Armagh service one moment on journey towards reconciliation

Service of reflection and hope seeks to bond factions and emanate optimism

St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh: This service will be a moment of prayer, listening and lament in the presence of the undivided God. Photograph: iStock

St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh: This service will be a moment of prayer, listening and lament in the presence of the undivided God. Photograph: iStock

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There are two libraries closely associated with the Catholic and Church of Ireland Cathedrals here in Armagh. Both are named after previous archbishops; the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Library and the Robinson Library.

Anyone researching in those archives for the years surrounding partition and the formation of Northern Ireland would come away with the impression that the atmosphere at the time was filled with bitterness, hurt, recrimination and all expressed in harsh, uncompromising words.

In more modern times, archbishops from both traditions and the leaders of other churches have been able to adopt a different tone, not because they carry their convictions any less strongly, but because they have become friends. It is relatively easy for people from differing religious or cultural traditions to do things on their own. It takes a bit more time and patience to do anything together, even on a modest scale.

We acknowledged our shortcomings and mistakes, especially in often failing to bring the Gospel message of peace and human solidarity to a divided society and island

So, in relation to the 2021 centenary year, the church leaders knew we had to start listening to one another as early as we could. In fact we started the process of planning our little programme of events in 2020, meeting online much more frequently than we could have done if all the meetings had been in person.

Like most of the rest of society, we moved from being “baby zoomers” to feeling relaxed using the online medium. These meetings became much more than business sessions. They turned into heart-to-heart conversations. People who were acquainted with one another began to know one another.

Similar vocation

It became obvious too from very early in our discussions that we each felt that what we were doing and thinking would be worthwhile sharing more widely. Not because it was revolutionary or grand, but because it was ordinary.

A group of people with a similar vocation, each of us, in one way or another spiritually descended from St Patrick, servants of the Gospel and of our churches, were now learning to become servants of one another (we hoped) for the common good.

We issued a statement early in the new year to say we intended to have a series of events in 2021 and followed this up on St Patrick’s Day with a much more substantial piece in which we laid out our rationale and our aims.

We acknowledged our shortcomings and mistakes in the past, especially in often failing to bring the Gospel message of peace and human solidarity to a divided society and a divided island. Through the year we have taken part together in broadcast services contributing personal reflections, and we have just completed a series of podcasts introduced by the journalist Jude Hill, in which each of us is in conversation with an invited guest.

Hoping and praying that in-person worship would be possible again before the year ended, we began planning back in March for a service of reflection and hope, to be held in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, but hosted by the Irish churches.

Undivided God

It is very important to all of the church leaders that this service is understood as our initiative – a moment of prayer, listening and lament in the presence of the undivided God. Although organised by the church leaders, the service will include voices, words and music from across the island – its different traditions and ages.

Covid restrictions and our vocation of care towards one another will mean that the numbers able to be in the cathedral will be limited. However, as we offer this space for reflection and hope, we would be grateful for the prayers of our fellow believers across these islands and further afield.

As we continue to deal with the impact of Covid-19, and as we face significant political challenges to relationships on these islands, across Europe and beyond, our society needs a message of hope. In particular, our young people, and those who have been the victims of violence and injustice need to know they are heard and supported.

Of course, the service is only one moment on a much longer journey towards reconciliation which will require the prayers and the support of many across these islands.

When this moment and this year have passed, the church leaders will continue to talk and act and pray together; disagreeing often; challenging each other with honesty and tact; conscious always of the presence of Holy Spirit as we struggle to “pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another”.

The Most Revd John McDowell is the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

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