From the Archives: Enda McDonagh on Northern Ireland and Theology

This summer Northern Ireland is, sadly, in the news again for sectarian violence. Protestant loyalists, Catholic republicans, and the police squared off in the streets of Belfast and other cities during the annual Orange parade on Monday evening. Although politicians point out that there has been less violence this summer than in previous years, there is some concern that economic problems, the refusal of some groups to dialogue, and the general lack of a reconciliation plan spell trouble for the future.

Because of the religious character of the violence in Northern Ireland, theologians have long searched for an appropriate theological response. A recent collection of papers from an Irish Peace Centres conference suggests that theology still has the vital task of promoting dialogue and complicating dualistic religious perspectives.

The Centre for Theology and Public Issues has held two symposiums on the problems in Northern Ireland, one in 1987 and the other in 1998. As part of our ongoing series highlighting documents from our archives, we present Enda McDonagh’s paper from the first of these symposiums, Northern Ireland–A Challenge to Theology. The other set of papers is also on Google Books, along with many of our other publications.

Enda McDonagh is a Roman Catholic theologian now retired from St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. When he gave this paper in 1987, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was already two years old, but violence persisted. McDonagh insists that the church’s failure to make an impact in Northern Ireland demands the attention of all British theologians. His own contribution is to offer a fairly radical revisioning of the formula “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” In this new season of Irish violence, McDonagh’s proposal is worth hearing again. Please leave your thoughts about it in the comments.

Northern Ireland–The Contribution of Theology

by Enda McDonagh

This title clearly carries a mult1plicity of meanings. Whether we are talking about Northern Ireland, its problem or some solution(s) to that problem, the concern may be what has theology already contributed to [the] problem or solution? A descriptive task; or more prescriptively, what should theology be doing to help solve the problem? Theology may be understood as the implicit lived theology of Churches and Christians or the explicit, reflective theology of professionals. In this context some comments on all these legitimate concerns may be appropriate.

That there is a religious and (explicit) theological dimension to the divisions in Northern Ireland and the century old hostilities between “nationalists” and “unionists” I take for granted. That these divisions and hostilities are not exclusively, or for many participants on either side, dominantly religious seems to me to be also true. How the mainline Churches have since 1968, and even before that, made positive efforts to reduce the hostilities and disentangle the religious and political dimensions has been carefully documented, for example, in Christians in Ulster (Eric Gallagher and Stanley Worrall). Yet how limited the impact of such efforts remains, may be discerned by the careful study of any recent week’s events in the province. And behind the positive efforts and the limited results lie more serious failures of church and theology.

The positive efforts range from the top-levels of Church leadership to basic joint prayer-groups and simple good neighbourliness of Christian inspiration. The Ballymascanlon talks, Irish Church summits with elaborate working-parties, serious preparation and some efforts at follow-up have no obvious parallels outside Ireland. The range of contacts, even friendships and the serious exploration of major theological issues may still provide a basis for that conversion of the Irish Churches to one another which has never quite happened and which could have profound implications on the faith-life of the whole island as well as on the political life of Northern Ireland. The annual, valuable ecumenical conferences at Greenhills, Drogheda and at Glenstal Abbey could contribute to that essential breakthrough for which the Irish School of Ecumenics, Dublin, continues to work so hard. Professional theologians at their institutions in Belfast (Union), Dublin (Trinity College, Irish School of Ecumenics, Hilltown Institute etc.), Maynooth and elsewhere are very conscious of the necessarily ecumenical and interchurch character of contemporary theology and the particular significance of this for an Irish theology. The enterprise of promoting such an ecumenical Irish theology has been a concern of the Irish Theological Association since its foundation in the mid-sixties. Through various conferences and publications, particularly the 1984 Conference on Irish Challenges to Theology (Dominican Publications, Dublin 1986), the Association has struggled with analysing the negative contribution of church and theology to the problem of Northern Ireland and their positive potential in contributing to a solution. At this explicit, professional theological level, for all the energy and the good intentions, the impact has been limited and the major breakthrough deferred.

The breakthrough in ecclesial and in political relationships which the situation in Northern Ireland demands has implications for all churches and peoples in these islands. It is not a problem for Northern Ireland simply or even just for Ireland but for Scotland, Wales and England, the island of Britain with its Churches and its politicians. British theologians have also an obligation to work for that breakthrough, to engage in the necessary praeparatio oecumenica with their Irish counterparts. This conference is clearly part of the contribution.

In seeking that breakthrough it may be worth focusing on certain challenges which the situation in Northern Ireland presents to theology and the Churches. Theology’s contribution may be, at least in part, the more precise discernment of these challenges and then of possible Christian response to them. Within the limitations of this paper I concentrate on three crucial characteristics of Christian living as we confess “one Lord, one faith and one baptism” (Eph. 4:6).

The primitive creed of Christians was expressed in the phrase “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9). This is so central and so fundamental that any challenge to the language of lordship must appear shocking and even heretical. Yet in the history of the Church, following the sinful curve of corruptio optimi pessima, even such salvific words have sometimes encouraged a Church mentality of lording it over others, a Christian imperialism of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, Catholic and Protestant. The Churches in these islands and in particular in Northern Ireland have not escaped this self-inflation, with its thrust to self-idolatry, lording over other Churches has combined with political lordship to produce a peculiarly dangerous travesty of the lordship of Christ. It is the task of theology to diagnose and prescribe for this Christian sickness. One radical but perhaps necessary healing move would be to stop talking about Jesus as Lord. At least there is an urgent necessity to develop a theology of Jesus as servant, a servant Christology. With such a kenotic, self-emptying vision of Jesus,the Churches could more easily drop the trappings of empire and relate to one another as equals in common service of all the people of Northern Ireland.

The “one baptism” is under equally current challenge. Baptism is into the one Jesus Christ. The Churches share this baptism and they all acknowledge it as authentic in the different traditions. Yet baptism has to face the social reality of its role in affiliating people to opposed and sometimes warring political traditions. Baptism in the Catholic Church normally signals membership of the nationalist community, baptism in any of the Protestant Churches, membership of the unionist community. Membership and unity in the body of Christ, which is Baptism’s primary meaning, is exposed to frustration by its social and political significance in Northern Ireland. The hallowed tradition which insists that the sacraments should not be exposed to futility, might demand that the Churches should stop baptising in Northern Ireland unless they take steps to prevent the sacrament’s frustration and futility. For that, the full and unified dimension of Christ’s Body in the local community must be made manifest. Baptism should be celebrated in each particular Church in the presence of representatives of all the Christian Churches in the locality. In this way the Chuches may be liberated from their political captivity and state politics may be allowed to be just that, state politics.

The “one faith” is the gift of and reaches out to the one God, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jesus Christ. That God is frequently obscured  and sometimes replaced all over the world by dominant idols. In Northern Ireland they may readily be the idols of nationalism or unionism, of a united Ireland or a united Kingdom. For such dominant idols one is prepared to sacrifice oneself and others, to die and to kill. The close association of religion and national politics has always posed a threat to true faith. Only a very clear disjunction of Catholicism and Nationalism, of Protestantism and Unionism will enable authentic Christian faith to survive in Northern Ireland. Theologians and Church leaders have yet to make that disjunction in ways that will allow all Christians in Northern Ireland to affirm together their one indestructible and subversive faith in Jesus Christ. For now they need above all to surrender to its subversive character as it exposes ecclesial and political idols of “the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods” (T.S. Eliot, Journey of the Magi).

Image: Belfast, Northern Ireland by TS Drown.

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One thought on “From the Archives: Enda McDonagh on Northern Ireland and Theology

  1. Pingback: Kirk’s On the right trek | Unsettled Christianity

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