Irish Council of Churches. Irish Inter-Church Meeting

International Bishops Gathering 2019

Megan Ross





Prayer service at St Patrick’s, RC church, Donegall Street Belfast © Photo Barry Redmond

The 38th International Gathering of Bishops met from 21st–25th October, in Larne, Northern Ireland. 

The annual Gathering is hosted by the Focolare Movement, an international, ecumenical, inter–faith and inter–cultural dialogue aimed at building a more united world in which all people are valued and respected. At the midweek point of the bishops stay, an open afternoon was held for local church leaders and representatives of faith based organisations to come together and share about their ecumenical journey on the island of Ireland.

The afternoon allowed the visiting bishops to learn more about organisations such as Embrace NI, Dublin Council of Churches and the 4 Corners Festival. Space was given for discussion and reflection and there was a great sense of unity as representatives spoke.

Megan, our Communications Assistant, had the chance to chat with two visiting bishops about their time in Northern Ireland, so far. She spoke with Michael Mulvey, the bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas and Åke Bonnier, an Evangelical Lutheran Bishop from the Church of Sweden.

The theme of the meeting was “In a divided world, united in Christ” and so the bishops spoke about what this meant to them as they attended the daily events. Bishop Mulvey shared that this theme now has a different meaning to him than when he first arrived in Northern Ireland only two days prior. He was most struck by listening to the divisions of the country in person, when he had only before heard about it through the media. He said that this has offered him an opportunity to reflect on the situation in his home town where historic divisions upon racial lines means that in a community of 1,000 people there are two catholic churches. Bishop Bonnier shared how, through the different tours and seminars, he had come to realise that the tensions and divisions in Northern Ireland are much more present than he thought. Reflecting on his situation in Sweden, he noted that the division there is between religion and non–believers, rather than between religions.

“it was a very special time to be together, with together being an important word”

With the idea of friendship coming across so strongly throughout the open afternoon, both bishops reflected on how important this is. Bishop Bonnier expressed how essential it is that when the bishops meet they are not talking about each other but rather with each other. He continued this by saying that it is much more than just talking — they share with each other. In returning to their own country, this time together in a space where they are accepted, respected and embraced gives them the strength to live with spirituality. Bishop Mulvey agreed in saying that the bishops come to the meeting with a mandate which is when Jesus says to “love one another as I have loved you”. That ‘as’ is to be ready to give your life. With this in mind, both bishops agreed that it is very easy to enter into a relationship where there will be true listening and no judgment.

Throughout the afternoon, the theme of youth and how to encourage young people in the work of ecumenism and overcoming division was highlighted. The Bishops noted that it is a question of conviction. Bishop Mulvey shared that proper preparation is needed to equip young people to deal with these issues of ecumenism, unity and dialogue, to name a few. The more sure you are of yourself, your values and beliefs, the more understanding you can be of others. This means engaging in dialogue with people without seeing them as a threat.

Looking back at the events of the afternoon, Bishop Bonnier offered that it was a very special time to be together, with together being an important word. Bishop Mulvey reiterated this by saying that coming together as church leaders and bishops brings a special joy.