Eamon McCann has written an interesting piece in the Belfast Telegraph concerning attempts long ago to promote mixed religious schools for Northern Ireland. His article has also been discussed on Slugger O’Toole.
I do not propose to discuss whether the 7th Marquess of Londonderry was ahead of his time. My interest, as I have said repeadedly on this blog, is the debate on sectarianism and the means by which Northern Ireland Society can move beyond it.
Eamon McCann makes the following point in relation to segregation along religious lines.
“the divide in education isn’t the cause of sectarianism. But it reflects and is an important mechanism for perpetuating sectarianism.”
The Eames-Bradley report makes the following point in relation to segregated schools
“Specifically the arguments about the ethos or quality of education provided in the faith based sectors have to be balanced against the reality that reconciliation may never be achieved if our children continue to attend separated schools”
We could be waiting a very long time before we see any joint faith or secular schools, let alone enjoy the positive effects of them. Furthermore, there are canon law arguments against them within Catholicisim.
There are other plans and initiatives that the Churches can make. Eames-Bradley makes the following observations about the relationship between sectarianism and religion.
By definition and nature sectarianism involves religion and the destructive patterns of relating that arise from a negative mixing of religious belief and politics. When religion is used to draw boundaries, whether communal or territorial, and to reinforce patterns of inequality and social conflict, then prejudice and discrimination are given divine sanction, even if such behaviour contradicts the professed belief of its adherents.
The Christian churches carry a particular historical responsibility, for they not only gave the language which both shaped and fuelled division, but often gave sanction to those who exploited theological disputes and differences for political and territorial gain. Catholic and Protestant became the identifying labels of the political and national allegiances of each side of the divide.
Too often the violence and bitterness of communal strife was allowed to increase the suspicion and gulf between the two Christian traditions. There was a failure by the institutional church bodies to make a sustained united impact during the conflict. Often it was the actions and initiatives of individual congregations, organisations and church people that made a significant difference.
Yet some of the churches have recognised and addressed the religious dimension from the earliest days of the conflict. In their public statements some have accepted responsibility for nurturing attitudes which have contributed to the strength of sectarianism in the wider community. Indeed significant initiatives have taken place in recent years to identify and challenge sectarianism in their life and practice.
Any move by the churches to acknowledge and respect the integrity of each other’s tradition does make a significant impact on the context in which wider society can address the legacy of sectarianism. There is a strong Christian tradition in Northern Ireland. Therefore Christian churches have a particular responsibility to take a leading role within communities for addressing the destructive presence of ongoing sectarianism.
The Group recommends that the Legacy Commission, proposed in Chapter 7, should take the lead in ensuring that sectarianism continues to be addressed, including through setting the direction for that debate and by highlighting the contribution that all sectors of society can make to address the problem.
The Legacy Commission could be some time coming up with solutions or initiatives which the churches can take in order to help address sectarianism. Should the churches wait to be told what they should do?
There are actually plenty of initiatives that churches could take without having to be told what to do. It does not take very much imagination or organisation to promote inter-denominational parish activity. Why wait for the legacy commission?
Eames-Bradley mentions “significant initiatives” [taken by churches]. I would be interested to know what they are and where they are happening. If you are a cleric, minister or priest reading this post, you are invited to comment on this blog. In particular, if you have any particular experiences of ecumenical activity relating to both Protestant and Catholic church membership (it does not have to be about anywhere in Northern Ireland), your comments would be especially welcome.
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