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Churches in Ireland, Connecting In Christ

Irish Council of Churches Irish Inter-Church Meeting

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Strengthening local ecumenism

Summary Project Report (2009–12)

Background to the Ecumenical Officer Project

The Ecumenical Officer was the first job of its kind directly and jointly funded, governed and monitored by the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Episcopal Conference. Forty years after the ICC first became an employer, it jointly funded a Dublin–based appointment. The project, therefore not only intended for there to be a more island–wide feel to the IICC, but also to bridge the gap between national leadership and local grassroots ecumenism. The position alone therefore is one of significant importance.

Funding and Management

The project was co–funded and co–governed by the Irish Episcopal Conference and the Irish Council of Churches and monitored by a Steering Group

Areas of Work

The project work focussed on six main strategic areas:

Data and Information

Provide effective/useful information and resources. Including; completion of a mapping exercise of all existing inter–church groups, increased church and public awareness of ecumenical activity and an up–to–date database of key contacts within member churches.

Capacity building of local ecumenical groups

Strengthen local ecumenical groups and support local leadership, by motivating, encouraging, speaking and training to enable them to define problems and issues and formulate solutions in demonstrating visible signs of unity

Network Development

Assist Christian initiatives, organisations and churches to build sustainable networks, to improve the common witness of Christian faith

Strengthen and encourage existing ecumenical partnerships

Facilitate new local and regional initiatives between churches

Support national ecumenical initiatives between churches

Achievements

Strengthening local ecumenism

Since May 2009, the project has initiated, developed and supported a wide range of ecumenical activities, across the four provinces of Ireland, engaging with a broad spectrum of Irish Christian denominations and has therefore encouraged and strengthened local ecumenism in Ireland.

Commitment of churches

The member churches of the Irish Inter–Church Committee, have both demonstrated their commitment to island–wide and local ecumenism in creating the post, but they have also engaged positively and benefitted from many aspects of the project.

Development of Resources

A major achievement of the project has been the development of a ‘Directory of local inter–church groups’, which not only acknowledges and encourages existing groups, but also acts as a key resource for further networking and development.

Impact and mobilisation

The project has helped to collate and give focus to a disparate and broad existing body of ecumenical work, particularly in the Republic, which has in turn helped re–kindle energy.

Model projects

The project has addressed areas of weakness in contemporary Irish ecumenism, by encouraging work in geographically weak areas, by developing new models of engagement, particularly developing links with non–ICC churches and organisations, particularly migrant–led churches, and supporting a number of initiatives to encourage the participation of youth and young adults in the life of the church.

Networking

The project has built key links, particularly in the Republic of Ireland and at the local level, which has not only given the IICC profile, but it has also helped to highlight IICC as a contact and resource for churches, faith groups, NGOs, Government and media throughout the country.

Challenges

Scale of task

The project faced challenges including the scale of the task, different expectations, working consistently across sixteen denominations and across the whole island, challenging contemporary attitudes to ecumenism and limited project costs.

Limited resources

Encouraging local ecumenism requires significant time for relationship building, travel and investment of resources. Working 20 hours a week, has made it extremely difficult particularly to reach effectively many of the geographically weaker areas.

Long–term needs

Local ecumenism can also only be achieved as a long–term project. There is real value in developing this project further, not just as a once–off short–term project.

Lessons Learned

Context

The pace of change in both Irish society and Christianity was rapid and intense during the 3–year course of the project. This greatly altered the dynamics and relationships and presented challenges for dialogue between churches undergoing such change.

That said, no church is ever static, therefore any member church that is experiencing a crisis, should also see an opportunity for new ecumenical support and journeying to take place.

Concept

Understandings of the definition of the word ‘ecumenism’ are very broad and unclear. To some it is comical, others threatening and others still narrowed to dialogue between Catholics and Protestants.

There is therefore a need for either renewed education as to its true meaning or an openness to express ecumenical values in a new language and with new models.

Local

There is no doubt that much of the international ecumenical progress has slowed in recent years. In contrast however, is a local ecumenical picture locally that perhaps has never been stronger. A clear example of this is presented in the identification of 100s of ecumenical groups in the Directory. 

However, it should also be noted that the majority of local ecumenical groups and initiatives are Protestant and Catholic and a much wider model of engagement therefore needs to take place especially with Orthodox, evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

Public engagement

The status of the Catholic Church in Ireland has changed in the past decade. The other Protestant churches in the Republic of Ireland particularly have traditionally had much less impact in the public square, due to their size. Therefore there is both a growing hostility to the contribution of faith and also a growing wariness of public engagement from those within the churches.

The challenge however remains how to speak together on a variety of issues and how to make that voice effective and impacting.

Diversity

The 2011 Census figures show an extraordinary diversification of the Irish religious landscape. The figures have by and large grown in a variety of directions, from the growth of Orthodox, evangelical and Pentecostal Christian churches, to the growth of World Religions, humanism and atheism and a sizeable growth of those declaring no religious affiliation.

This has greatly changed the dynamics by which interchurch groups must now operate and many feel a wider move of focus and energy, particularly from civic authorities, toward interfaith rather than inter–Christian work. The Census figures however vindicate the immense need for inter–Christian dialogue, regardless of whether it also involves interfaith engagement or otherwise.

Philip McKinley
June 2012