Celebrating 25 years of Ballymascanlon

Two important ecumenical jubilees were celebrated this month

Two important ecumenical jubilees were celebrated this month. The World Council of Churches began celebrating its golden jubilee in Amsterdam and Geneva on September 20th. It was founded and opened its first assembly in Amsterdam on August 23rd, 1948.

The celebrations will continue in December when the council will hold its eighth general assembly in Harare. All the Irish churches except the Roman Catholic Church are members of the WCC.

Though not yet a member of the council itself, it has been a member of its Faith and Order Commission since 1968 and has played a full part in all its theological discussions.

The second ecumenical jubilee celebrated this month was that of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting at Ballymascanlon, Co Louth, on September 26th, 1973, a year more famous for Sunningdale than for Ballymascanlon.


They are not really comparable initiatives, but it is interesting to note that Sunningdale (the political agreement which involved a power-sharing executive between unionists and nationalists and a council of Ireland) did not succeed whereas Ballymascanlon (the first official meeting between Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Ireland) did.

Ballymascanlon may have produced no other agreement except to meet again, but it did, and last Wednesday it celebrated its silver jubilee at the place where it began, the Ballymascanlon House Hotel near Dundalk.

This contrast between the Sunningdale and Ballymascanlon initiatives illustrates the truth of the statement made by Gallagher and Worral in Christians in Ulster 1968- 1980 that, when the Troubles broke out in 1968, "the churches were more ready than the political parties to stretch out hands of friendship". They had been doing so for at least 10 years previously.

The Protestant churches began their journey to Ballymascanlon in 1963. They started out from Greystones, Co Wicklow, where an official Faith and Order conference of what was then called the United Council of Churches and Religious Communions in Ireland (now the Irish Council of Churches) urged its members "to consider in what ways we ought to respond in truth and love to our Roman Catholic brethren who express their sense of fellowship with us".

The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland began its journey to Ballymascanlon the following year, before the second Vatican Council had come to an end.

It started out from Glenstal, the Benedictine Abbey in Co Limerick, where, at the invitation of the Abbot, Dom Joseph Dowdall, a conference involving members of all the churches was held, a conference which has continued yearly. The churches took some 10 years to get to Ballymascanlon from their two starting places, and the journey followed a circuitous and tortuous route. It led up, into and through Northern Ireland. It was as a result of the Troubles, of the politico-religious conflict which erupted in October 1968, that for the first time they established official relations and attempted, somewhat reluctantly, to expand their faith and order agenda (discussion of Baptism, Eucharist and similar questions) to include justice and peace issues.

Happily, considerable progress in Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had been made in the preceding decade at the unofficial level by those who saw closer relations between the churches and their members as a Christian imperative in any case, violence or no violence.

So much progress had been made that, when the Troubles broke out, the churches did not take sides in the way they had done in the Home Rule crisis at the beginning of the century and, according to Gallagher and Worral, as they would have done a decade earlier.

Instead the churches set about establishing official Catholic-Protestant structures. The emergence in 1968 of the four church leaders as a working group to calm fears and to promote peace is generally regarded as the first sign of official Catholic-Protestant co-operation.

This was followed in May 1970 by the Joint Group on Social Questions which established a working party on violence in Ireland. In 1972, in response to overtures conveyed by the secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy issued an invitation to what came to be called the Ballymascanlon talks, because of the venue of the early meetings.

This Catholic invitation was remarkable for its inclusiveness: the Protestant churches were invited to "a joint meeting at which the whole field of ecumenism in Ireland might be surveyed" and in which all the members of the episcopal conference would participate. However, the unfocused nature of the terms of reference and a reluctance to address the issues highlighted by the Troubles led to considerable frustration during the first decade.

The coat of arms of Ballymascanlon House, where the talks originally took place, includes the motto Festina Lente (hasten slowly). However slow, the churches were patient and persevering and Ballymascanlon has more than survived. It has become the Irish Inter-Church Meeting and plans are afoot to reconstitute it as "the primary and main national ecumenical body in Ireland".

At the silver jubilee meeting last week a souvenir booklet, The Irish Inter-Church Meeting: Background and Development, was published. It contains an introduction by the current co-chairmen, Dr Sean Brady, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, and the Rev Edmund Mawhinney, former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, who presided at the meeting.

The booklet contains two chapters: one "The Preparatory Years" by the present author, and the second "The Period since 1973" by the Rev Dr Ian Ellis of the Church of Ireland.

In their introduction to the souvenir booklet, the co-chairmen write: "The first 25 years are only just a start. We are about to enter a new millennium, one in which we hope that relationships between the Christian churches will be profoundly different to those in this. Like the School of Ecumenics' floreat ut pereat: may the Irish Inter-Church Meeting flourish in order to perish."

Father Michael J. Hurley SJ is co-founder and a former director of the Irish School of Ecumenics. He spoke at last week's 25th anniversary celebrations of the Ballymascanlon talks. Next month a collections of his essays, Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Second Spring?, will be published