in Northern Ireland unfolded in the wake of the failure of the civil rights marches of the 1960s, there were a number of efforts to try to form peace movements, some of them sad failures, some of them sad constructions in themselves.

Sad failures would include that beautiful but ineffective movement, ‘What Price Peace?’ that arose from a lone vigil by a bereaved Church of Ireland priest, the Revd Joe Parker.

Sad constructions included movements like PACE, Protestant and Catholic Encounter, which brought middle class people together for morning coffee and afternoon tea, and wondered why there could not be reconciliation without first exposing the wounds of the past to the light of the sun so that they could be healed. Can there be any real reconciliation without a healing of memories?

The use of the word reconciliation was probably inspired by Coventry Cathedral. I have used the Litany of Reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral in the chapel in the past. But there the word reconciliation had been adopted by the bombed, by the victims. Is it wrong for the demand for reconciliation to be first made, without facing up to the hurt of past injustices?

At a meeting of peace groups from across Ireland, I once raised the issue of nuclear weapons, and the move to deploy a new generation of nuclear weaponry, Cruise and Pershing Missiles, in Europe. I was sternly told by a group of Belfast women that the nuclear arms race had nothing to do with the ‘peace movement’ and I was publicly berated by one clergyman at the meeting who accused me of not being interested in reconciliation, of, yes, being a Communist.

Reconciliation was all right if you were going to bring back investment to Belfast. But we dare not talk about reconciliation in terms that challenged the rhetoric of the Cold War. Needless to say, we have moved on since then.

The former premises of the Irish School of Ecumenics which was founded at Milltown Park, Dublin, by Father Michael Hurley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It may emerge in time that we will agree that real reconciliation in Ireland, as far as the churches are concerned, can be traced back not to the morning coffee and afternoon tea gatherings in South Belfast, but to the pioneering work of the Jesuit, the late Father Michael Hurley, and his friends who established the Irish School of Ecumenics.

In coming to terms with the present, in reconciling our religious traditions and cultures, and in reconciling those of us who live in the present with the ugly heritage and memories of the past, the Church of Ireland has eventually been involved in a three-stage process.

1, Reconciling of Memories: In 1987, the Irish School of Ecumenics undertook a programme of study and reflection on the subject of Reconciliation of Memories. In the course of this programme, theologians, historians, philosophers, political scientists and literary critics were invited to contribute to the examination of those situations where ‘all could not be forgiven because all had not been forgotten.’

2, Moving beyond Sectarianism: This programme was followed by the Irish School of Ecumenics with a programme called ‘Moving Beyond Sectarianism,’ a six-year research project focussing on the role of Christian religion in sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Instead of demonising the more violent, bigoted and overt expressions of sectarianism, the project chose instead to highlight the subtle, polite and understated expressions of sectarianism. This form of sectarianism seems innocuous but serves as an essential underpinning for the ethos of antagonised division that allows the more blatant expressions to flourish. It pointed the finger at each and every one of us – we were all to blame, and we all needed to take responsibility if we were going to move beyond sectarianism and bring about real, lasting reconciliation.

3, The Hard Gospel: The next stage came the Church of Ireland took the challenges of these projects seriously and we started to own them for ourselves so that the process took on a new dynamic. The General Synod established a Sectarianism Education Programme, and commissioned a scooping study, The Hard Gospel, which did not have to dig too deep to find out how deeply rooted sectarian attitudes and values were throughout the Church of Ireland.

But we all know reports are not the end. So often we are used to reports being received by General Synods, and that is it. In this instance though, the report was handed down to Diocesan Synods, where it was discussed, in most cases, not as part of the normal business that has to be rushed through as one of many items on the agenda, but at special sessions, called with only one item on the agenda, The Hard Gospel. And the dioceses have sent the report on the parishes, in the form of study packs, each unit beginning with a Gospel study but then demanding a critical look by the participants – whether they are in parishes north or south of the border – at the barriers and boundaries in their own parishes.

Have we heard all we going to hear, or are we going to hear more about the Hard Gospel in the years ahead?

The Hard Gospel: some questions about its scope and extent:

The process (note the high level of response and engagement in the survey).

How do you feel (in general) about the topics covered?

Should some have been omitted?

Should some have been included?

Section 1:

Defining sectarianism: did you find this difficult?

Church of Ireland identity: do you find this limiting or liberating?

What about its future?

Church Government and structures.

North-South differences.

Ethnic difference and asylum seekers.

Political difference: how political can you be? What do you think of clergy involved in politics?

Theological difference: how comfortable are you with that?

Relationships with other churches and inter-church activity.

World religions.

Peace, sectarianism.

Sectarianism Education Project.

The loyal orders and Drumcree: How do you respond to Drumcree?

Section 2:

Gender differences and sexuality.

Young people

Old people.

Responding to society in general.

Training and resourcing of clergy.

Other issues.

The future:

How can you use the Hard Gospel in a parish?

In a study group?

In a youth group?

What issues missing?

What issues over-emphasised or should not be there (e.g. sexuality)?

We have realised we are only starting to scratch the surface. But itching wounds are wounds that want to heal. We are naming the beasts. They are ugly and they breathe deadly fire. But by naming them we are acquiring the courage to be reconciled not just with the past and the present, but with the future. The problems we have to face in the future are many. They include not only theological differences, but inbred, generations old class values, snobbery, elitism, and indifference.

There are problems for members of the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland, formed in the old political mould, adjusting to the changes brought about by the Belfast agreement, and facing the future with some trepidation. Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore, speaking in Newtownards at his diocesan synod some years ago, articulated some of these fears on their behalf:

‘Here in Northern Ireland, we find ourselves in a time of both great change and of numbed ‘stuckness’. We are uncertain, in our post-traumatic “peace” about whether or not we can find our way through to a complete resolution of our troubles. And we are uncertain about whether the Belfast Agreement can provide the foundation we had hoped for, which would allow a society to develop which would include all, and have the loyalty of all.

‘We can critique the “Peace and Reconciliation” model of South Africa, but we do not know how or when we might find our own equivalent but locally applicable way of dealing with our common hurts and memories, and especially with the hurts and memories of victims of the troubles.’

But at least we have made a start. We have begun to own the process of reconciliation. We have named the beasts, now are we prepared to move on and slay them? Are we ready to be reconciled with the past, held in our memories; reconciled with the present; and reconciled with what the future can hold for us as potential as we move forward as a church in mission?

Next week:

2 March 2016: reading week.

Then: Thursday 9 March 2017,

7.1: Partition, conflict and peace: the Church of Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries.

7.2: Theologies of reconciliation and the challenges of divided societies (M Volf, R Schreiter, J de Gruchy).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared as a briefing paper for a seminar on 23 February 2017 as part of the MTh Year II course, TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.

Anglican Studies (2016-2017)
6.1: Christianity and nationalisms

A Serbian Orthodox Church in Zadar in Croatia after it was the spray-painted with multiple Us for Ustasa, with the Catholic cross in between

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Thursdays: 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon, The Hartin Room.

Thursday, 23 February 2017, 9.30 a.m.:

Anglican Studies (6.1)
Christianity and nationalisms.


Last week [16 February 2017], we looked at some of background to and experiences of sectarianism, North and South of the border. Some these were so culturally rooted that it is difficult to challenge them as we live our lives of mission and ministry in the Church. Others, at times, seem to be enshrined in legislation.

Most of us probably react with embarrassment and cringe when we face up to our own intimate experiences of nationalism and identity expressed as Christianity, especially when they relate to our own families, our own parishes, our countries.

How long have you thought that these experiences were unique?

Part of the cause of social embarrassment is being over self-aware, and feeling that few if any share the same experience. Shame goes hand-in-hand with public exposure.

How often have you asked yourself questions like:

● Why is this happening in my parish/diocese?
● How often have you been exasperated, wondering do things like this happen only in Ireland?
● Only in Northern Ireland?
● Only in the Republic of Ireland?
● Only in the Church of Ireland?

This morning, I would like us to discuss the conflict of cultures and the place of religion in conflict, especially looking at the link between Christianity and nationalisms.

This is not only a concern for the Church of Ireland, or for Christianity, or for Ireland, but this is a global concern. We live in a world of conflict in which religion plays a key role.

Have our perceptions of Islam changed after 9/11?


● The way Serbs and Croats were defined as the former Yugoslavia broke up – Serbs were Orthodox and used Cyrillic letters for their shared language, and were dismissed as ‘Chetniks,’ while Croats were Catholics who used Roman letters and were dismissed as ‘Ustasas.’
● The role of religion in conflict in Iraq;
● The perceptions of Islam following the 9/11 attacks or due to the activities of the self-styled ‘Islamic State’;
● The response in the Islamic world to George W Bush’s use of the word ‘crusade’;
● The conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan, and many Gulf states.

How do you think Muslims reacted to George Bush’s use of the word ‘Crusade?’

Our cultural assumptions about religion frames and is framed by the language we use about conflict.

For example, there has been a series of bombings in Bali, in which have killed or injured many tourists.

Two cultural images were conveyed, two cultural presuppositions were confirmed, in the news coverage of these incidents and their aftermath:

1, Bali is an island of peace;
2, Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Bali has a strong Hindu presence, making it an oasis of peace.

There is something amiss with these two images:

Are there some religions we are culturally conditioned to think of as peaceful?

1, That there are peaceful religions, and there are violent religions. In particular we are culturally disposed towards thinking of Hinduism and Buddhism as religions of peace, and Islam as a religion of violence.

And yet, one of the factors in years of political violence in Sri Lanka – another island that once had the image of being an island haven of peace – is the tension between Buddhists and Hindus, and the Buddhist sangha or monks were among the most vocal critics of any government effort to enter dialogue with the Tamil Tigers.

Indeed, the image of violent Buddhists runs contrary to historical reality. Yet, how many Japanese suicide pilots went to death in World War II chanting praise to Buddha of with the words from the Lotus Sutra, Namyoho Renge Kyo?

Japanese kamikaze pilots waiting for their flights

2, The second image is that those violent religions usually boil down to one religion in particular, that is, Islam.

We have inherited a cultural prejudice that Islam is a religion with an inherent violence built into its thoughts, values and teachings.

Is this image of Hizbullah typical or stereotypical? And how often do we transfer this image to Islam in general

Popular media regularly conveys images of Islam as a religion of institutionalised violence, expressed in judicial sentencing, such as stoning, chopping off hands, and of social violence, typified in how we discuss jihad, the threats from Isis, suicide car bombers, the attacks in Paris, New York, Madrid and London, the wars in the Middle East, the export of violence or the perceived nuclear threat from Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah in Palestine and Lebanon, or Chechen fighters in the former Soviet Union.

Is there a ‘Christendom’? Is there a looming clash of civilisations? Dark blue: Western ‘Christendom’; sky blue: Orthodox ‘Christendom’; green: Islamic world; dark red: Sinic world; purple: Latin America; brown: Sub-Saharan Africa; orange: Hindu world; yellow: Buddhist world; grey: former British colonies; turquoise: Turkey; blue: Israel; light brown: Ethiopia; light green: Haiti; red: Japan

In a paper in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1996 that gave its title to a subsequent book in 1997, Samuel Huntington spoke of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the Christian or post-Christian world, and the Islamic world.

Until his death in 2008, he continued to speak in terms of a looming ‘clash of civilisations between Islam and the West.’

Despite the apparent outworking of some of his predictions, there are many faults in the theory of an inevitable ‘clash of civilisations.’ Huntington equated a religion with a civilisation, so that Islam is a unitary political, social and definable ‘civilisation’ that depends on a religion for its understanding and explanation, while Christianity underpins western civilisation, and that Islam made no contribution to Western culture and civilisation.

But there is also a reality that must concern us. Many people associate religion with violence, and with war. For example, Polly Toynbee wrote a commentary in The Guardian in the run-up to the first anniversary of 9/11 (6 September 2002) that was headed: ‘Religion isn’t nice. It kills’.

One of the major criticisms of religion in general, and religions in particular, is the role of religion in violence and conflicts.

In all religions, and we should be aware of it most in Christianity. Awareness allows us to face one of the main criticisms of Christianity from those on the margins, and allows us to have some terms and terminology so we can face the problems of violence in our own areas.

I want us to consider three concepts that have made it difficult to disentangle religion – and Christianity in particular – from politics and nationalism:

● Christendom
● The Crusades
● The Nation State

1, Christendom:

The statue of Constantine the Great in Saint John Lateran, Rome … does his reign the beginning of Christendom? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Christendom is not co-terminal with or another phrase for ‘the Kingdom of God.’ But it has often been misrepresented as such. The term ‘Christendom’ may have several meanings, but it refers in particular to a world view that identifies Christianity with cultural, economic and political expressions of a society that is perceived as being normative for or a standard for the rest of human society.

It is a common perception that the Church was pacifist until the Constantinian settlement, when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313, extending toleration to Christianity. This claim needs objective historical analysis, because it is often argued from a partisan viewpoint. Other questions we need to ask include whether the Church under persecution could consider co-operating with the state in such circumstances, and whether there was a separation of the role of policing and the role of the army?

The earliest use of the terms Christianity (Χριστιανισμός) and Catholic (Καθολικός) is in the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (2nd century). The word Christendom comes from the Latin word Christianus. The Christian world was also known collectively as the Corpus Christianum, often translated as the Christian body, referring to the community of all Christians. The Christian polity, embodying a less secular meaning, has been compared with the idea of both a religious and a temporal body: Corpus Christianum, and at times the Corpus Christianum has been seen as a Christian equivalent of the Muslim Ummah.

In a more political or secular was Christendom has been used as a descriptive term for the ‘Political Christian World,’ as if this had been in the past and might or ought to be now or in the future a cultural hegemony, what we might now refer to as ‘the West.’

But of course, from where we stand geographically, Christianity began in the East, or at least in the Middle East or the Eastern Mediterranean.

In looking at early church history a few weeks ago, we noticed briefly how Christianity spread through the Classical or Greek and Roman world in the apostolic and then post-apostolic period.

The period of Early Christianity came to a close when the imperial persecution of Christians ends, with the coming to power of Constantine the Great, the Edict of Milan (313), and the First Council of Nicaea (325).

The 4th century palace complex in Thessaloniki … the Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of the empire under the Edict of Thessaloniki in 392 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later, Christianity became the state religion of the Empire under the Edict of Thessaloniki in 392 when the Emperor Theodosius I prohibited the practice of pagan religions and the Church gradually became a defining institution of the Empire.

Saint Augustine envisions the City of God

And so, we can see, the Christian attitude to war begins to shift after Constantine and with the writings of Augustine (died 430). Was this good theology, or was it forged in the face of a real threat, with the barbarians at the gates? Augustine wrote The City of God shortly after Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410. But, even then, is it any less valid a way of formulating theology in the face of the real pressures of life?

After the Barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, a new threat was posed to Christianity with the rise of Islam, the Muslim capture of Jerusalem in 638, the arrival of Muslim armies in Europe, and the threat to the New Rome, Constantinople.

As the Empire in the West disintegrated into feudal kingdoms and small states, the concept of Christendom changed as the western church became separate from the Emperor and Christians in the Empire of the East.

In the East, the Byzantine Empire saw itself vas the last bastion of Christendom. Christendom entered a new phase with the rise of the Franks and their conversion to Christianity.

Christendom later refers to the mediaeval and renaissance notions of the Christian world as a socio-political polity. In essence, the earliest vision of Christendom was a vision of a Christian theocracy or a government founded on and upholding Christian values, whose institutions are spread through and over with Christian doctrine.

In this period, the clergy wield political authority. The specific relationship between political leaders and clergy varied. But, in theory, the national and political divisions were often subsumed in the leadership of the Church.

On Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo XIII crowned Charlemagne as the Emperor of what became the Holy Empire.

This empire created an alternative definition of Christendom in contrast to the Byzantine Empire. The question of what constituted true Christendom would then occupy political and religious leaders for generations and centuries to come.

The pontificate of Innocent III is considered the height of temporal power of the papacy. The Corpus Christianum describes the then current notion of the community of all Christians in communion with the Pope – a community guided by Christian values in its politics, economics and social life.

However, in the East, Christendom was seen as co-terminus with the Byzantine Empire, which was gradually loss of territory in the face of the rapid expansion of Islam and the rise of new Persian Empire.

2, The Crusades

The capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade

Until the Great Schism divided the Church religiously, there had been a concept of a universal Christendom that included the East and the West. But this was rocked by the Great Schism and was destroyed by the Fourth Crusade.

The Crusades originated in Western Europe, particularly in the Frankish realms (France) and the Holy Roman Empire. They were proclaimed as a campaign, fought under the Cross, to reclaim control of Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Land’ for ‘Christendom’ and were fought for almost two centuries, between 1095 and 1291. Initially the Crusades were proclaimed for the recovery of Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Land,’ and the protection of pilgrims, but they soon became a ‘holy war’.

In the First Crusade (1095-1099), at the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, Orthodox Christians fought alongside Jewish and Muslim residents to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders, so that many Christians were slaughtered alongside their Muslim neighbours.

Many Muslims sought shelter in al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount area. One Crusader account reports how the Crusaders ‘were killing and slaying even to the Temple of Solomon, where the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.’

According to Raymond of Aguilers, ‘in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.’

Fulcher of Chartres says: ‘In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.’

The Fourth Crusade ended in the sack of Constantinople in 1204

Some of the crusade expeditions were diverted completely from their original aim. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) resulted in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the partition of the Byzantine Empire between Venice and the Crusaders, and hastened the destruction of Byzantium.

But it was not until the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) that any Crusade received the official blessing of the Pope.

Dante in his Inferno places Muhammad in the Eighth Circle of Hell as a sower of discord, along with Christian schismatics, while in a frozen lake at the bottom of hell he placed Ganelon, who betrayed Roland and the rear-guard of Charlemagne’s army. In the Fifth Heaven he placed the Crusader King, Godfrey of Bouillon.

Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the first crusade … placed in a frozen lake at the bottom of hell by Dante

But, writing about the Crusades, Sir Steven Runciman says: ‘High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed ... the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.’

We still use, misuse and abuse the term ‘Crusade’ when we are describing certain campaigns. The Crusades have left far-reaching political, economic, and social legacies that continue to survive in our time.

Colin Chapman says the Crusades ‘have left a deep scar on the minds of Muslims all over the world. Although they ended more than 700 years ago, for many Muslims it is as if they happened only yesterday. And recent events such as the Rushdie affair, the Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict have made many [Muslims] feel that the Crusades have never ended.’

Later Christendom

Palais des Papes, Avignon … the Western Schism and the Avignon Papacy posed a major crisis of identity for Western Christendom

The Western Church was boosted in its political authority and its perception of a shared boundary with Christendom through the shared experience of the Crusades, the fight against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, and against the ottomans in the Balkans. But some of its worst expressions were also found, for example, in the Inquisition, the pogroms directed against Jews, and ‘crusades’ against heretics, such as the Albigenses and the Cathars.

Western Christendom faced a major crisis of identity with the Western Schism and the Avignon Papacy, a split that came to an end only with the Council of Constance. And mediaeval Christendom was also challenged by the reputation of morally lax pontiffs and their dependence on secular rulers, coupled with greed for material wealth and temporal power.

The Reformations and the concurrent rise of independent states gave the term ‘Christendom’ a new, more general, meaning in Western Europe, signifying countries that were predominantly Christian – whether they were Catholic or Protestant – as opposed to Islamic or other countries.

Post-Reformation Roman Catholics the restoration of Christendom and argued that, the term applied to the civilisation of Catholic nations that espoused the doctrine of the Social Reign of Christ the King, and that recognised the Roman Catholic Church.

3, The nation state

The Coliseum at night … the modern Italian state dates from 17 March 1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Hundred Years’ War accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralised state. The rise of strong, centralised European monarchies was part of the transition in Europe from feudalism to capitalism and the rise of modernity.

The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 officially ended the idea among secular leaders that all Christians must be united under one church. The principle of cuius regio eius religio (‘whoever the king, his the religion’) established the religious, political and geographical divisions of Christianity.

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ended the concept of a single Christian hegemony. After that, each government determined the religion of its own state, and the wars of religion came to an end.

With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the concept of the sovereign national state was born. The Corpus Christianum has since existed with the modern idea of a tolerant and diverse society consisting of many different communities.

The nation state, in seeking to define itself, must by definition limit itself. These limitations find a number of expressions, such a language, a constructed culture (including music, poetry, drama, songs, architecture and paintings), and, of course, religion.

Is it possible to imagine the construction of the modern Italian state – proclaimed over 154 years ago on 17 March 1861 – without a shared Italian language, seen as the creation of Dante, and expressed in the operas of Verdi?

Consider how the revival of the Irish language and the popularisation of images such as Round Towers and Celtic High Crosses came at a crucial time in Irish nationalism in the late 19th century.

Germany is a modern nation state without a shared religious identity. Nevertheless, it still resulted in the most profane effort to exclude one religious expression – the Holocaust.

Some contemporary examples of the role of religion in conflict:

‘Το παιδομάζωμα’ (ή ‘το σκλαβοπάζαρο’) του Νικολάου Γύζη ... The Levy of Christian Children, by Nicholas Ghyzis

In the creation of the modern Greek state and the modern Turkish state, religion played a key role in the forging of national identities, so that Greek was equated with Orthodox Christian and Turk with Muslim.

The consequences of this reached beyond the generations, after the creation of an independent Cyprus in 1960. The Muslim/Christian dividing line defined the line of advance when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974.

Did religion define nationality for Europe nation states?

What role does it play in our understanding and creation of a new European identity?

But this is not solely a European phenomenon. Religious identity has been used to define separate national identities in India and Pakistan. This has created problems for those outside these definitions, including Christians and Sikhs, and the conflict continues between Hindus and Muslims, with violence constantly and continually threatening to inflame border conflicts between Pakistan and India.

Religion has been a factor in many of the conflicts in Europe in the 1990s. As Yugoslavia was breaking up, the labels Catholic and Orthodox were used to distinguish Croat from Serb. When Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo slaughtered, was it because they were Muslims in Bosnia (where they were otherwise like all other Slavs)? Was it because they were Albanians or Muslims in Kosovo?

A Muslim holding the Quran and a Coptic Christian holding a cross are carried through opposition supporters in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the ‘Arab Spring’ protests

In Egypt, many Arabs and Muslims have found it difficult to see Coptic Christians as true Egyptians. On the other hand, the word Copt means Egyptian, and many Christians have seen themselves as the true and authentic Egyptians.

How did you react to the way in which Muslim-Christian unity became one of the themes during the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo some years ago? Do you recall the news scenes where members of the Coptic Christian minority prayed in the square and how many of the placards combined the crescent and the cross? A common chant was: ‘Hand in hand.’

To what degree did religious divisions play a role in the more recent conflicts in Egypt?

What about the conflicts in Sudan and the Central African Republic? Is this a conflict between Arabs and Africans in Sudan, or between Muslims and Christians in both countries? And did the churches become too closely identified with the cause of Southern Sudan?

Consider the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Is this a Jewish-Muslim conflict? How do Christians whose families have been living there for generations and centuries feel in terms of their identity? Is there a place for them there?

Was the invasion of Iraq built on a case for a ‘just war’? Or did it build on our traditional antipathies towards, fears of, and misconceptions of Islam?

With the murder of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya two years ago [February 2015], what are the appropriate Christian responses to violence?

What do we mean by a ‘just war’?


In today’s world, how do we move from encounter to dialogue and understanding?

Appendix 1:

The criteria for a just war:

Seven conditions:

Declaration by a legitimate authority;
2, Just cause;
3, Formal declaration;
4, Right intention;
5, Last resort;
6, Reasonable hope of success;
7, Due proportion between the benefits sought and the damage done.

Three Conditions for conduct:

Guaranteed immunity of non-combatants.
2, Prisoners must be treated humanely;
3, International treaties must be honoured.

Were these conditions met in Northern Ireland?

In Iraq?

Who was responsible for meeting these conditions?

Can there be an ‘unjust’ war or a ‘just’ revolution?

Or are these models relevant?

What is a jihad?

The word jihad in fact has its roots in the Arabic verb to exert, and means not holy war (as translated by Thomas Aquinas) but an exertion on behalf of true religion and submission to God.

On the other hand, Islam allows no other form of war and violence except that with some religious objective.

Appendix 2:

Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους (Waiting for the Barbarians), CP Cavafy:

— Τι περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;

Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

— Γιατί μέσα στην Σύγκλητο μια τέτοια απραξία;
Τι κάθοντ’ οι Συγκλητικοί και δεν νομοθετούνε;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Τι νόμους πια θα κάμουν οι Συγκλητικοί;
Οι βάρβαροι σαν έλθουν θα νομοθετήσουν.

—Γιατί ο αυτοκράτωρ μας τόσο πρωί σηκώθη,
και κάθεται στης πόλεως την πιο μεγάλη πύλη
στον θρόνο επάνω, επίσημος, φορώντας την κορώνα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Κι ο αυτοκράτωρ περιμένει να δεχθεί
τον αρχηγό τους. Μάλιστα ετοίμασε
για να τον δώσει μια περγαμηνή. Εκεί
τον έγραψε τίτλους πολλούς κι ονόματα.

— Γιατί οι δυο μας ύπατοι κ’ οι πραίτορες εβγήκαν
σήμερα με τες κόκκινες, τες κεντημένες τόγες•
γιατί βραχιόλια φόρεσαν με τόσους αμεθύστους,
και δαχτυλίδια με λαμπρά, γυαλιστερά σμαράγδια•
γιατί να πιάσουν σήμερα πολύτιμα μπαστούνια
μ’ ασήμια και μαλάματα έκτακτα σκαλιγμένα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
και τέτοια πράγματα θαμπώνουν τους βαρβάρους.

—Γιατί κ’ οι άξιοι ρήτορες δεν έρχονται σαν πάντα
να βγάλουνε τους λόγους τους, να πούνε τα δικά τους;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
κι αυτοί βαρυούντ’ ευφράδειες και δημηγορίες.

— Γιατί ν’ αρχίσει μονομιάς αυτή η ανησυχία
κ’ η σύγχυσις. (Τα πρόσωπα τι σοβαρά που εγίναν).
Γιατί αδειάζουν γρήγορα οι δρόμοι κ’ η πλατέες,
κι όλοι γυρνούν στα σπίτια τους πολύ συλλογισμένοι;

Γιατί ενύχτωσε κ’ οι βάρβαροι δεν ήλθαν.
Και μερικοί έφθασαν απ’ τα σύνορα,
και είπανε πως βάρβαροι πια δεν υπάρχουν.

Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its consequences: a reflection on the Hard Gospel Project.

Next week:

2 March 2017: reading week.

9 March 2017:

7.1: Partition, conflict and peace: the Church of Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries.

7.2: Theologies of reconciliation and the challenges of divided societies (M Volf, R Schreiter, J de Gruchy).

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture on 23 February 2017 was part of the MTh Year II course, TH 8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.