The Irish Council of Churches (ICC) recently held an event inviting discussion on Brexit and the Irish Churches. The event was held at the Presbyterian Assembly buildings and was part of the CRC funded project on how churches can help those affected by the possible outcomes of Brexit and the atmosphere of uncertainty that we are currently living in.
This event followed a previous planning meeting in June where church and business representatives met to discuss the local, regional and international effects Brexit might have on the Island of Ireland.These three main areas of reflection are the basis of the ICC discussion paper ‘Brexit and the Irish Churches – Pastoral Dimensions’. The paper suggests approaches churches can take towards actively helping those affected by the changes Brexit may incur. The feedback from this paper gave the ICC a basis to create a further draft publication ‘Talking about Brexit: A Guide for Group Discussion’. This guide aims to provide further help to churches and communities in tackling difficult discussions around topics such as Brexit in a supportive and respectful way. The event on 21st November brought both of these papers together with representatives of local inter–church groups, and partner organisations.
The day began with an initial response to the main themes highlighted in the consultation responses from Rev Brian Anderson, Present of ICC, and Most Rev Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor, representing the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Rev Anderson addressed the issues from the perspective of the work of the national inter–church structures and Bishop Treanor concentrated on the work of the European networks to which our member churches relate. Rev Anderson highlighted that churches share a concern for a society that is still healing, bearing visible scars of conflict, and now risks further division and polarisation arising from Brexit. Bishop Treanor drew attention to the Irish churches and national inter–church structures that will occupy a unique position that entails possible opportunities and particular responsibilities, whatever happens with Brexit.
The participants then had the opportunity to take part in one of three workshops focusing on the local, regional or international aspects from the consultation. As this event was well attended by representatives from local churches and inter–church forums, the workshops emphasised the need for churches to work together towards peace. It was noted that the national inter–church structures seek to model unity in diversity in the public square. However, this collaboration and relationship building is often not replicated at local level, with peace–building appearing to be a low priority for many local churches.
The workshop focusing on the local affects of Brexit and how local churches can support their communities expressed a deep concern at the increasing political polarisation and possible indications that we are sliding back into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality we hoped we had left behind. The uncertainty arising from Brexit exacerbates this. Another factor voiced by participants in this workshop was that some clergy in local areas do not engage in the inter–church work, and so the capacity of such groups to connect with the local churches is limited. Participants also highlighted the need for churches to use their influence in support of those whose voices are not being heard. At a local level we are called to remember that there are not just two communities in Northern Ireland, we must respond to diversity and address negative attitudes towards minorities which may have been worsened due to the Brexit debate.
Out of the local workshop it is understood that building resilience is key to the response of churches at local level. Further training and skills development is required. The challenges posed by Brexit have highlighted that the skills base in our churches and inter–church groups is perhaps not as strong as we thought. Listening skills require particular attention. There is also a problem of continuity where even projects that proved to be successful fail to receive long–term funding.
The afternoon gave time for a panel discussion where Rev Anderson and Bishop Treanor were joined by Kevin Conmy from the Irish Secretariat, Department of Foreign Aﬀairs, and Jacqueline Irwin, CEO of the Community Relations Council NI. Both Kevin Conmy and Jacqueline Irwin affirmed the valuable role that churches play in building community and the important space they occupy in society. The panel agreed that a focus on the moral and pastoral responsibility to offer hope as a way of building resilience. while recognising that we have a long way to go in terms of reconciliation is important for all churches. especially at a local level. The discussion also highlighted that the focus of the Church needs to be on how we can promote inclusive conversations in which challenging and contentious issues can be addressed. This supports the point made at the meeting that the Brexit conversation needs to be broader than leave vs remain to take into account the impact on peoples lives.
Below are links to videos from:
- Bishop Noel Treanor on the themes of the consultation
- Rev Brian Anderson on the existing ways of dealing with difficult conversations
- Margaret McNulty, Embrace NI, on the affects of the Brexit debate on foreign nationals
- Dave Thompson, facilitator, on why to hold a Brexit Consultation and the principles for hosting such an event