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(Written for Northern Ireland Foundation)

Can the historical cycle of division and violence be broken? The question lurks in the shadows of every street corner in the Northwest’s famous walled city. Driving through Derry-Londonderry’s different neighbourhoods, exploring how division has shaped this city, Earl Storey explained his hopes and fears about the churches’ role in building a shared future on this island.

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Earl Storey is one of Northern Ireland’s most ardent champions of reconciliation. The former Church of Ireland rector is perhaps best known for his leadership of the the Hard Gospel Project, one of the most substantial denominational church initiatives of its kind in Ireland.

The Church of Ireland project sought to strengthen the church’s ability to confront division in a changing society. It provided a range of opportunities at the denominational, diocesan and parish level to confront issues of difference, community conflict and sectarianism.

The resources generated by the Hard Gospel Project are still available online and will continue to be used by people in the church working to transform prejudice in their churches and communities. When the project concluded, Storey started a communications consultancy. He continues to work for the Church of Ireland as the diocesan press officer, and remains as committed as ever to the work of reconciliation.

Only a few hundred yards from the bustling city centre is the Fountain, a Protestant-populated enclave within the Catholic-populated “Cityside” of the city.  The area is rich in history, something the local historical society has proudly sought to draw attention to.

But it is also an area visibly shaped by violence. High separation barriers protect the minority loyalist neighbourhood. Sectarian murals adorn buildings and brick walls. And while murals often distort the diverse sentiments and attitudes of any given community, it’s hard to see past the messages that greet you once you enter: “Still Under Siege,” “No Surrender 1998.” Even the local Cathedral Youth Club displays the emblem and letters of the loyalist paramilitary organisation, the UDA.

Nearby is the majority-Catholic Bogside, with murals that celebrate the Republican cause. Beyond the famous murals at the threshold of the area — “You are now entering free Derry” and the well-known depiction of Bernadette Devlin — lie more recently painted declarations. One such message reads, “Drug Dealers Out!” This is the mark of RAAD (Republican Action Against Drugs), a vigilante group that uses violence to force those it accuses of dealing drugs out from Republican communities.

Though a man of hope, there is a robust realism to Storey’s temperament. As we approached the diocesan offices back in city centre, he reminded me what’s at stake if peace building fails. “Reconciliation is vital. If this is just a breathing space, we’re going to do it all over again.” We found our way to an empty boardroom and talked about what reconciliation looks like.

What role should churches play in shaping a shared future here in Ireland and Northern Ireland?

The churches have got a key role, primarily because reconciliation is the absolute core message of the Christian faith. Whatever way you look at it, reconciliation, if it’s not part of Christian faith, then I can’t see that that’s an authentic Christian faith. That’s the first reason, it’s just a theological imperative, if you like, it’s as plain as black and white.

Jesus expresses it very simply, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and spirit. In other words, love God more than anything else, which includes any cause or politics or any passion. But the other half he was also saying is to love your neighbour as your self. And as we know Jesus defined neighbour as everybody. And in the story of the Good Samaritan where that teaching is rooted, that teaching is clear, your neighbour is your enemy. It’s a non-negotiable from the church’s point of view.

I also think there is another reason, and I think it may be a social reason, why the church needs to get involved with a shared future. I think somebody needs to stand for a shared future. Now, I think there are a lot of people who do, and I think there are a lot of people in our community who are very concerned at the lack of coherent policy for a shared future. There need to be public voices actually standing by what they say, what they do and what they stand for, that are championing that cause.

In what way do you envision churches jumping into the political fray over shared future policy?

There is a danger for churches jumping into the political fray, in the sense that everything is politics in our community. Culture gets used for politics — everything is used to fight the fight by code. And there is a temptation for every side to want to use church, to use their church, as part of their side. Churches need to be party political neutral. But having said that, I would encourage any church member to get actively involved in peaceful politics.

What does reconciliation mean within a political context?

I think reconciliation is about finding a sense of the common good. It’s about communities that have injured one another, and been hurt by the other. It’s about communities that have been divided actually finding a way to reach across and to build a new relationship.

I think reconciliation isn’t a case of just wiping over the surface of things, pretending the last 40 years never happened. That’s both dishonest and also just madness in terms of a process of reconciliation that has any integrity.

Define sectarianism from a Christian perspective, and address how it manifests in our churches.

I think to have a strong sense of identity or a strong sense of belief or strong opinions about anything doesn’t make a person sectarian. When something becomes sectarianism, it’s how you express those beliefs, and whether it leads you to express those beliefs in a destructive way, and to treat other people in a way that is ultimately destructive or denigrating for them or for the common good.

Do you think sectarianism is a sin?

Do I think sectarianism is a sin? Do I think it’s a sin not to love your neighbour as your self? The answer is an obvious yes. Sectarianism is damaging to another person and to the common good, so yes I think it’s very sinful and very dangerous.

The biggest danger for the church and sectarianism has been to keep the head down. It’s an indifference and apathy that is bred out of fear. Political leadership has fallen into the danger of sometimes using its own people. In the church we have fallen into the danger of being afraid of our own people.

To coin the phrase that Jerry Greenfield from Ben and Jerry’s, who was at pains to say he wasn’t talking about politics and religion but business—but the principle holds true: The role of leadership is to tell your own people the truth about the way things are on the ground. And that’s one of the greatest temptations for the church, is actually to be afraid to tell its own people the truth.

So what are the truths that people in the church need to tell their own communities?

On this one I can only speak as a member of the Protestant community. The truth that we need to constantly be telling our own people is that we have to find our place in our community, we can’t find our place in isolation from other communities or the Nationalist community. If we tried to do that, to find our place in splendid isolation, that’s a sign of a lack of confidence. To me it’s a shining statement and declaration of confidence when a community is able to say, “We are confident enough and strong enough in who we are and what we are, to find our identity with people of another identity.”

What can churches do to transform Northern Irish society that political institutions cannot?

One of the strengths that a church has over a political institution or political party is that a church doesn’t need votes. Now church obviously needs people, it needs congregations, but it doesn’t need votes in the same way. There should be a freedom in that. Whereas in politics you’re always looking after your own constituency. Churches should have a freedom. And also churches should have a freedom in that it stands for something else — that its identity is most fundamentally in Jesus Christ, and its identity is most fundamentally in the Gospel. And those are the most important things for church life, more than any national identity or cultural identity. Not to say you don’t have a national identity and a cultural identity. But church is about something bigger, something more than that. It’s about relationship with God, and it’s also about relationship between neighbours. The role of the church is to champion that, to call people to something bigger.

NOTES

Further information on the Hard Gospel Project: http://ireland.anglican.org/archive/hardgospel/

including a final report: http://ireland.anglican.org/archive/hardgospel/cmsfiles/pdf/HG-report-final.pdf

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