The Irish Council of Churches (ICC) gathered for its 94th Annual Meeting at the Methodist Church’s Belfast Central Mission on Thursday 30th March. In a keynote address titled ‘Do the Churches have a place in a Post–Catholic Ireland?’, Dr Gladys Ganiel, Research Fellow at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, outlined the challenges and opportunities in secularisation to over 100 delegates from Protestant, Orthodox, Reformed, Catholic, Independent and Migrant–led churches in Ireland.
Dr Ganiel noted that the ICC could be seen as belonging to what she defined as ‘extra–institutional religion’, whereby ‘new religious spaces … are being created (or discovered) within Ireland’s post–Catholic environment. These are spaces where people use various methods and strategies to keep their faith alive, outside or in addition to the institutional Catholic Church, or indeed, other ‘institutional’ churches’. Recognising that the ICC, as an organisation, has the potential to greatly engage with and contribute to public life, she stated that ‘from a sociological perspective, sometimes the margins are the best place to be. While you may lack conventional power or influence, there is an important soft power in your ability to critique and offer alternative visions, and to move quickly to respond to pressing needs.’
In the space of only a few months, the Churches in Ireland have found themselves living and witnessing in a more uncertain social, economic and political atmosphere than could previously have been imagined. Today’s meeting informed the ICC’s member churches of its day–to–day work in that environment and also, with the help of Dr Ganiel, stimulated thought on how we might strengthen our united witnessing in the face of division and uncertainty.
In a subsequent presentation to the meeting, ICC President Rt Rev John McDowell, Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher, noted that we have been challenged in a critical but friendly way by Dr Ganiel’s presentation to think about ‘the God Space’ that organisations like the ICC might begin to explore. We must think of ways of encouraging and informing our member churches to specifically address witnessing in a pluralist society and bringing our particular gifts to building up the common good.