Bishop of Cloghers speech
Bishop Jackson's Address

Address given at the Launch of The Rural Enabler Programme on October 25th 2010 in the Townhall, Enniskillen, a church perspective, by The Rt Revd Dr Michael Jackson, bishop of Clogher

Most of us shy away instinctively from definitions of who we are, which are offered by other people, particularly when we do not like what we are hearing. Sectarian is one of these words. Our instant reaction probably runs something like this: I might have said or done a few things in my time that I’d now say or do differently, but I wouldn’t call myself sectarian. The implication is: And don’t you dare call me sectarian either! So, what is sectarianism? I imagine that everyone here, having as you do a passion for and a commitment to, the building of peace locally, will have different working definitions of sectarianism itself. But each of us needs to live with and live beyond her or his own definition of sectarianism. My own definition is as follows: sectarianism is the wilful and instinctive separation and rejection of fellow human beings as human beings because they are different. You or I might go on to say: But my identity is what really matters to me. Identity is not enough. So much identity is second-hand, historically misty and built on carving out personal and institutional territory to the exclusion of others. Integrity is what turns identity outwards and gives it a focus of generosity and respect towards others. Integrity enables the giving of voice to something which matters to you and makes possible an expression of trust. The ways in which we speak reveal what matters to us and why.

Churches in Ireland increasingly admit that they are part of the problem and in the same breath express the aspiration that they may yet be part of the solution. The difficulty is that every time you say something like this, the ground is already shifting under your feet and under the feet of those to whom you are speaking. The recent Report entitled: The Troubles aren’t history – Young People’s Understanding of the Past analyzes and expresses the perspective of young people who are part of the highly complex secondary education system in Northern Ireland which history has dealt us and which we seem powerless to change. These voices have nothing to hide because they have nothing to protect. They can tell us straight, for example, that in Ireland there are two parallel histories that only intersect through acts of violence. They can tell us straight that none of the participants in the Report saw the churches as contributing anything to education in the field of understanding one’s own history and the history of the other. Apart from Ash Wednesday and Remembrance Sunday, no church activity is mentioned as a community resource for enhanced community identity.

This is all the more alarming because it takes people like me to a place where we do not wish to admit we already are. Religion, it seems, is no longer a place where we do not know what we are talking about, but a place where we are now talking about what we no longer know. And yet others will tell us that the practice of religion remains stronger and deeper in the rural areas than in the urban areas. One of the most powerful theological pictures is that of image and likeness. We meet it early in Genesis and it weaves its way through to St Paul’s own grappling with the impact and the reach of the event of Jesus Christ Risen as it ricochets down through history. Here and now, we see in a mirror darkly; here and now, the only reflection of the person of Jesus Christ Incarnate which we see is in the face of our neighbour. And, of course, it is the kindly St Luke, patron saint of healers and of artists, who poses for us, in the words of the bright young questioner of the earthly Jesus this very question: Who, then, is my neighbour? And, after a violent encounter on the Road to Jericho, so uncannily reminiscent of the words of the Report to the effect that there are two parallel histories that only intersect through acts of violence, the answer is: the one who showed kindness.

Rural life brings with it a continuing sense of community which is tangible and vibrant, which celebrates what is local and, because of its intimacy, gives little option to people but to look one another in the eye. Rural life also brings with it a tendency to aloneness and alienation which undermines an open belonging to a space which is for all and it encourages a withdrawal into domestic security and lack of community engagement. In such a context, identity is working both ways at the same time – stepping into the community and stepping back out from it – and not enough people are talking about the same thing when they are using the word community itself in any case. And so identity always has the possibility of sliding back into being exclusive. And so community always has the possibility of being re-defined as my community. And so sectarianism can return through the front door when we think we have seen it off through the back door.

Some years back, the Church of Ireland commissioned a study entitled: The Hard Gospel. This was an externally driven examination of issues and assumptions which members of the Church of Ireland hold about who we are and who we imagine others, who are different from us, to be. In the contemporary context, this Hard Gospel agenda had moved beyond sectarianism per se into areas of race and gender, culture and faith, but it had to continue to wrestle with denomination as a potent force in who individuals in Ireland think they are. And we quickly learned, if indeed we needed to be reminded, that sectarianism is a thirty-two county reality, even as we speak. The Report: The Troubles aren’t history reinforces this by showing that history is an essential ingredient in constructing and maintaining any imagined community of nationhood and that politics and religion are still the most potent formulators of identity in Ireland. Within this, Northern Ireland is even more complex in that there are, in fact, two competing national narratives at loggerheads with one another, claiming the same space and territory.

In the Diocese of Clogher, we followed this with an initiative entitled: Whatever you say, say nothing, a phrase spun both of a desire to spare the feelings of others and of an incapacity to face one’s own harm and hurt. As a third initiative, we are now exploring issues concerned with confidence-building across fault-lines which continue to exist and which have shaped our own identities. All of this local work is being done in co-operation with people from across the community and churches and together with the people and clergy of Bishop McDaid’s diocese of Clogher which is coterminous with my own, straddling the Border as this diocese does from western seaboard through Fermanagh and Tyrone to Carrickmacross. I am delighted also to share this event with the Reverend Dr Johnston McMaster whose subtle and sustained contribution to ecumenism and peace building in Ireland is internationally renowned.

I have been asked to reflect from a church perspective on rural sectarianism. I have a few brief comments. The first is that Fr Michael Hurley SJ, the founding father of the Irish School of Ecumenics, urged Christians in Ireland to tithe their time of worship and to spend a tenth of their church time in a tradition other than their own. Might we consider this today in terms of culture and community? The Fermanagh Churches’ Forum annually has a church walk in the towns and villages of the county during which the participants enter each church building, have its architecture and its life explained to them and then share hospitality. Might we do more of this in relation to sports and institutions which run through the veins of our community if we really want it to be a community? An essential ground rule of Inter Faith dialogue and encounter is: Do not present the best of yourself and identify the worst of the other in your encounter. Might we do more of this if we wish to dismantle the scaffolding of sectarianism in rural Ireland, as anything more than a pious aspiration in an increasingly post-religious age? Religion works with four words: faith and doubt, certainty and fear. As religions lose their foothold in contemporary Ireland, all too often an alternative set of pairings: faith and certainty, doubt and fear have replaced the dynamic tension in the other pairings of faith and doubt, certainty and fear. Might we wrestle, like Jacob and Esau of old, with these words to take us and hold us in a different place from the headlights of stagnation which currently blind our path?

I welcome wholeheartedly the localness of this initiative. I welcome its comprehensive cross-Border character. I welcome the fact that it will engage younger and older around issues which hurt because they bite. I look forward to hearing a great deal more from Mr Neville Armstrong and others as the Programme does what it sets out to do: enable, equip, encourage, embrace.