The 28th Irish Inter–Church Meeting (IICM) took place from the 23rd–24th November at Dromantine Conference and Retreat Centre, Newry. The IICM is the formal meeting between the Irish Episcopal Conference and the Irish Council of Churches. It gathers senior church leaders and lay representatives from across 15 denominations in Ireland, bringing together the broad spectrum of Roman Catholic, Reformed, Migrant–led, Independent and Orthodox traditions. The theme chosen for the 2017 meeting was Proclaiming Christ to Families Today. The following statement was issued by the Co–Chairs of the meeting after the event:
“Families are the heart of the life and mission of the Church. The World Meeting of Families, which will be hosted by the Catholic Church in Ireland in 2018, provides a significant opportunity for us, as Christian churches in Ireland, to reflect together about how best to respond to the many and varied needs of families across the island of Ireland today. This year’s Irish Inter–Church Meeting combined many different layers of reflection, drawing inspiration from different academic disciplines and different areas of work. It was a dialogue, not just between churches, but between churches and the wider society. We are deeply indebted to all who gave the time to share their expertise and experience.
In our pastoral care of the family we are also caring for society. This was underlined in the keynote address by Gordon Harold, Professor of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, who presented evidence from different international contexts showing how the inter–parental relationship affects youth mental health. Professor Harold went on to outline how these findings can be translated into effective public policy aimed at improving outcomes for vulnerable parents and children in a way that is long term, sustainable and improves the life chances of the next generation.
Representatives of organisations working to support vulnerable individuals and families, from both faith–based organisations and the wider community and voluntary sector, highlighted some of the most urgent challenges for families in both jurisdictions in Ireland today. Delegates heard about the importance of emotional wellbeing and a secure family home. Practitioners identified areas where churches could build on successful initiatives to provide further support through pastoral care, service provision and advocacy to Government.
There was a strong focus throughout the meeting on our communications, both internal and external. We were encouraged by successive speakers to think about the ways in which families experiencing difficulties are prevented from getting the help they need because of stigma and shame. As Christians who believe in a God of compassion, we are well placed to provide a safe space for those who are struggling. We should not underestimate the value of simple gestures of compassion, kindness and acceptance.
At the same time, it is important to remember that for some people the family is not a safe place. We heard from those working on the frontline about the impact of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in the family and its devastating consequences. Churches can contribute to reducing this harm by communicating a strong message that the family needs to respect the human dignity of every individual member, and protect them from harm. People at risk need to know that the church community is there to support them.
For our churches, as for society, the family is much more than a recipient of pastoral care and social outreach. Families are the building blocks of strong church communities. Examining this theme with input from theologians of different denominations it is clear that there is much more that unites us than divides us. Delegates reflected on the findings from a research report from Care in the Family, Faith in our Families, which highlighted challenges and opportunities for faith formation in the families.
In the family we learn the values that shape and inform our approach to living in society. It is where we develop our sense of solidarity and interconnectedness with the wellbeing of others. Where families are under pressure, parents struggle to find the time to invest in their children’s education and faith formation. New technology and social media, while bringing many benefits, can also be a significant obstacle to families spending quality time together, listening to each other and developing strong relationships.
Delegates came away from this meeting feeling both challenged and inspired. The family is the hope for the world and the wellbeing of families is critical for the future of Church and society. Churches and faith–based organisations are having a positive impact on the lives of families, but much more needs to be done to reduce the factors that leave families marginalised and at risk of harm. This requires us to work effectively together as churches, and in partnership with other sectors of society, to ensure that a positive vision for the family shapes and informs public policy.”