Monday, January 27, 2014

Is Christ divided in this city? Four church leaders telling their stories at 4 Corners Festival

Over a hundred people gathered in South Belfast Methodist church as part of the 4 Corners Festival to hear four leaders from different denominations share part of their story.

There was a surprisingly strong Methodist foundation to many of the stories which I paraphrase below.

Living in East Belfast, Bishop Harold Miller – baptised in Jennymount Methodist Church (also home to Archbishop Robin Eames) – spoke about his family tree, his annoyance at having to be told in whispered tones that his grandfather was Catholic. University was an important time for him as he realised that his Catholic neighbours must also be his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Rev Dr Norman Hamilton (ministering in North Belfast) started by observing that he was the only panellist not wearing a dog-collar and describing himself “as not very religious” but as “a committed Christian”. His first church experiences were in a Methodist church in Moira. He talked about being “a conservative Presbyterian minister” who has to deal with the “massive public evil” of the Holy Cross dispute, and his good if complex relationship with Father Aidan Troy. What did it mean to love his neighbour when local protestants were protesting at a local school? What did it mean to be a peacemaker? The event’s title asked “Is Christ divided in this city?” Norman answered saying that “the key lies not in the structures of our institutions … but in promoting a coherent and compelling Christian message in the public square”. He also noted that church can be “obsessed with commenting on matters of sex”. Rather than articulating “what we are arguing for in this society” we instead get “worked up about other matters that are not central to the great Biblical themes of revelation and salvation”.

Methodist President Dr Heather Morris (representing South Belfast) described herself as "my parents' daughter", outlined her Methodist roots (evangelical and ecumenical with an inclusive understanding of “all”), a practical theologian, a cheerleader, and a Christian. She referenced Rev Eric Gallagher’s trip with other church leaders to meet the IRA in Feakle in 1974 as an example of reaching out and understanding, and namechecked many different friends from different faiths who have supported her ministry.

Fr Ciarán Dallat (West Belfast) couldn't find any Methodist roots but talked about his father's struggle to respect Catholic tradition while still feeling bad about not going inside Protestant churches to attend the funerals of friends and neighbours. At Queen's Ciarán went along to Christian Union to find out more but wasn't welcome. Later as a chaplain at the University of Ulster worked along side other denominations on the Jordanstown campus, learning to speak “born again” language. He joked that he was tempted to join the Presbyterian ministry when he found out how much they earned, but didn't like how long they preached! As university chaplains, the events they organised were not about Christ divided, but instead about what united them in Jesus' word. He expressed his personal frustration at not being able to share Holy Communion with his Protestant friends and colleagues. He concluded: “Is Christ divided? For me not at all. We're the ones who make it hard. We’re the ones who allow people to mislead us.”

Prof John Bewer chaired the question and answer session that followed each speaker’s talk. The Q&A wasn’t recorded, but covered subjects including the education system and whether the media were responsible for continued division in society.

Is Christ divided in this city? No. And yes. Depending on who you ask.

The 4 Corners Festival continues until 1 February.

Gladys Ganiel has blogged her summary of the event.

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