notes from a small curate
My placement with the Corrymeela CommunityInitial Reflections, 30/11/2002
For our Third Year Project, the curates of Liverpool diocese were asked to work on an area of special interest to ourselves, which would be of use to us in future ministry. I wanted to reflect on the pursuit of peace and reconciliation within the local context.
A notable part of Liverpool's context continues to be a culture of sectarianism, which we share with other areas of the British Isles with whom we are connected historically (a partisan example of this, from 1999, here). I felt it would be beneficial to spend time in Northern Ireland among people who are working at conflict management, peace education etc, and to reflect what I learnt from them back into the home situation.
So by kind invitation of Trevor Williams, leader of the Corrymeela Community, I spent a month with the Corrymeela Community, living and sharing in the work at their Ballycastle centre and also spending time in Belfast with people from Corrymeela and other projects. What follows is not a formal report on the placement, which I will submit to the CME programme in due course, but my initial reflections, while fresh in my mind.
A BROAD EXPERIENCE
It was a broad experience which at Corrymeela included my involvement in programmes with visiting groups as diverse as a primary school from the Shankhill Road area, cross-community family projects from North and West Belfast, and a secondary school from Waterford, Irish Republic, and theological reflection via conferences with theologian James Alison and an Ecumenical Spirituality weekend. Much of my stay in Belfast was kindly hosted by Joe and Janet Campbell, where Joe introduced me to the staff and the work of Mediation Northern Ireland and also The Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE).
The staff at Corrymeela also ensured that inbetween programmes I had time to study and reflect. A number of publications helped me in this, listed in full in the bibliography. I have been particularly helped by James Alison's writings and Moving Beyond Sectarianism by Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg, the findings of a six-year project of the ISE.
I hope to spend some of my own time continuing to reflect on the issues that have been raised for me by the placement, in particular how they relate back to the home context, and to help me in this I shall revisit some of the writings of David Sheppard, Derek Worlock and P.J. Waller, whose seminal work Democracy and Sectarianism - a Political and Social History of Liverpool 1868-1939 perhaps set me on this road in the first place.
Consequently, I will only summarise my reflections here. They range from the external, political arena to the deeply personal, and there are many connections to be made between them all. And they complement the journalling I've been doing during November, some archived online at www.johndavies.org for public access.
REFLECTIONS IN BRIEF
A young woman from Waterford spent a long while telling me that, by the end of her first-ever day in the province, she had had all her delusions about Northern Ireland shattered. She had spent the day being bussed around Belfast, in conversations with people from both sides of the peace lines, and in exercises at Corrymeela designed to help her think herself into their situations and become aware of her own ignorance so as to challenge and begin to change it. I understood her experience entirely, because it has been mine, too. I still can't claim any special knowledge of, or insight into the Northern Ireland situation but I can certainly say that my time there has broken the delusions about the place and its people which I've gathered through forty years of exposure to English media coverage.
2. RECOGNISING THE REALITY OF SECTARIANISM IN SOCIETY, CHURCH, AND ME
A middle-aged mother from North Belfast told me that her 17-year-old son had just moved to Liverpool. His prime reason for moving here was not to study, she said, not to work, though he's aiming to be doing those things as he gets settled. Rather, he had been given a choice also faced by many of his peers - the paramilitaries had told him that he either 'signs up' with them or, for his own good, he'd better disappear.
Stories like that family's illustrate the angle on sectarianism which the media have concentrated on for so long, and it is terribly real still today. But I have become aware of the subtler strains of sectarianism which 'polite society' promotes often without realising it. Such as what Liechty/Clegg call 'benign apartheid', which is where clergy concentrate on their own people to the extent that they have no time to explore dialogue / partnership with the others around them.
And I have also had my awareness heightened of the attitudes I carry around within me - often to do with avoidance of conflict, a passivity which can feed the promotion of sectarianism and other sorts of -isms, which may be unseen but are no less real for that. All of these layers of sectarianism need challenging and changing, and the obvious observation is that while political involvement is essential the best and perhaps hardest place to begin is with me.
3. LEARNING FROM THOSE INVOLVED IN MOVING BEYOND SECTARIANISM
Fortunately many others before me have worked through these challenges and Northern Ireland contains a wealth of experience in all sectors of society, which is now being 'exported' into other areas, for example Mediation NI staff currently helping facilitate community reconciliation forums in racially-divided Oldham, and the work of TIDES Training in Kosova and with Bosnian Serb and Muslim students.
I could have come home with a case full of excellent training materials from these and other agencies which will help me to realise in the future the aim to embark on 'peace education' and learn with others locally about community relations and conflict management. I shall pick up on them as I continue moving along this road.
Meanwhile I also learned that much of the good practice I've learned in youth and community work applies in this field - for instance, it was affirming to see familiar 'cooperative games' and discussion-starters being used at Corrymeela, and to be on the 'receiving end' of some of them in sessions which developed my own insights into my own harmful attitudes and also into methods of moving beyond them.
4. REFLECTING THEOLOGICALLY ON MOVING BEYOND SECTARIANISM
It was timely to be at Corrymeela in a month which featured two sets of gatherings which enabled theological reflection on issues around reconciliation. James Alison brings a whole new language to theology, one which attempts to sideline the language of violence, sacrifice, 'atonement', and is working on a new language based on the fascinating, if difficult, concepts of Rene Girard 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). It is a provocative theology of peace and reconciliation and a beginning for me.
The Ecumenical Spirituality weekend involved representatives of many Christian communities involved in reconciliation who shared stories and deep insights, many from years of struggle with the issues only starting to be opened up for me. I keenly await the paper from facilitator Cecilia Clegg; meanwhile my own notes on the weekend suggest that a spirituality of reconciliation would contain elements of:
Use of creative space and time - as enabled for us by the venue (a beautiful, light, imaginative building) and the programme;
Symbolism - using new symbols as well as old which speak powerfully to our need of reconciliation, and offer indicators towards it - such as the tremendously powerful symbol of 443-445 Springfield Road, Belfast, home of the Cornerstone Community, which physically straddles a 'peace wall' so that people wanting to move easily between the two communities can call at one door and walk through the house to exit the opposite way;
Active Listening - an essential foundation for reconciliation to have a hope;
Openness to other spiritualities - a positive dialogue and two-way exchange of all that is good between Christianity and other traditions, while remaining rooted in the Christian faith;
Story-sharing - people sharing honestly their distinctive life-stories, conflict-stories, spirit-stories, making themselves vulnerable in the telling, open up new avenues for dialogue and depth.
My final reflection is a recognition of what worked well for me on this placement and in which areas I was personally challenged. The latter would include my own 'conflict profile' which indicates that by nature I tend towards being a conflict-avoider rather than a confronter or joint problem solver, and my own personal and structural involvement in the system of sectarianism. The former is around good practice in cooperative group work and in creative worship designed to affirm and build community relations.
After a very full and enjoyable month I hope to make my conclusions positive. There is a great deal in the ongoing situation in Northern Ireland to be depressed about - the slow progress of the peace process, the present failure of the Assembly highlighting the weaknesses in the Belfast Agreement, the continuing rule of the paramilitaries in sections of society, the churches involvement in perpetuating divisions.
But I have found so much which counteracts the tendency to despair, I have met so many good people doing excellent work in their commitment to bringing reconciliation and healing to their communities, I have been treated to great insights from inner-city mothers and distinguished theologians, I have seen children change and grow together in play, debate and reflections, and all of this leads me to decide that even in the most difficult situations there are new and freeing ways of doing things, of thinking and acting towards others. I am glad to be on a journey with these people, richer and far better-informed and resourced than ever before.
I would like to acknowledge the generosity of Trevor Williams and colleagues in the Corrymeela Community in making this placement possible, and especially to thank Frank, Patrick and Mike for their help and encouragement in shaping the month's activities, Ivan and Shona for involving me in their work with groups, and the other Corrymeela staff and volunteers who made my visit a positive experience.
Thanks also to others who welcomed me and gave me insights into their areas of work - to Joe and Janet Campbell and Joe's colleagues at Mediation NI, Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg at the ISE; and to Rev Janet Eastwood, colleagues and parishioners who created the space for me to have a month away from the parish, a rare and special thing!
Alison, James, Knowing Jesus (London: SPCK, 1993)
Alison, James, Raising Abel (New York: Crossroad, 1996)
Cassidy, Eoin G, McKeown, Donal, Morrow, John (eds), Belfast: Faith in the City (Dublin: Veritas, 2001)
City vol 6, no 2, July 2002, including various articles on the city in Irish culture
Falconer, Alan D, Liechty, Joseph (eds), Reconciling Memories (Dublin: Columba Press, 1998)
Fisher, Simon et al (eds), Working with Conflict - Skills and Strategies for Action (London: Zed Books, 2000)
Kaptein, Roel, Morrow, Duncan, Girard, Rene (introduction), On the Way of Freedom (Belfast: Queen's University, 1993)
Lederach, John Paul, Building Peace - Sustainable Reconcilition in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, 1997)
Liechty, Joseph, Clegg, Cecelia, Moving Beyond Sectarianism (Dublin: Columba Press, 2001)
McCann, Eamonn, Dear God - the price of religion in Ireland (London: Bookmarks, 1999)
National Peace Council, Northern Ireland Working Group, Northern Ireland: Roots of Conflict, Routes to Peace (London: National Peace Council, 1999)
Sheppard, David, Steps Along Hope Street (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2002)
Soundings issue 18, Summer / Autumn 2001, A Very British Affair
Walsh, Ben, The Struggle for Peace in Northern Ireland (London: John Murray Publishers, 1999)