Belfast cathedrals' partnership aims to boost reconciliation


Belfast has another "flagship" multi-million-pound development which is attracting investors from all over Ireland reflecting faith in the North, the redevelopment of the city's two cathedrals.

The Church of Ireland St Anne's Cathedral and St Peter's Catholic Cathedral, on the Falls Road, have been co-operating for more than a year, with the "union" being marked by a Candle-mass service, traditionally held at St Anne's, being moved to St Peter's last month. St Anne's choir sang at the service, which officially launched the Belfast Cathedrals' Partnership, set up to strengthen the bonds between the two religious communities.

"At the launch, I referred to the dean as my partner, if I could be allowed to use that term, as in this day and age language can be misconstrued," said Mgr Tom Toner of St Peter's, laughing. The first overture in the relationship came from Dean Jack Shearer of St Anne's.

"The dean opened a door, and never was a partnership more easily wooed," Mgr Toner said.

Church leaders are optimistic about co-operation under the auspices of the partnership. "People often ask what the churches can do, and what they can do is bring people together. We would be accused of being too political, and of course we are not political in any real sense of the word, while the others would be accused of having links with the Orange Order . . . Joint civic functions and projects combine to bring people into areas where they would never be," he added.

He said there was "a recognition in the churches that there is a need to promote reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and this partnership will accelerate that".

Traditionally held at St Anne's, for the first time the Hospice Carol service in December and the Ecumenical Prayer Week in January were held at St Peter's. The Ecumenical Prayer Week will now alternate annually between the two cathedrals.

Canon Charles Kenny, of St Anne's, who has been appointed ecumenical officer to oversee the joint events, with Father Paul Symonds for St Peter's, said he had never visited St Peter's until last year. "It was not a principled thing, it just never occurred to me to go."

Mgr Toner said he believed the partnership was a symbol of changed times.

"The Belfast Cathedrals Partnership is a reflection of what is happening in Belfast. There is a spirit of drawing together. The queen's Lord Lieutenant attended a service, traditionally held in St Anne's, last October in St Peter's. For the queen's representative to be at a service on the Falls Road is quite a bit of history."

The objective of the partnership is the redevelopment of the two cathedrals, with a view to building relationships between the congregations and undertaking joint projects and exchange visits. Canon Kenny expressed optimism that joint school tours would be feasible.

To ensure that the events can take place in comfort and security, an extensive building programme has been started at both cathedrals. The project is estimated to cost some £4.6 million. About £800,000 has been raised since the cathedrals opened a fund-raising drive last summer. St Anne's has been given £1.5 million towards development costs, from lottery funds. St Peter's has applied for funding to restore the neo-Gothic building to its former glory.

The success of the peace process will determine the effectiveness of the partnership, but co-operation between the two churches is not a recent phenomenon, says Canon Kenny. "Corrymeela is a tremendous step forward, and indeed, that was one of the first big ones.

"Again, that was not officially the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church coming together but it was prominent Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists and so on, with the approval of the various headquarters. If you like, it was a private enterprise rather than institutions [acting] from the top, but it had the backing, and indeed the money."

However, selling the two cathedrals as a joint venue for civic functions may take some time in order to ease remaining concerns among some clergy and lay people over the initiative.