03 March 2014

Anglican Studies (2014) 6.2: The Good Friday/Belfast 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

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Mondays: 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., The Hartin Room.

Monday, 3 March 2014, 3.30 p.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, Saint Carthage, Saint Colman, Saint Finn Barre, Saint Fachtna, Saint Laserian ...

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 Schumann 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 couldn’t 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. 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 Irish School of Ecumenics was founded at Milltown Park, Dublin, 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?


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).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for a seminar on 3 March 2014 as part of the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.

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