Church Leaders have come together to call for “prayerful support” ahead of a Northern Ireland centenary service in Armagh next month.
And they have said they are “saddened by the polarised public commentary” which has followed confirmation of the service in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh.
The event is due to be attended by Her Majesty The Queen but it is the non-attendance of Irish President Michael D Higgins which has been grabbing the headlines.
In a joint statement the Church Leaders have outlined how the plans for the Service of Reflection and Hope, which takes place on October 21, came about.
And they have responded to the reaction to the service too.
The Church Leaders said: “Towards the end of 2020, after prayerful reflection and dialogue, we made a decision as the Church Leaders Group to undertake a collective programme of engagement with the 1921 centenaries.
“We were conscious that these centenaries would highlight painful moments from our past which continue to impact relationships in our present. We felt a responsibility as Christian leaders to explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue.
“We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it, and we all have a responsibility to contribute to the healing of relationships from our different perspectives.
“As Church Leaders we have been saddened by the polarised public commentary around our Service of Reflection and Hope.
“The tone of the public debate has shone a light on the societal wounds we wish to reflect on in this service. We wish primarily to gather in prayer for healing of relationships, and in doing so, to demonstrate a renewed commitment to working together for peace, reconciliation and the common good.
“We of course understand that not everyone will feel able to participate with us in this service, but for those who do, particularly in our local churches across this island, we wish to clarify in this statement the context and original vision for the service, and invite people to join with us in prayer and reflection.”
Speaking about the context for the service, the Church Leaders continued: “We first set out our intentions and aspirations for this year in our New Year’s statement in which we acknowledged that what for some is a cause for celebration in the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland, will be for others the centenary of a key moment in the partition of the island, evoking feelings of loss and separation. We shared that:
“For us, as Church Leaders, the centenary opens up opportunities for greater understanding of each other, for further healing and reconciliation between our communities. This centenary also provides the opportunity for us to reflect together on the failings of relationships and use of violence across the whole island which have marred our past and which in some ways continue to cast a shadow on the present.
“Mindful of our interconnectedness, we recognise our different perspectives on this centenary even among us as Church Leaders. Still we commit ourselves to building a future together in which historic mistrust and division becomes a thing of the past.
“We approached these themes through prayer and worship, composing a centenary prayer and coming together for a broadcast worship service in May in which we reflected on what partition has meant in each of our lives and families.
“We sought to contribute to reflection within churches, publishing a statement on St Patrick’s Day acknowledging our own failings and highlighting the responsibilities of the Church.
“We have engaged in dialogue with a wide range of different groups, both within and beyond the churches, including Christian leaders in the other jurisdictions across these islands, and community leaders from different backgrounds.
“We will soon be releasing a podcast series on the theme ‘Identity and Belonging — Past, Present, Future’ which shares something of these conversations.”
The Church Leaders continued: “The Service of Reflection and Hope was planned for the latter part of the year so that it would be shaped and informed by the range of engagements outlined above, and to allow as many people as possible to join with us in this work.
“We re-state once again that the service is an initiative of the Church Leaders’ Group and Church Leaders have been wholly responsible for its planning, organisation and design. As we stated in March, it does not form part of any other programme of events.
“The ongoing risks of Covid-19 will restrict the space for in-person participation, but the service will bring together community representatives from across these islands.
“It will be underpinned by a Christian vision of reconciliation, which calls us to acknowledge the pain of the past, confess our own failings and commit ourselves to peace in the hope that relationships can be renewed as God reconciled us to himself through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-29).”
In conclusion, they said: “As Church Leaders, people of faith, we stand united at this crossroads looking forward, by the grace of God, to a better and brighter future.
“We recognise the need to better respect our differences, but we must learn ‘to differ well’ and be prepared to listen and show charity to those with different views and aspirations.
“As we prayerfully prepare for what will be a Christian act of worship we invite as many people as possible to join us in prayer on the day of the service and we hope that it will be a positive and honest contribution, through faith, to peace and healing in this land.”
The statement has been issued on behalf of the Church Leaders Group which comprises the Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Armagh and Primates of All Ireland, the Most Rev John McDowell and the Most Rev Eamon Martin respectively; the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Rt Rev Dr David Bruce; the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Rev Dr Sahr Yambasu and the President of the Irish Council of Churches, the Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson.