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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Tuesday, November 19, 2002
    Two-thirds of my way through this placement ... reflections
    A mum from a Shankill/Falls 'Over The Wall Gang' said to me, "Belfast's just like any other city." She was simultaneously right and wrong, on the surface of things more wrong than right. Right, though, because, to quote Billy Bragg, Belfast is just a 'northern industrial town', and seeing it through his socialist eyes its problems are deeply linked to the demise of its traditional heavy industrial - manufacturing base.

    No greater sight anywhere than those gigantic H&W cranes which dominate the Belfast skyline, no prouder history than that of those whose forefathers built the Titanic here. But the Titanic sank - and so, too, now, has the shipbuilding industry itself.The cranes are reduced to icons, symbols of a past, standing impotent now, while below them in the Short Strand interface area, young unemployed men indulge in physical violence against each other, play brutal power games, stretch the city's police force to their limits, drag their communities down. It's also the story of Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow ...

    But there is a unique element to Belfast, on the surface of things. Its contested territory is part of a wider struggle between half the Northern population wanting a united Ireland and the other half clinging to a United Kingdom. The contest is written deep into its painted terrace-end walls, is visible in the thirty-foot-high 'peace walls' designed to make streets 'safe' from those opposite, in the coloured kerbstones and fluttering flags of those areas where identity is everything. The scourge of sectarianism has changed Belfast's geography, its look, and its everyday life, in such a way as to mark it out as different from some of those other places I mentioned. In a city where police stations and benefit offices are needfully dressed like armed fortresses it's clear that something is badly wrong.

    However, the loop circles back again and deeper. Because what is visible in the city is less obvious in quaint seaside towns like Ballycastle, but is still very much there. The scourge of sectarianism means that this town is known as Protestant while the next place may be Catholic, means that strangers like ourselves are questioned over our Guinness about where we're from, means that the folk from the Corrymeela centre are treated with suspicion by locals - including some aggressively anti-ecumenical clergy. Means that conversations will go anywhere, and often out of their way, to avoid anything remotely approaching religion or politics, to keep up appearances. It's less visible here, but no less real.

    And that brings the loop circling round again and deeper still. Because all of these things, sectarian attitudes, divisive behaviour, can be evidenced not just here but back home too, in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow ... The human urge to build our identity by defining ourselves in opposition to an 'other' is ubiquitous. Under the surface of things the statement "Belfast's just like any other city" is far more right than wrong. What the people of Northern Ireland do with a distinctive mix of politics and religion, people elsewhere do in our own particular ways.

    For me, reflecting from a context of Christian ministry in urban Liverpool, there is little distance between Belfast or Ballycastle and home. In Liverpool the flags have come down, the Orange Lodge is another form of social club. But beneath the surface the Protestant-Catholic divisions are still real, deeply-felt and likely to re-emerge if factors combine to stimulate conflict in our dockland and other areas. We rest on the laurels of Sheppard and Worlock's hard-won show of unity, convince ourselves that we're past all that now, we're all the same, serving the same God. All of which is good and hopeful, but profoundly questionable.

    "I'm not sectarian," we say as we insist on sending our children to one of our church schools, or as we make a great show about having sent our children to one of the 'others'.
    "I'm not sectarian," we say as we make sloppy pub talk about the Liverpool-Rangers / Everton-Celtic connection on matchdays.
    "I'm not sectarian," we say as we let our 'Churches Together' initiatives crumble through neglect.
    "I'm not sectarian," we say as we demonise those who we regard as different from us in so many areas of life.

    So - the loop continues circling back again and deeper still. And two-thirds of my way through this placement I find that I'm very little the wiser about the troubled history and complex politics of this province, I'm little more clued-up than I was before about how to bring good practice in conflict management into parish ministry, I see the divisions and difficulties more clearly but can offer no great insights about solutions. What I have gained is insight into how deeply-ingrained in me, and in all of us, is this urge to identify ourselves against the other, to scapegoat as a means of survival, and to how that shows itself in my life, in all our lives, whether in windswept Ballycastle, traumatised Belfast, across the Irish Sea in Liverpool, or in the underbelly of life-in-community here at Corrymeela itself.

    So I have arrived, after all this time and activity, at a beginning. I have learned that peacebuilding must be rooted in disciplined self-examination, and awareness of the systems of sectarianism and scapegoating in which we all participate. In starting from this deep-down place, to build some sort of theological structure for addressing our condition I'm being greatly helped by James Alison, Roel Kaptein and will continue to set my feet at their (Rene) Girardian school for more help as time goes on. And in seeking to translate their theories into real behaviour, to see what it actually means to change myself and begin to model 'moving beyond' to others, Joe Liechty and Cecelia Clegg's work on Sectarianism is proving invauable.