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

    Saturday, November 30, 2002
    My placement with the Corrymeela Community - Initial Reflections
    I've spent a while today writing up my reflections on the past month with the good folk of Northern Ireland, and will be posting it on to some people soon; there's nothing private about it so it's on-site now, too. You can find it by going direct to the page or by a new link 'Other writing' here or on on the side menu.
    Friday, November 29, 2002
    About time too
    Back home .. to stacks of mail which took a good hour to open and sift - without having started to read any yet ... to exactly one hunderd emails which are opening up underneath this window as I write this ... to a house and car kept safe and sound by Fred's watchful eye ... to a stack of theological books which John ordered for me awhile ago, when I thought I may have time to read them.... It'll take awhile to settle back after such a special, focussed, time away. Which was so, so good .. but it is good to be back here too, now. About time. Which is probbaly what colleagues will be saying to me when I emerge from beneath my washing. About time too.
    Thursday, November 28, 2002
    Final thoughts from Ballycastle Library
    So that's it. This time tomorrow I'll be at Belfast International Airport awaiting my flight back home. Today, my last day in Ballycastle, is a gift because it's one of those perfect days - clear blue skies, bright sunlight, a breeze which is insufficient to ruffle the waves breaking on the shining beach. I watched the CalMac ferry chug out of the harbour towards Rathlin Island just now, and rued leaving my camera at the house. It was the perfect Irish coastal scene. Good day to do my final round of what's become almost routine - walk up here rapidly, arriving out of breath because it's a long hilly journey through the town, do my blog, wander back at a gentler pace through the small shops, pausing to buy wine gums to energise me on the way back. Today I'll be stopping to buy a big tin of chocolates to leave as a 'thank-you' for the Corrymeela staff who've made this month so easy, full, worthwhile.

    Yesterday was a gift too. For a different reason. It was one of those terrible days - the high winds and driving rain brutal in their impact. It was a day to stay in - and therein the gift - because it gave me the incentive to settle and finish the last third of Moving Beyond Sectarianism. Like the rest of the book it was challenging reading, serious, and difficult in parts. But worth reading every word. The final third focussed in on the churches role in perpetuating sectarianism, and it makes hard reading. Harder still when considering that authors Cecilia and Joe refrain from citing extreme examples - that's the media's job - and instead concentrate on the subtler strains of Sectarianism which 'polite society' promotes often without realising it. Such as 'benign apartheid', which is about clergy concentrating on their own to the extent that they have no time to explore dialogue / partnership with the others around them. Enough said for now - there'll be plenty more in the paper I write once all this has sifted, settled, and been seen from a Liverpool perspective. I hope to make the conclusions positive - all of this leads to the feeling that there are new and freeing ways of doing things, of thinking and acting towards others. The joy will come in the discovery of them.

    From a month of good conversations, memorable journeys, deeply interesting and challenging work, just as a taster, here's a very small number of highlights, moments and places of inspiration:

      The place - the beach which has been well-described in blogs from here, the centre itself which is so creatively-designed, a place of comfort, space and light, of interesting tangents, private nooks in open spaces.

      James Alison's talk on prayer - which wonderfully combined deep theology with a real sense of what he called 'the other other' and which led us perfectly into an act of worship.

      The view above Belfast docks from the motorway - as the road sweeps down and round a big corner the east side of the city comes into view. If you're moved by the landscape of commerce, as I am having been raised a mile from Liverpool's docks, you can't fail to be impressed by this. And those massive Harland and Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, which domintate this view and many others within the city - astonishing.

      Playing wide games with Edenbrooke Primary - the schools groups work kept me fit, long days of endless activity. I enjoyed working with them and the staff, Shona, Ivan, and the very capable volunteers.

      Ian Cranston's talk on 'Golf and the Spirit' - one of the Iona Community's most loved public speakers, Ian took his inspiration from a Scott Peck book of the same name and opened up a weekend with the potentially sticky subject of 'Ecumenical Spirituality' by illustrating his talk with a selection of balls and gadgets pulled out of an egg-box. As ever, uniquely inspirational.

      The telly in Cedar Haven - which fuzzed and crackled but was sufficient to ensure I kept up with Everton's reanissance and UTV News and Celebrity Big Brother and provided the backdrop to good late-night conversations with other fellow-travellers onsite at Corrymeela for a while. They're a wonderful welcoming community, and all of us pilgrims are thankful for that welcome and all the other things that come through being with them awhile.
    Tuesday, November 26, 2002
    From Belfast Central Library
    Out of breath, and out of sorts, having taken my camera on a trip round some famous interfaces this morning. Identity is everything here, as I'm sure I've already written, and as an Anglican clergyman I ought perhaps to have felt safe on the Shankhill Road, with its Union flags and Loyalist murals turning an awfully grey place a festive-looking red, white and blue. But the truth is I found myself walking very quickly out of there, intimidated by the the colours which are a show of defiance, pride, call it whatever, but which scream out with all the anger and fear of betrayal and lost ground, and which invite the feeling that this is not an easy place, it's hard, unstable, unsafe.

    Take away the colours and the Falls Road looks little different really. I felt more at ease there because, having asked for this day-trip to be a sort-of pilgrimage, a mobile meditation, I found myself drawn into an estate which has, at its heart, the wonderful twin-steepled cathedral of St Peters. And there, underneath its impressive facade, I found myself able to stand and pray for the people who live in its light - including those across the terrible peace-lines two streets away. Far more prayerful here than outside the Shankhill Gospel Hall, a stern concrete building like a council-estate boozer, above which flies a massive Union flag and a banner visible streets away which says 'Free Johnny Adair - His Only Crime is Loyalty'.

    I think partly I'm feeling out-of-sorts because in talking my camera around West Belfast and also the current flashpoint, the dockland area of Short Strand / Newtownards Road, I've become a voyeur. Call it a pilgrimage but it's still a very unsatisfactory way of gaining insight into a place, it too readily invites me to make easy comments about it all, too easily skims the surface of things. But I needed to do it. I was faced with the happy choice of rounding-up my time here by deciding how I was going to do some reflection. One choice was to escape to Corrymeela Knocklayd, a retreat house on a hillside eight miles outside Ballycastle, but after ten days in the country I felt keenly the urge to get back into the city, to do my reflecting there, to let the journey and the encounter speak.

    And so it has, if only to reinforce impressions I already had of (a) a city visibly at odds, in its poorest areas, places where violence is seldom far away, and (b) a friendly city, a city on the 'up', confirmed by an easy conversation I've just had in a busy shopping-arcade cafe with a dad laden with Disney Store Christmas gifts for his three little girls, a conversation which didn't get political and inevitably spent a long while on the topic of Premiership football, but before that lingered on the way things are picking up here, and how most people here want it to carry on that way.

    If I'd have dared stop at the KFC opposite the Shankhill Gospel Hall I'd probably have had a very similar conversation. Therein lies the ultimate reflection from my time here - avoidance of the deeper issues won't make them go away. It takes two to make conversation - and back home I shall have to continue facing my avoidance of conflict, my promotion (passive but no less real) of sectarianism and other sorts of -isms, and bring others into those conversations too.
    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.
    Monday, November 18, 2002
    It's a drizzly day in Ballycastle
    It's a drizzly day in Ballycastle
    The mist's rolling in from the sea
    The Mull of Kintyre's only twelve miles away
    That's why that song's following me

    (alternative version:)
    It's a drizzly day in Ballycastle
    I've walked into town by the sea
    Watching some birds (of the feathery kind)
    Dipping, diving for fish happily

    Corrymeela offers stark contrasts. One day it's frantic activity with a group of youngsters, the next it's like today - quiet and full of time to reflect, reconsider. Kids visiting here are demanding from breakfast till the wee small hours, such as those we had from a Belfast cross-community project this weekend, who were frenetic on Friday, and by Sunday had settled well into mere manic levels of activeness. Seriously, though, it was good to see, as it always is with such youngsters, they moved, grew, together through the weekend. Above the door at the centre is a sign which says, 'Corrymeela begins when you leave'. My only doubt about such a group is whether they will continue to meet, across peace-lines in North Belfast, or whether their goodwill will evaporate once the project ends. The hope is, something will stick.

    Eleven days to go. I hope to do some more work with groups, revisit Belfast for a day or two, and next weekend take part as a delegate in the weekend on Ecumenical Spirituality which also has a few friends from the Iona Community involved. And someone here wants me to have a natter with them about the Corrymeela Community website which they reckon needs a good going-over. Does high-tech suit the nature of the Community? Maybe not, but it might help. After all, as Frank and Mike said the other day, the Centre works like a duck - all calm on the surface, paddling frantically underneath. While I relax here in Ballycastle Library the young volunteers are on probably their fourth demanding meeting of the day.

    Wednesday, November 13, 2002
    From a Belfast Internet Cafe
    I'm in a a Belfast Internet Cafe. On Great Victoria Street, just past the Europa, Europe's most-bombed hotel, on my wandering way back to Botanic where this morning I popped into the Corrymeela Community offices to chat with Shona, their children's and family worker, and where this evening I shall go next door to Mediation Northern Ireland to find Joe Campbell, who's been kindly hosting my city stretch of this month's NI adventure, for the past couple of days.

    A good couple of days they've been, too. Spent with Joe at Mediation's offices, meeting the staff and getting a feeling for the work they do, at all sorts of levels with all sectors of the communities here, to help people learn how to settle their (often deep-rooted, long-standing) disputes. Mediators, they say, are skilled, trained, decision-enablers and 'midwives' - helping others to take responsibility for dealing with their differences. They're a committed group and seem to achieve a good deal here.

    Joe also presented me with the opportunity to take time at The Irish School of Ecumenics, up in new premises in the North Belfast suburbs, which used to be the home of the Columbanus Community. Now it's base for the school and a range of innovative surely deeply-helpful courses to help people do, in a far more focussed way, what I'm attempting this month - reflect theologically on issues of reconciliation so as to take the learning into practice in ministry. In Joe Liechty and Cecila Clegg the School has two scholars from 'outside' (the States, England) who have helped, and continue to help, students be enlightened in ways of Moving Beyond Sectarianism. That's the title of their recent book, the fruits of years of study and interviews with people with something to say about sectarianism. It's a rich resource. I've got through the first 25 pages so far and already had the totally appropriate and humbling experience of realising that I am at times a Non-Sectarian (ie, someone who pretends sectarianism doesn't exist, certainly not in me...), and at other times an Anti-Sectarian (ie, someone who tries to fight sectarianism when I see it, which is, of course, only another way of perpetuating it...). The hope is to learn with these folks how to find a third way, to move beyond bigotry creatively and so as to truly be free of it. (More on their work here).

    The bigger picture can seem depressing. I'm in this cafe because my earlier attempt to blog was curtailed when the occupants of the City Library (self included) were asked to leave because of a bomb scare. We all left without any obvious anxiety but with a very deliberate urgency - in this city, experience tells everyone that compacency is not an option. Belfast's a city trying its best to re-emerge after the Troubles as a modern and future city. It's looking really good down the docklands and much good is being done in communities but my brief 'Troubles tourism' visits round some of the flashpoint areas, and this afternoon's event show that there's so much further to go for healing to reach a critical mass. Good to be with people - many, many of them, who believe in that and are working so well, to help bring it on.

    Thursday, November 07, 2002
    There's an insect in my bath
      there's an insect in my bath
      it's thin and red and hairy
      it's got about a hundred legs
      it's small but still quite scary

      there's an insect in my bath
      I think that it is stuck in it
      it's running up the sides so fast
      then sliding back down into it

      there's an insect in my bath
      how can I help it out?
      if it ran onto my fingers
      I'm afraid I'd scream and shout

      there's an insect in my bath
      I'll leave it till the morning
      it may slip down the plughole
      just as the day is dawning

    - this poem hangs on the bookcase alongside the computer here at Linda & Pete's house in Hayward's Heath where I'm having a short break from Ireland with the family. I wrote it for Jessica in 1999 and she took it into school to show her teacher who became a fan. It is a true story based on an experience in the bathroom on 'C' staircase at Ridley Hall. In the light of a conflict management session I took part in on Monday night at Corrymeela, it says a lot about me. The final verse, especially, demonstrates what I know only too well - I'm a conflict avoider by nature. I'll always wait hoping to see if it will go away on its own before having to do something about it...

    Monday, November 04, 2002
    From Ballycastle Library
    I've been in Northern Ireland nearly a week now. A week spent mostly at the Corrymeela Community's Ballycastle centre in conference / retreats led by theologian-on-the-edge James Alison, with some time in Belfast, other times wandering on the coast at this top tip of the country, or along the one-long-high-street which is Ballycastle. And punctuated by many, many conversations with centre staff, visitors and local folks, all of whom are making this a rich rewarding time.

    Alison brings a whole new language to theology, one which attempts to sideline the language of violence, sacrifice, 'atonement' and all that stuff supposedly essential to the faith. He replaces it with fascinating, if difficult, concepts about our being trapped in a cycle of scapegoating 'others' so as to keep our group identity, a cycle which we can only break if we put ourselves in the scapegoats' position (the Christ position); about our cultivating 'disinterestedness' in the 'group' (church structures, for instance) so as to achieve a pure and freeing relationship with the 'other other' (God). Well, plenty to chew on there, a provocative theology of peace and reconciliation to get things going inside my windswept head.

    Belfast was full of explosions and flashes in the sky. They were colourful and for the most part friendly - it was Halloween night. The Corrymeela offices are in a grand crescent in Botanic, the university quarter of the city, regarded as a 'safe' area throughout the troubles. It's cosmopolitan, it's youthful and lively, and it's where the Community began, when Ray Davey the University Chaplain formed a group to explore reconciliation issues.

    I'm no expert on Irish isues despite having read a fulsome GCSE NI History course book cover-to-cover last week. So I'm not going to pronounce on first impressions. Just to say I'm interested in one strand which has emerged in conversation and observation - the troubles are at last partly a class thing - or economically linked; it is easier to talk endlessly about peace when you're comfortably off, easier to take up armed struggle if you're desperate. More time in Belfast with various folk who've invited me there may reveal more - or contradict these thoughts.

    Meanwhile It's back along the long-high-street, beside the golf club, over the beach and up the hill to Corrymeela, to catch up on today's papers and glow with glee at Wayne Rooney's killer winner against Leeds yesterday. The TV in Cedar Lodge, where I'm staying, gives a furry picture, so I had to squint at the screen to make it out last night, but it was worth it. For this, and many other things right now - hallelujah!