Ecumenism and Interchurch Relations

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Ecumenism and Interchurch Relations

Religious division and political conflict have played a formative role in Irish society. The reality that Protestantism and Catholicism often serve as badges of ethnopolitical identity continues to impede interchurch relations both in the Republic of Ireland with its 91.7 percent Catholic majority, and in Northern Ireland where the 53 percent Protestant-unionist majority often views itself as under siege. Stormont Castle in Belfast, described by one former unionist leader Lord Craigavon as "a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people," provided (in the words of another unionist leader, David Trimble) "a cold house for Catholics." Following the historic Good Friday Agreement (1998), a power-sharing legislative assembly was established in Belfast, but relationships within it have been embattled and its capacity to survive has been under constant threat.

Throughout much of the past century, sociopolitical division was intensified by religious separation: segregated schools, an effective Catholic-Church ban (until 1970) on Catholics attending Trinity College, discrimination against Catholics in jobs and housing allocation (especially in the North), and bitter memories of church-supported proselytizing and even boycotts. In such conditions ecumenism could not flourish. The Catholic Church, under its Ne Temere decree regulating "mixed marriages" between Catholics and Protestants (1911, somewhat modified in 1970), had stringently exacted that both partners in a marriage raise their children as Catholics. Until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), ecumenism for Roman Catholicism implied a "return to the fold." Protestant churches kept themselves aloof as the best protection against absorption and cultivated inter-Protestant solidarity. Encouraged by international ecumenical involvement, Protestant churches addressed themselves sporadically to the possibilities of "Protestant reunion" alongside bipartite and later tripartite conversations (Presbyterian-Methodist-Anglican). Although interest in reunion faded, the century's end saw a de facto mutual recognition of clerical ministries, nudged forward by interconnecting agreements with various European churches. Anglican-Methodist conversations resumed in 1989, culminating in the signing of a Covenant (2002) "to share a common life and mission" and "to grow together so that unity may be visibly realized." For Irish Catholicism, interchurch relationships were problematic not only because of Protestant alignment with unionism but also theologically. Independently sponsored ecumenical encounters in the 1940s and 1950s inspired neither Protestant confidence nor the approval of Rome, but certain Dominican, Jesuit, and Maynooth theologians steadfastly continued to pave the way.

The Turn to Ecumenism and the Start of the Troubles

Vatican II was the needed catalyst. Its movement of renewal enlivened a static Catholic ecclesiology, retrieving such concepts as the "pilgrim people of God" and modifying the offensive claim that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church by avowing instead that the church of Christ "subsists in" the Catholic Church. The bishops supplied ecumenical directives for Catholic involvement (updated in 1976 and 1983). Kevin MacNamara—later archbishop of Dublin—envisioned the Catholic Church's future as "profoundly linked to the progress of ecumenism [and as] a test of its fidelity to the will of Christ" (1966, p. 152).

Seasoned and fledgling ecumenists rallied. In 1970 the Irish Council of Churches (ICC), an all-Protestant council of churches and religious communities (e.g., the Quakers and the Salvation Army, which were not strictly churches) formed with the Catholic Church a "Joint Group on Social Problems" to advise the Catholic hierarchy and ICC on social issues such as poverty, unemployment, and alcohol abuse. There was initial reluctance to tackle concerns such as civil rights or the causes of political conflict. That the ecumenical thrust coincided with the outbreak of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland was painfully ironic. Violence and terror lent desperate urgency to ecumenical relations, but politicized religion crippled their effectiveness. By ministering restrictedly to their respective communities, churches, although they condemned violence, urged restraint, or acted as mediators, were accused of being "chaplains to their tribes" and were themselves vulnerable to sectarianism.

Successes and Shortcomings of Interchurch Relations: Ballymascanlon and Beyond

Nevertheless, formal ecumenical associations were crafted, most decisively the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (1973). Ballymascanlon, close to the border between North and South, was chosen as a neutral venue, and the "Ballymascanlon conferences" that took place there became a mainstay of official relationships, facilitating debate (not always progressive enough for some) on the ecumenical demands of unity-in-diversity. Papers were prepared on neuralgic areas (e.g., human rights), and a standing committee wrestled with the pastoral challenge of "mixed marriages." Through virtually annual meetings, sustained and sustaining relationships took root among participants, engendering trust, forthrightness, and tact in the face of differing cultural identities, political reservations, and theological traditions. Initiatives on youth ministry and peace education emerged, but no bold venture on interchurch education. Two commissioned reports are noteworthy: the incisive Violence in Ireland (1976), which was received more enthusiastically in political groups than in church circles, and Sectarianism: A Discussion Document (1993), which examined churches' collusion in sectarianism.

For the most part, churches support the peace process. Though they have been powerless to prevent nearly 4,000 deaths, the churches' foremost ecumenical challenge now is to give witness to the gospel pattern of boundary-crossing and healing. An inclusive ecumenical structure is one necessary factor in this. The fact that the ICC (minus Catholic representation) and the more inclusive Irish Inter-Church Meeting (Ballymascanlon) operate in parallel has militated against concerted action, but protracted discussions have failed to achieve an integrating structure. In addition, the Catholic Church remains outside ICC; its joining would present untenable difficulties for the Presbyterian Church, which alone of the main Protestant denominations stands outside the World Council of Churches (having resigned in 1980 over funding of resistance groups in Africa). Most Irish churches are variously associated with the "Churches Together in Britain and Ireland" body, but there is unmistakable discomfort with any movement toward full union.

It is often asserted that the churches have lacked a prophetic stature, failing to make needed gestures of "institutional self-sacrifice," proffering "a palliative rather than a cure." Their contribution to the reconciliation of histories—with undoubted exceptions—has been lackluster. The vision of interchurch unity has not found strong resonance in the congregational mainstream. Yet, incontrovertibly, a network of relationships once unimaginable now exists: shared worship, pulpit exchange, joint hospital and university chaplaincies, and local interchurch forums, along with meetings, appearances, and appeals of "the four church leaders," are now routine. Ecumenism is alive on the ground too, with projects abounding. The Corrrymeela Community, founded by the Presbyterian minister Ray Davey (1967), promotes peace between communities. The Irish School of Ecumenics, founded by Michael Hurley, S. J. (1970), remains a powerhouse of research and learning, collaborating with churches and community groups across civil society. Innumerable independent bodies contribute to this ecumenical world through partnerships or through groups dedicated to study, writing, and action for reconciliation. By opening spaces for ecumenical worship and hospitality to interested Christians, conferences like those at Greenhills or Glenstal Abbey are, since the 1960s, annual highlights, together with events focusing on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Women's World Day of Prayer.

Whether official or informal, interchurch relationships have sustained perseverance, ensuring that neither internal conflicts nor embarrassing actions lead to rupture, but rather compel the rebuilding of trust. Recent challenges to reconciliation include Catholic unease with the association of Protestant churches with the Drumcree "right to march"; the new "obstacle" for official Catholic ecumenism as Protestant churches break with ancient tradition by ordaining women; the irritation of Catholics when perceived as not "Christian"; the consternation of Protestants at the Vatican's "downgrading" of Anglican and Reformed Churches in its Dominus Iesus declaration and accompanying "Note" (2000), which, when taken with the episcopal document One Bread, One Body (1998), appears to run counter to Vatican II and to Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter on commitment to ecumenism (1995). Although doctrine remains important, since the search for truth is inherent in the quest for unity, it is often historical prejudice and other nondoctrinal factors that constitute the stumbling blocks. Some expostulations following President Mary McAleese's partaking in Anglican holy communion (1997) exposed a lamentable ignorance of changing historic patterns in eucharistic theology, and of the degree of Anglican–Roman Catholic agreement already achieved.

Mícheál Mac Gréil's now classic 1977 survey Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland revealed a majority perception that the churches contributed to divisions and that Christian unity was desirable. Yet, a 1998 inquiry intimated that Irish churches were still "imprisoned within structures." In a globalized world churches are called to overcome violence and to make peace. On an increasingly pluralist island where Christians may turn out to be Eastern Orthodox as well as Catholic or Protestant, and where people of many faiths now seek a home, churches are charged "to widen the space of their tent."

SEE ALSO McQuaid, John Charles; Protestant Community in Southern Ireland since 1922; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891


Clegg, Cecelia, and Joseph Liechty. Moving beyond Sectarianism: Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. 2001.

Ellis, Ian. Vision and Reality: A Survey of Twentieth-Century Irish Inter-Church Relations. 1992.

Hurley, Michael, S. J. Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring? 1998.

Mac Gréil, Mícheál. Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland. 1977.

MacNamara, Kevin. "Ecumenism in the Light of Vatican II." Irish Ecclesiastical Record 105 (1966): 152.

Smyth, Geraldine. "Churches in Ireland: Journeys in Identity and Communion." Ecumenical Review 53, no. 2 (April 2001).

Geraldine Smyth