The Fermanagh Churches Forum recently hosted a conference on “Flags, God and Divided Loyalties.” There was lively discussion and some productive thinking about how churches can contribute to the common good as Northern Ireland navigates its journey from Troubles to (hopefully) peace.
The conference was organised by the Good Relations Department of Fermanagh District Council in association with Fermanagh Churches Forum and the Irish School of Ecumenics.
Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, Adjust Assistant Professor in Reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics, was the keynote speaker. The Fermanagh Herald reported that he:
… gave an insightful historical analysis of the causes of disquiet in loyalism. … In his analysis, he detailed missed opportunities for political inclusion, highlighting insights from a new book by Tony Novosel entitled: ‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The frustrated promise of Political Loyalism’.
Eileen Gallagher, the Irish School of Ecumenics’ Support Officer for Churches Fora, also led a discussion on how ‘faith communities can help find solutions and contribute to building a peaceful and shared future.’
Gallagher used Miroslav Volf’s reflections on ‘otherness’ and his metaphors of ‘exclusion’ and ‘embrace’, based on his 1994 book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.
Written as a result of Volf’s grappling with ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars, the concept of ‘embrace’ is presented as a dimension of grace and involves acting generously towards perpetrators and holding flexible – not fixed – ethno/religious/political identities. Gallagher said her use of Volf’s work was:
“an attempt to help people understand a theology of inclusivity as a basis for visioning a shared future.”
She went on to explore the various roles churches can play in the present period, including:
- De – mythologising the false gods of race, nation, and sectarian religion.
- Helping congregations understand the centrality of inclusivity in the ministry and teaching of Jesus.
- Providing courses, seminars and opportunities for dialogue.
Many churches, Christian organisations and Churches Fora were exemplary in their work in these areas throughout the Troubles. They continue this work in the present. But as the flag protests have once again demonstrated, we have a long way to go before realizing a ‘shared future.’
(Image from the Fermanagh Churches Forum webpage)