Breda O’Brien: Armagh kerfuffle highlights church leaders’ work for reconciliation

President’s refusal to attend NI service may have focused more attention on work for reconciliation carried out by the Church Leaders’ Group

Perhaps the Church Leaders Group (Ireland) should send a polite thank-you note to Michael D Higgins, President of Ireland, when their Service of Reflection and Hope is over next Thursday. The President's extraordinary and unexpected refusal to attend has focused attention on the work of the Church Leaders Group in a way that it had found difficult to achieve before this.

For example, on last St Patrick's Day, the Church Leaders Group, which consists of the Catholic and Church of Ireland archbishops of Armagh, the Presbyterian moderator, the Methodist president and the president of the Irish Council of Churches, issued an unprecedented statement.

Gladys Ganiel, research fellow of the George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace at Queen's University, Belfast, has described it as the "churches' most comprehensive confession ever for their historic contribution to division and violence".

The St Patrick’s Day statement acknowledged that some may struggle with the very idea of a shared history of the centenaries but also the reality that without reflection on what has happened in the past, there can be no real moving forward.


Conscious of the symbolism of the slave, Patrick, the churches  humbly acknowledged their failings, that they have often been “captive churches; not captive to the Word of God, but to the idols of state and nation”.

Despite being historic and groundbreaking, it garnered little attention, particularly in the Republic.

There are reasons for that, of course, including the fading influence of the churches due to secularisation. In the Republic, the legacy of the sexual abuse of children and the subsequent cover-ups has leached away much of the Catholic Church’s legitimacy as a moral commentator, even when it is seeking forgiveness for other failings.

The St Patrick's Day statement could also be dismissed as what John Brewer, professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen's, famously called "speechifying" in his influential books and lectures. His thesis is that the institutional churches were too much in thrall to their most sectarian elements to be really transformative.


Instead, Brewer paid tribute to the mavericks who were instrumental in forging the peace process, the people of faith who had the vision to step outside their tribal boundaries, people such as the Redemptorists, Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds, Presbyterian ministers such as Rev Ken Newell and Rev John Dunlop, and Methodist minister, Rev Harold Good. Faith was also vital to the Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, evangelicals who felt driven by a biblical imperative to work for peace.

Nonetheless, while the institutional churches were often at fault, both for doing too little and at times, stoking sectarianism, these traditions also managed to nurture the faith of the mavericks, a faith that gave them the strength for the exhausting, exasperating and dangerous work of peacemaking.

For example, reading Unity Pilgrim, Gladys Ganiel’s fascinating biography of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsr, an indefatigable activist for peace, it is clear that he was shaped at a profound level by the prayer traditions of Catholicism. It is not always possible to draw a bright line between individual members and the institution.

Church leaders are also very aware of Brewer’s critique and it has long been a source of discussion among them. They have made conscious efforts to move away from only “speechifying” and issuing statements.

This has been more possible in Northern Ireland, which although it, too, is becoming more secular, still has exceptionally high church attendance in comparison to much of Europe. Church leaders also have more access to political leaders.


The church leaders have consciously tried to facilitate dialogue in recent years, with some success. For example, when the Northern Ireland institutions collapsed again in 2017, after some quiet behind the scenes work, in 2018 the group invited the leaders of the five largest political parties in the North to a meeting in the Presbyterian headquarters in Belfast. It was the first time the political leaders had been in the same room in eight months.

This led to further meetings with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the taoiseach and the tánaiste, and eventually, four regional dialogue events with 120 representatives of civil society.

Interchurch relations are also at an all-time high due to the pandemic, because church leaders met every two weeks to co-ordinate their response to the crisis.

This solidarity is needed given the challenges Brexit poses to the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Every post-violence society is in danger of slipping back into armed conflict. The British government’s tone-deaf announcement of a controversial Troubles-related amnesty last June undermines a commitment to real reconciliation, which cannot take place without painful acknowledgment of and repentance for the harms that were done.

Forgiveness cannot be rushed and there must be spaces where pain can be held, acknowledged and grieved.

The churches, and ecumenical groups such as Corrymeela, are uniquely placed to facilitate these encounters, even in an era of waning religious influence. The upcoming Service of Reflection and Hope was meant to be a centrepiece of this work.

It is ironic that Michael D Higgins’s fumbled refusal to participate may ultimately generate more interest and support for what the church leaders are trying to do.