Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

Theological Reflection on Reconciliation– Moving from conflict to greater communion

Dr Fergus O’Ferrall






In the 2nd of a series of blog articles, Dr Fergus O’Ferrall makes the case for a new and fundamental ecumenical reformation in, and by, our Churches focused on concepts such as reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, peace and human flourishing as we seek to break the bondage to the past and to create hope for a shared and flourishing future.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”    2 Cor. 5:17–19.

To achieve the ambition of ‘greater communion’ as we were challenged by Archbishop Martin requires us to discuss the kind of theologies embraced by Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics since the Reformation. As Rev. Dr. Johnston McMaster has observed, Ireland has had a history and theology of violence which has never been fully analysed or acknowledged by our Churches; he writes

“We need to take violence out of the psyche, personal and collective, tackle the theological roots of sectarianism and the culture of violence. To do that we need critical analysis of the bad theology, Protestant and Catholic, which has been around for centuries, and a deconstruction of the myth of redemptive violence.”

[see Johnston McMaster, Overcoming Violence Dismantling an Irish History and Theology: An Alternative Vision, (Dublin, 2012) p.8.]

The dismal reality is that, except for some valuable individual and collective efforts, the institutional Churches have not as yet undertaken this critical theological task either separately or collectively. While the conflict since 1969, and the ecumenical movement from the 1960s, pushed the Irish Churches closer in instruments like the Inter–Church Meeting, this was at a price of addressing neither the causes nor the societal effects of the conflict in Ireland. What was required, and what is still the urgent task, is the full development of a common ecumenical and contextual public or political theology for the Irish situation which will have at its centre the Gospel of Jesus Christ– the Good News of love, non–violence and human flourishing. If this task is continually reneged upon by our institutional Churches then it will of course be tragic; but it will be no surprise in that case if toxic theology perpetuates divisive memories, segregated communities and potentially violent conflict.

The Methodist Church in Ireland, for example, has understood since 1966 its obligation “to maintain and live out the Christian doctrine of love and reconciliation” and its “call to promote the just society”. (as set out in a key Statement well before the violence commenced in 1969, see A Call To The Methodist People on the Present Situation in Ireland, Conference Statement,1966). Like the other denominations it has produced individuals, lay and ordained, who have been critical agents of peace–building and reconciliation. However, what I am suggesting is required is a much more fundamental corporate re–examination of the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and what that would mean for Christian witness and for the current institutional Churches in Ireland. I appreciate that in regard to ‘reconciliation’ there are indeed many dimensions: historical, cultural, political, socio–economic, and religious.

Each of these dimensions must be addressed of course but we need to focus in particular on the theological and religious dimensions. Why? Because these are fundamental to the conflictual mentalités in our historical and contemporary context in Ireland. Mentalités denote an underlying collective frames of thought rather than merely a set of fluctuating ideas: they tend to be deeply embedded in communities over time, as they have been in Ireland, through the process known as confessionalisation intoeither a Catholic mentality or a Protestant mentality: this has shaped popular identities as either ‘British’ or ‘Irish’. ‘Confessionalisation’ refers to this long process whereby fixed identities and systems of belief emerged as separate and often bitterly divided denominations as a result of the Reformation. These ‘frames of thought’ have imprisoned our communities and we need to reflect on how the Gospel of reconciliation, found in Jesus Christ, may liberate us all for a shared human flourishing in the future.

It is, I believe, of great importance to understand how human flourishing ought to come to be seen as central to the Gospel and to our Christian vocation. One recent study of the Sermon on the Mount, which I commend, is Jonathan T. Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, 2017). This volume [and other key theological reflections on Scripture and the message of Jesus Christ by a range of Biblical and theological scholars] demonstrates how central to both Scripture as a whole and to Jesus of Nazareth, is the concept of ‘human flourishing’. Our Churches seem to be pre–occupied with defensive reactions to issues such as sexual abuse scandals and fending off the new consciousness in western societies in favour of gender equality; they often appear to be overly reactive to false trails to be found in our rapidly changing world. The major phenomenon of our world which has shaped such toxic politics – that of great inequalities of income and wealth resulting from neo–liberalism– largely goes unchallenged by our Churches: they appear to have lost a clear understanding of Biblical human flourishing as central to God’s reconciling and redeeming work on earth. It is urgent that we recover such an understanding and so much more effectively if we can do so together in all our Churches.

These posts are based on an address delivered to the Omagh Churches’ Forum on 19th September 2018.