Religion and the Troubles

28 Nov 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Nov 2019

The conflict in Northern Ireland was not a religious war in the classic sense of the phrase.

It was not a battle over doctrine. Violence was fuelled by competing national allegiances and social and economic inequality. Yet it would be absurd to suggest that religious affiliations were not an important element. After all the “two communities” commonly define  themselves as Protestant and Catholic.

It follows from this that if religion, and religious identity was part of the problem, it also has to be part of the solution.

So how did churches respond to the violence? Was their influence positive? Could they have done more? What lessons can they learn? And what should they be doing now to help build a healthier and more cohesive society?

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland decided these questions demanded answers – and they commissioned academic Gladys Ganiel to find them.

The resulting book Considering Grace Presbyterians and the Troubles is one of the most important works to be published about the conflict in recent years. It is by turn, harrowing, deeply moving, sharply critical of the church, yet somehow infused with hope for the future, holding out glimpses of how healing might be achieved. It is also beautifully written.

The book is based on 120 interviews carried out with a variety of subjects including Presbyterian ministers, victims, members of the security forces, ex-combatants, emergency responders and those who left the church.

The section on Ministers is especially illuminating. It describes clergymen who were totally unprepared for the scale of the violence when it erupted, with no training for dealing with the bereaved and no counselling for the trauma that they experienced.

One Minister is quoted in the book saying: “You are sitting beside a widow who has been told that her husband has been shot dead or blown to pieces – it’s not easy. You deal with it differently in each home. Sometimes you don’t say anything. There is nothing to say. What can you say?”

The Rev David Cupples was minister in Enniskillen in 1987 and was overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy. After officiating at the last funeral of the week he found himself close to the edge. He describes kneeling down to pray: “when I started to pray I cried in a way I have never cried in my life, before or since. There was just this enormous reservoir of pain and sorrow.”

These men and women faced difficult dilemmas. What should they  say when a member of their congregation was killed? How could they balance expressing the anger of the bereaved with the Christian imperative for peace-making? How should they deal with paramilitary funerals?  What responsibilities did they have to build bridges with Catholic neighbours?

The Rev Ian Paisley hangs like a great shadow over these pages. Time and again ministers spoke of their fears of getting involved with ecumenism. The Free Presbyterian Church was growing, some Presbyterian churches were dwindling as a result and the Paisleyites were quick to denounce those who tried to reach out to Catholics.

The Rev David Armstrong, who was interviewed for the book served in Limavady from 1981 to 1985. On Christmas Day in 1983 he walked across the street from his church to the Catholic church to shake hands with the local priest. His children were spat at, his family received death threats, he was kidnapped by paramilitaries. In 1985 he was asked to resign by his elders and subsequently trained for ministry in the Church of England. His experience proved a powerful disincentive to others.

The book also interviews people it describes as “critical friends of the Presbyterian Church. One such is the Church of Ireland Bishop Trevor Williams. He summed up the dilemma faced by churches during the conflict like this: “During the Troubles the churches were caught up in the tension between the personal, the pastoral and the prophetic. How prophetic can you be without finding there’s no-one behind you.”

Bereaved people react in widely different ways to their loss. There are many interviews in the book that shed light on this. Some turned to their faith, some left the church, others found religion in the midst of suffering, whilst a few admitted turning to drink.

One theme that recurs time and again is that of forgiveness and reconciliation. Some victims feel that the church doesn’t understand victims. One interviewee said that in their quest for reconciliation “Some in the Presbyterian Church are more interested in the ones that pulled the trigger than the ones that got the bullet.”

Another deeply religious woman said she had never forgiven her husband’s killers. “When I’m saying the Lord’s Prayer, I never say: “Forgive us our trespassers, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

These moving interviews time and again reveal the tension between the need for justice, and the impulse to show mercy.

There is also a sense that the church should be speaking up for victims, and is not doing so strongly enough and that as a result history is being re-written from a republican perspective.

Dealing with the past is often said to be an essential step to building a healthy and cohesive society in Northern Ireland.

Yet that very phrase is profoundly misleading. For the bereaved, the traumatised and the physically injured the pain is a present not a past reality. It is not something you forget.

Considering Grace reminds us of this truth.

It states: “The stories in this book have taught us that many ordinary people remember the Troubles today and every day, and their memories hurt. Their painful memories are regularly relived in a post-conflict society where there have been few prosecutions, no truth commissions, nor even a full implementation of the recommendations of public consultations on addressing the legacy of the past.”

It quotes David Stevens, a former leader of Corrymeela: “We need to lament and grieve for what has been lost and done, and acknowledge anger, injustice, bitterness, pain, resentment, disorientation , loss of identity and uncertainty.”

If we accept that religion is part of the problem, we should also accept that it has its own solutions, rooted in the rituals of faith. And one of those is lamentation, a word seldom used these days.

To extend the biblical language that means realising how many people in Northern Ireland are in the “valley of the shadow of death” treading a path of suffering, grief and anger.

This is home ground for churches of all denominations. Pain and trauma needs to be expressed, not suppressed if people are to find peace in their lives. And churches are more likely to be able to help on this journey than politicians with their polarising and competing narratives of the past.

Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles by Glady Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis is published by Merrion Press




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