Long, long before he became affectionately known as one half of the ‘chuckle brothers’, and on a more serious note, being an important part of building peace in Northern Ireland, I had an encounter with the Reverend Ian Paisley. It was not a pleasant experience, as a matter of fact, it was quite frightening. It was Church Unity
Week, I think around nineteen seventy-nine, and I was attending a talk in St. Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Belfast. The speaker was Hans Kung, the German theologian, who was the guest of those who had organised a series of events, to help promote Church Unity.
As I think of it now I am struck by the courage of those involved. I am also grateful for all those who worked for years to promote peace and understanding long before it was popular and before there was an official peace process. Their work was arduous and frustrating and for the most part thankless. So I am grateful to Robin Eames, Cecil Kerr and Reg Empey who worked with people like Michael Hurley SJ, not forgetting the huge
commitment of the Redemptorists in Clonard Monastery. Perhaps the most tireless of this group was the late Fr. Gerry Reynolds CSsR, brother of Fr. Pat, of our neighbouring parish in Cherry Orchard, who spent years bringing small groups of Protestants and Catholics together, to read, pray and discuss. Now back to my encounter with Dr. Paisley.
As we left St. Anne’s that night we literally had to run the gauntlet through Ian Paisley and his supporters, as they spat on us, threw eggs and indeed hurled all sorts of sectarian taunts at us. They were not annoyed, as some might think, at the presence of Professor Kung, nor were they struggling with some of his, even then, challenging assertions. No, rather they were angry at the presence of Catholics in a Protestant Cathedral and in fact they were opposed to the very concept of Church Unity Week. They saw it as a betrayal to consort with the papists of Rome, their forefathers had worked so hard to break from!
A few years after this I was privileged to be associated with the founders of P.R.I.S.M., Peace Reconciliation Inter Schools Movement. Again on a number of occasions coming out of debates and quizzes involving my own students and the students of Protestant schools in the city, we had to endure similar abuse from the same group. Recalling these days now it strikes me just how divided we were. We were all living in the same city, indeed the same part of that city, West Belfast and we all believed in the same God, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, yet with all that, for the best part of thirty years we killed each other. We had our own wall back then. A wall built of concrete and barbed wire, and guess what we called it? We called it the Peace Wall. Of course it was anything but, because in the cement and in the knots of the barbed wire there was hatred and revenge and suspicion and most of all it was bound together by fear.
As you read this my friends we are half way through Church Unity week, and I do not recall a time when there was so much naked fear in the world. Fear and ignorance and suspicion form the breeding ground for hatred violence and revenge. All over the world there is war, famine and disease and whilst there is always natural disaster, much of this is man-made. This is true even in some of what we put down to climate change. We do not have to dig deep to encounter man’s greed and his desire to conquer and dominate. Surely one of the great scandals of the world is the amount of bloodshed in the name of religion, and more specifically the ongoing scandal of the disunity of Christians. This disunity reaches a crescendo of horror when Christians kill Christians.
Now you might ask what can we do about all that? What bearing has Church Unity Week in St. Matthew’s? Perhaps it is timely to remind ourselves of Pope Benedict’s warning against a ‘false ecumenism’. This is where we pretend there are no differences between Christians. This is, of course, not true. There are clear differences. However is it not also abundantly clear that what divides us is dwarfed by what we have in common? It is the same Jesus, the same Father, the same Holy Spirit. We believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Regardless of what we argue over, we are obliged, through the teachings of Jesus, to love one another. At the heart of Christianity lies peace. At the heart of Judaism lies peace. At the heart of Islam lies peace. So why then all the fighting, especially over religion? The fighting over religion happens when we hijack religion for our own ends, when we attempt to make God into our image and likeness.
So back to us here in St. Matthew’s, what might our contribution to Church Unity Week be? We could inform ourselves, read and generally increase our awareness about Christian Unity, sometimes called ecumenism. We could pray for unity as Jesus did in chapter seventeen of St. John’s Gospel. We could resolve to be ambassadors of peace. We could make up our minds now, that even over the coffee, or at the bar, or in the living room we will be more interested in building bridges instead of walls.