Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships
by Duncan Morrow, Derek Birrell, John Greer and Terry O'Keeffe
Copies are available in bookshops or, by post, from:
Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
T: (01265) 324666 or 324165
The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships
by Duncan Morrow, Derek Birrell, John Greer and Terry O'Keeffe
Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly news letter on current research called Research Briefing.
This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.
It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called ProtestantAlienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns on Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.
The Churches and Inter-community relationships project arose out of consultations between the Centre for the Study of Conflict in the University of Ulster at Coleraine and the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI). The aim of the project was to study the role of the Churches in the twenty years of violence in Northern Ireland. Three academics, Derek Birrell (Social Administration and Policy), John Greer (Education) and Terry 0' Keeffe (Philosophy and Politics) became the directors of this project and negotiated with the Department. In July 1987 a Research Officer, Duncan Morrow, was appointed to research the theme.
The general objective of the project was an examination of the place of the Churches in Northern Ireland society. Within this broad framework, we had a number of concrete goals. The first was to ascertain the degree to which the Churches were still important foci of personal and community life in Northern Ireland. Secondly, the nature of the connection between religion and secular aspects of life in Northern Ireland was to be examined. Thirdly, we wished to try to understand the relationship of Churches to each other and to compare inter-Church relations to other aspects of community relations and to understand the impact of the one on the other. In particular the relationship of Churches to social and political conflict was to be examined and the findings made as a contribution to our understanding of the complex dynamics and inter-relationships of society in Northern Ireland.
The research was carried out using two different approaches. The first was a questionnaire of clergy which would concentrate on the Churches and their involvement in the provision of formal community and social facilities in Northern Ireland. In this way we were able to address the breadth of church institutional and personal involvement in the minutiae of northern Irish life. The questionnaire was also intended to highlight areas of inter-community interest and activity within and between the Churches and to begin to assess the limits and possibilities of inter-community relations within Church structures.
The second part of the project was three case studies designed to reflect the range of circumstances in different parts of the province, east and west of the River Bann and in urban and rural settings. Furthermore, case studies enabled an examination of the variety of different approaches to ostensibly similar problems in different settings, of the variety of problems facing different people in different parts of the province, as well as allowing an assessment of the depth of Church involvement in community life in different places.
Through this combination we hoped to gain a more accurate picture of the breadth and depth of 'The Churches' contribution to Northern Ireland life and thereby to examine the place of organised religion in society and in inter-community relationships on an informed basis.
At an early stage we decided to restrict the survey to the four largest denominations in Northern Ireland; Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist. While we were aware that this was already restrictive, the combined membership or association with these Churches makes up over 90% of the Northern Irish population. In the case studies, we again concentrated primarily on the relationships between these denominations. Nevertheless, in each case, local circumstances meant that other denominations and groups were also considered.
We sought the agreement of the appropriate bodies in each of the four Churches to carry out this work. The various dioceses and boards were all encouraging in this matter. This made possible a research project which is firmly based in both communities in Northern Ireland and allowed for comparisons to be made and differences to be examined.
There are numerous possible approaches to the Churches and their involvement in community work. It is therefore important to acknowledge that we were unable to tackle some aspects. At one stage we intended to examine the community work of the Churches through a study of the Church institutions of each of the denominations. Examples of these include the Presbyterian Board of Social Witness, Down & Connor Family Welfare society and so on. Because of the specifically inter-community focus of this project it was thought that the Churches Central Committee for Community Work might be an appropriate body through which to examine joint approaches between the Churches. In furtherance of this and in order to establish contact and context for the research, interviews and conversations were arranged with representatives and employees of some of the appropriate organisations. Everyone was very obliging in this regard and many were very open in their comments. Eventually, however, we decided not to pursue this aspect of Church life because, although it provided valuable background, it became apparent that the central approach was too general and that the inter-Church dimension of work at this level was extremely weak. The CCCCW proved to be an organisation without teeth and with little concrete backing from the Church institutions. The staff were very open in their acknowledgement of the serious difficulties and limitations of the organisation. We decided to concentrate our research elsewhere.
The advantage of this project was that it was undertaken in an inter-community context allowing all denominations to come under one searchlight. It is hoped that the project demystifies some of the relationships between religion and secular life and the relationship of religion to community conflict.
Work on the Churches and their place in Northern Irish life remains sparse. We can suggest a number of reasons for this. Secular Social Science in Britain and Ireland has tended to be dominated by an outlook in which the Churches are either small minority remnants or institutions which reflect a kind of social backwardness. At its worst religion is equivalent to obscurantism and superstition. In this context religion, particularly in its organised form, is a strange and difficult territory, easier to dismiss than to explore. The obsessive religiosity of the Irish is at best embarrassing and at worst dangerous. It is worth pointing out that in this respect England itself differs from other cultures, such as German, Polish, Italian, Russian, North and Latin American, South African, Middle Eastern and Asian political and social cultures. In these places, questions of religion and the Churches, both in general and in particular, remain central to philosophical, political and communal discourse and organisation. Even for those who are firmly outside religious bodies the debates posed by the doctrines and beliefs of these bodies are included in their frame of reference. Thus the examination of Irish religion from within an English framework is always likely to be particularly distorted, especially with regard to religion. When Steve Bruce argued that 'The Northern Ireland Conflict is a religious conflict1 he found himself in a minority of one among sociologists.
For us, however, the question can never be whether religion is important. Instead, the question is how and in what ways is religion important. In this respect the political debate on Northern Ireland by those who have no place for this discussion always misses a crucial dimension. Part of the task of this project was to establish the degree to which, in Northern Ireland, the boundaries between the secular and the religious are clear-cut. The extent to which Church institutions provide the context for social life and the extent to which the Churches are involved in so many aspects of life means that they cannot simply be dismissed. In our questionnaire it became apparent that the Churches are not just general labels attached inaccurately to political parties but also the context of the apparently minute aspects of cultural life. From Mother and Toddler groups to political activities, the Churches are somehow involved.
There are some problems in a simplistic secular perspective on religion, especially in the analysis of Christian religion in Western society. Often secular observers appear to begin their analyses from the premise that Churches are small subgroups which emerged within a wider society. 'The Churches' are like 'the Trade Unions' or 'the bourgeoisie' only smaller and less important.
In Ireland the first challenge to this way of looking at things is size. The Churches are not smaller than the other social bodies and by sheer weight of numbers demand a more respectful hearing. Secondly such social science is in danger of inverting the historical order of events. Modern Society retains roots in Christendom, even if the description 'post-Christian' is now more accurate for much of Britain. Of course, the Churches retain a more explicit link to that history than do other groups which dominate the modern social agenda. Nevertheless, Church members have lived through these changes simultaneously with non-Church members. As such the Churches are not a separable sub-group which have 'arisen' out of modernity, like Trade Unions. Rather, the various strands of modern secular society have 'arisen' out of a Church-based past. This means that Church people are likely also to be involved in many aspects of secular life and that they cannot be reduced to a sect with clear boundaries defined by secular categories of class or organisation or gender or age. Where the Churches are large in size, this point is obvious.
'The Churches' are not simple institutions with members whose members change their hats in other parts of life. They are also communities of people whose whole lives are lived in the light of their Church experiences and knowing. Thus when they are in the workplace, in pubs, bringing up children, or whatever they may remain partly in Church. This makes the designation of simple lines, divisions between the secular and the religious completely misleading. In Northern Ireland this is immediately clear. It is not less true in secular England. It is less obvious.
The common roots of western society in Christendom means that absolute categorisation of the Churches by social science is likely to be difficult. Furthermore, the Churches do not reflect the finality of secular categories just as secular observers reject the judgements of the Church. To examine the Churches without an acknowledgement of some common heritage will always assume that the observer can stand outside the Churches separating them as a strange sect or as a subgroup to which the observer has no relation. In a Northern Irish context the difficulties of simple division become apparent very quickly. Men on Belfast's Shankhill Road may no longer go to Church. Instead they meet in clubs and pubs and in the orange order. Despite this, they continue to live in a society that was shaped by relations between communities in which religion was crucial. 'Religious', 'Christian' or not, their predicament cannot be understood without some understanding of the relationships between the Churches.
Within their jurisdiction, States claim ultimate authority. In the final analysis, the supreme authority of the State is undermined by claims made to a higher authority. Explicitly or implicitly, the State has to make a religious claim to authority. The claim to 'divine right' is therefore not very different to a claim to the 'nation' or 'the people' except that secular language is used. In this sense, the claims of the secular State or of a particular set of humanistic ideals are just as 'religious' as the claims of Christianity. The problems arise when groups deny the authority of the State on the basis of a different but higher authority, be it God, the nation, the people or whatever.
The problem with religious wars is that they are waged in the name of an ultimate authority. The combination of violence and 'sacred cause' is therefore very potent. Again, the cause need not be explicitly 'religious' to exhibit these traits, and in our own time nationalism and the claims of a class to ultimate authority have been the most obvious such secular causes. The potential of the call of the nation has been obvious since the French Revolution and brought to an ugly nadir in the quasi-religious ideology of German Nazism.
Where a secular religion such as nationalism combines with a religion which claims universal transcendence, the potential for violence is immense. The nation is raised into a sacred cause for both man and God. A national-religious war can be pursued with ferocity by people of immensely different conscious motivations. Religion becomes a system which gives a higher justification for the national war, indeed gives it an authoritative stamp of approval. Deeply secular people find themselves following religious leaders for reasons of their own defence.
It is extremely difficult to abolish dissenting religious claims through State violence. Religious dissent in the Eastern Bloc, Jewish persecution through ten centuries, the Irish Penal laws, the Polish crisis, the rise of the Ayatollah in Iran all illustrate the difficulty of using violence to purge religious dissent. Precisely because the claims of the religious group are held to have an ultimate authority, persecution tends to reinforce the determination of the group to 'hold out'. In Ireland, the Penal Laws had the effect of binding Catholicism to the Irish experience, while attacks on Protestants from a church-dominated opponent, over which Britain has appeared to equivocate have made Protestantism important to a sense of difference in Ulster's majority.
In the modern State, the field of education has been the most obvious battleground between the State and religion. The question of 'what to teach' and how to fund it have become central. In many settings, language has been the crucial issue at stake. In other places, religion has been crucial. Multi-religious or multi-language states are faced with serious problems in this regard. Different solutions have been found in different countries. In the West, some countries, such as Germany and Holland, have allowed denominational religious education in schools while others, such as France or USA, have outlawed it, except in private, fee-paying schools. It is clear to many Muslims that secular education does not teach what they wish. Christian fundamentalists in America, Catholics in Ulster and Muslims in Bradford share the same perception. What is slower to become clear is that the curriculum of a single integrating State system is therefore 'religious' in the sense that it claims an absolute validity. The Churches in Northern Ireland are interwoven into the social fabric of the community. Even among those who do not go to Church, the language of religious identity is not very distant. As such, religious identity has had a more consistent appeal than identities of class or gender. Indeed religious tradition remains the most consistent guide to political outlook. This is not to say that the conflict is about theology. Religion has always been more important than theology in the experience of difference in Ulster. What the Churches do in a conflict divided by religious traditions is, however, important. What is certain is that the relationship of culture, politics, society and religion cannot be simplistically resolved by ignoring the Churches on the basis that they are 'epicentral' to the main issues of the conflict.
Even in Northern Ireland, academic work on the Churches has been sporadic. Frank Wright's important work2 established the link between Protestantism and the ideology of Unionism. John Hickey3 tried to show that any explanation of the Northern Irish problem which did not take into account the religious dimension fell short. Although he did not provide a comprehensive theory of the nature of the relationship of religion to other aspects of Northern Ireland life he demonstrated that religion could not be bypassed. Steve Bruce4 argued that Free Presbyterianism and its self-understanding are crucial to any understanding of the Democratic Unionist Party both in terms of ideology and in terms of practice. The political importance of Ian Paisley alone, which reached its zenith in the 1983 European Election, ensures that this phenomenon is no footnote in Northern Irish history or experience. It will be part of this study to examine this relationship of religion to politics in relation to the larger Churches in Northern Ireland. Within the Churches numerous groups have sought to outline their position. All Churches have commented through the years on aspects of the violence and their response. There have been a number of important works on the relationship of the Churches to violence5. Bishops regularly make statements on political and social affairs while the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church has produced annual statements6. Recently a number of smaller unofficial groups have made headlines, particularly 'An Inter-faith Group on Faith and Politics' who have produced numerous challenging documents7 which comment on the political, social and religious present and future.
We looked at the Churches in two specific ways. First, through a survey of clergy and secondly through a number of case studies which were to reflect some of the diverse circumstances of Church life in Northern Ireland. The methods adopted in the survey are detailed in Section Two. It is necessary, however to say a word or two about the methods adopted during the case studies.
The field studies took place during 1988 and 1989. Each of the studies lasted approximately four months, including the time necessary to record and edit material. Direct field work lasted for about three months in each case. This is, of course, an absurdly short time in which to examine the depths of Church life in any area. We were very fortunate that people were generally friendly and open to discussion in each place.
The goal of the case studies was to present a series of 'pictures of some of the dimensions of Church life. As such, the case studies were to add a qualitative rather than quantitative dimension. They were to complement the formal framework of a questionnaire and by illustrating some of the human dimensions of the Churches in Northern Ireland they were intended to 'put flesh on the bones' of other analyses. From an early stage it was clear that any study of the Churches and inter-community relationships would have to locate the Churches within the relationships of 'their own' communities first. Most of the study time was therefore taken up in identifying relationships between the Churches and other secular groups.
The bulk of the fieldwork was a combination of participant observation and in-depth interviews. Where it was appropriate or possible, written sources were also consulted. Because of the pressures of time, it was necessary to ensure that interviews with key figures in the local community took priority. These included professionals, such as clergy and school teachers, and local community activists such as those engaged in Church or secular programmes for each area, such as ACE schemes, family work or youth clubs and important social and political organisations within each area, whether official or unofficial. Broadly speaking, these people provided the main framework from which to gauge the dimensions of the Church involvement in local life. To this core, we also added discussions with people identified locally as 'authorities' on the history and development of their areas.
Secondly, we spent a long time building up relationships of trust in less formal settings such as Family Centres, Mother and Toddler Groups, Old People's entertainment' s, ACE schemes, Youth clubs and so on. This provided the framework for a broad understanding of Church work within the wider local context as well as counterbalancing the reliance on professional opinion. In informal settings, people expressed a variety of views and experiences of local life. In many cases this resulted in formal interviews.
Thirdly, it was essential that people both within and outside the Churches were represented in each area. As a result, towards the end of the research in each area, spokespeople for specific views which were not yet reflected in recorded form but were everpresent in informal discussion were sought out.
Fourthly, the fieldwork had to include people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Our case studies were chosen to reflect geographical differences, rural and urban settings and wide class variations. We were careful to ensure that both women and men were properly represented, that we spoke with people of different age groups and that people of all political and religious persuasions were part of the work. In each area efforts were made to ensure that all these factors were taken into account. If there are biases in the results they are probably the result of unequal access to clergy vis a vis lay people which slant the analysis towards an over-reliance on this group.
In every case, longer individual contributions were recorded by hand and sometimes by cassette. This was always agreed in advance with each person and the rules of confidentiality clarified. The written records complemented personal observation through informal groups and Church attendance.
It was impossible to embark on a door to door approach in any area. A number of important reasons can be advanced for this. In the first place, qualitative sterility. Religion and politics are difficult subjects in Northern Ireland. We found it necessary to ensure that everybody was relaxed and free of fears before open discussion was possible. From an early stage we chose to concentrate on a smaller number of substantial discussions rather than a larger number of inflexible doorstep responses. Secondly, in the context of our work, what we were seeking from the case studies was an indication of the 'human dimension' of the Churches predicaments. It was therefore important to allow the interviewees the maximum possible freedom to describe and reflect on their life and work in their own manner. Uniformity was ensured by the consistent goals of the fieldwork. It was deliberately not imposed in the form of a semi-structured interview whose content was decided in advance, in order to discover the real diversity in each situation. Thirdly, time imposed its own constraints on the work which made any satisfactory saturation project impossible.
The case studies are suggestive rather than definitive. They do, however, claim to be a record of the broad range of discussions in which the Churches are involved in each area as related by a wide variety of people in their own words. In writing the report, we felt that it was important to begin from these views. As a result we have made widespread use of quotation from these interviews in the report.
In writing the reports, we decided on a policy of anonymity. As a result we changed most of the placenames. We have taken this decision in order that nobody should be unnecessarily exposed to difficulties.
The case studies ensure that general analyses are firmly rooted in empirical reality and allow theoretical generalisations to be clarified in concrete situations. They allowed us to examine relationships from the viewpoint and experience of those who live within them. They enabled us to assess the context in which changes might occur and discuss how any changes might occur on a better-informed basis.
One of the problems of a report such as this is that it attempts to address the interests of a wide variety of people. This particular report is written with a number of different audiences in mind. In the first instance, we had to meet the contractual demands of our funders. At the same time, the report is addressed to people within the Churches in Northern Ireland, to academics interested in politics and society in Northern Ireland, to those interested in the importance of organised religion both at home and abroad and to a wider audience of Northern Irish people who are interested in learning more about the workings of their society. It is hoped that the multiplicity of audiences does not result in total confusion. For readers outside Northern Ireland, a short glossary of terms has been added to enable culturally specific usages (such as P1, P2) to be more easily understood.
Our project focused on the Churches in relation to Catholic-Protestant, Unionist-Nationalist, divisions. In so doing, we have attempted to reflect a wide variety of circumstances throughout the province. This is not an exhaustive analysis of the Churches in Northern Ireland. Although the project raised many issues, the question of theology and politics, religion and social class and Church attendance were always subsidiary to our primary focus on inter-community relationships. There is much work to be done in these areas.
This project is a contribution to a deeper understanding of the relationship of the Churches and religion to life in Northern Ireland. As such, we hope to illustrate the breadth of Church involvement from the level of the social and political structures to the seemingly mundane. Even here it is by no means exhaustive. It is our hope that we have provided an insight into some of the difficulties in making simplistic judgements or providing easy solutions in a situation where everybody appears caught in a predicament of fear and violence, while at the same time providing examples of possible futures.
1. The place of Churches in Northern Ireland Society
a. Churches remain the largest non-governmental institutions in Northern Ireland. They are present in every part of the country reflecting the historical importance of the Church as a social and cultural organiser. In Northern Ireland they remain central to society.
b. Churches are the largest organisations with voluntary membership in Northern Ireland. In comparison to England, Scotland and Wales attendance and the importance attached to it remain high.
c. Churches are important parts of the Northern Ireland economy. Much work in Churches by Church members is unpaid, clubs and societies generally have voluntary leaders and Churches employ many people. In addition Church collections raise considerable funds for a variety of other organisations particularly registered charities. (See below for ACE)
d. Churches are centres of important and lasting networks of relationships. In rural areas extended families, friendships, social activity and business contacts are all related to Church. In urban areas the first three continue to be true to some extent.
e. Churches are crucial markers of identity in Northern Ireland. They are one means by which the political complexion of an area can be gauged. They are central to the different experiences of children growing up through schools and youth activities and as refuges in times of trouble. Marriage, friendship, school and even career are often formed in the communities in which Church plays a part.
f. Churches carry many of the cultural memories of Northern Ireland through an institutional continuity which stretches back to the sixteenth century. They thus have an institutional authority which predates the people alive today. They are thus also entwined with the cultural and political history of the people.
g. In rural areas Churches remain important parts of the social order. They have an authority and respect based on a widespread acceptance of their moral leadership. In such settings the clergy are considered very important local figures. To some extent this has broken down in urban areas particularly among working class men. Nevertheless their authority is considerably greater than the institutional authority of Churches in Great Britain. No single Church can claim the attendance of the Roman Catholic Church in the Irish Republic and so ecclesiastical authority in the North is more fragmented though not necessarily less public.
h. Churches have suffered seriously under the impact of violence. In many ways the experience of violence has affected the Churches more profoundly than the Churches have affected the violence. The institutional coherence and popular authority of the central Church leaderships has declined and in a society which is marked out by the number of violent deaths the theological difficulties are serious. How does a religion based on 'Agape' account for the present spread of terror in a Church-dominated society? Violence naturally varies from place to place and the response to it is similarly variable. The result is that congregations and parishes are very different from one another even within denomination. Denomination cannot be taken as an absolute signifier for political or social position. Popular experience of 'the Churches' is therefore likely to be very different in different places.
i. Precisely because the Churches are spread so widely throughout Northern Ireland, when taken together, they reflect all of the strands of Ulster politics within their institutions. Churches as institutions have been unable to make any clear or consistent difference between a 'Christian' response to violence and politics and a 'non-Christian' one. As such politics appears to dominate the Churches more than vice versa.
j. There has been some disintegration of Church structures and authority in recent times. Protestant Churches continue to struggle with falling attendances in Belfast and the growth of small House Churches beyond any central institutional control while the Roman Catholic Church suffers from serious political trouble in West Belfast and a widespread flaunting of its authority particularly in areas such as birth control.
2. The Churches and inter-community relationships
a. The Churches are often blamed for a conflict in which the most consistently perceived dividing line is between Catholics and Protestants. Certainly they seem to be unable to convincingly rid themselves of this association. Funerals and orations at them seem to be the focus of the most public duties of the Church in this context. The Churches association with funerals and with responses which flow from violent deaths mean that they too are integrated into the whole 'system in turmoil'. At the same time, many clergy have tried to use funerals as places for appeals for an end to reciprocal violence. The importance of such occasions cannot be overlooked.
b. Protestantism is said to be more political than Catholicism. This arises from the fact that some, particularly around Ian Paisley, express their outlook in theological terms. The fear of 'Rome' is certainly not mirrored by a fear of institutional Protestantism on the Catholic side. Nevertheless, as an institution, the political profile of the Roman Catholic Church is much higher than that of any Protestant Church. In the absence of a State to which many Catholics owe their unconditional allegiance, the Church has become the main institutional organiser. The result is that any Protestant fears, whether expressed by Church-goers or atheists, appear to be confirmed from the perspective of someone looking for evidence of Church-domination in nationalist circles.
c. Churches have a vast network of associated clubs and activities. Many of these are confined to members of the parish or congregation and nearly always attendance is determined by the divide evident between Catholics and Protestants. Church activities are as divided as those of other organisations. In a context of violence and fear, the congregational and parish system seems to mirror and institutionalise the political and cultural divisions of Ulster. There appears to be only occasional congregational commitment to programmes of meeting and encounter across congregational boundaries, nor has there been any consistent encouragement for this from Church leaderships.
d. The Churches in Northern Ireland have not regarded Inter-community relationships as a matter for particular programmes of action. Churches have seldom produced proposals for new initiatives which involve congregations and parishes at a systematic level. Even ACE programmes undertaken on an inter-denominational basis tend to be limited to a small number of people. Serious discussion about the relationship of Christianity to the question of inter-community relationships have been limited to small groups and to particular congregations and parishes. Discussions on the task of the Churches in a divided society have seldom taken place except between clergy. There is very little evidence that parishes and congregations provide places for serious debate on the function of Churches in inter-community relationships. In a society in which community divisions mirror denominational divisions this is a notable omission. It may be that the Churches fear serious institutional division in the event of discussions on this subject becoming widespread. It is clear that neither clergy nor laity have sought to open up such discussions.
e. Church leaders have been associated with calls for an end to 'violence'. Nevertheless, this has not been accompanied by major changes in the pattern of Church relationships. The Churches remain identified with particular sides and there are few consistent indications that this has radically changed in the last twenty years. The result is that a whole dimension of Northern Irish cultural life acts to reflect community fears and experiences but is seldom an active forum for reflection and discussion on alternatives, except through the conversion of others. This applies also to controversial questions of social, political and economic importance. The result is that Churches have tended to concentrate in one place, people of similar understanding or experience as it affects these areas, rather than be places of meeting with differences. In this context, Churches have a tendency to become protective fortresses for threatened people rather than places of open and profound discussion.
f. The question is often asked, 'What impact do the Churches have on violence?' Our research suggests that there is no single clear answer to this question. We can also ask 'What impact does the violence have on the Churches?' Over the past twenty years, divisions within the Churches have continued. At an ecclesiastical level, contact between Churches remains tentative, particularly between Catholics and Protestants. Within official Church circles, such contact has largely been limited to clergy and Church employees and has not extended to widespread interchange between the laity on a congregational basis. There appears to be little internal unity within the Churches, as to what Churches should do in regard to inter-community relationships. The result is a highly differentiated picture, with each congregation and parish adopting different approaches.
g. In ecclesiastical terms, there is some evidence that some in the Churches have moved further apart while others have engaged in common ventures. This confirms a general picture of fragmentation within the institutions with regard to ecumenism and inter-community relationships. Our evidence shows that large numbers of Presbyterians are unwilling to have any religious co-operation with Catholics. At the same time, Catholics are regarded by many as more interested in preserving the denominational purity of schools than in seeking other ways. The dominant emphasis appears to be on institutional purity above inter-denominational engagement. In this context, inter-denominational contact between Churches is always limited in advance and is seldom entirely free of defensiveness.
h. From our research, it is clear that theological reflection by many clergy is focused on defence of clear doctrine rather than on repentance and change. In most theological thinking, there is a clear assumption that change, whether political or theological has to be undertaken by 'the others' first. 'The problem' is usually located in the doctrines, attitudes and actions of the others, whoever they may be. The corollary of this is that the speaker is always unable to act, because the other has to change first.
i. At the same time, it remains true that, in some areas, the Churches contain and support the only people seriously committed to inter-community relationships. In ghettos the opportunities for contact between people have to be organised. Churches are sometimes the only bodies undertaking this. At one and the same time, even in neighbouring parishes or congregations, the strongest opponents to any contact between Catholics and Protestants may be within Churches. Schools programmes for Mutual Understanding (E.M.U.) may be most strongly opposed and most strongly supported in Church groups.
j. Schools remain a major focus of division in Northern Ireland. Church involvement in schools means that this is a major focus of Church institutional power in Northern Ireland. Many Protestants do not recognise the fears of Catholics in regard to the State system and demand integration through the abolition of Catholic schools. Often they do not acknowledge even the Protestant-technocratic-British orientation of State schools. Most Catholics proclaim that their schools have a different ethos which must be protected. Nevertheless if the ethos is one of 'agape' it is difficult to see this in operation in the manner in which they are defended. There is no common agreement, even within denominations, as to what could or should be done about schools in Northern Ireland.
3. The Churches and "Action for Community Employment" (ACE)
a. The Churches have been given considerable influence through the expansion of the A.C.E. programme. This has had serious effects in some areas. For Churches in general the limited number of people involved means that the appearance of Church involvement in community work may be restricted to very few people. In other words, although the ACE project runs through the institutional 'Churches' it has very little real impact on the life of the congregation. This varies from place to place. Nevertheless, it is hard to see any distinctive 'Church' contribution to many projects except that Churches have widespread networks and are generally trusted by local people in areas associated with 'caring'. As a means for the Churches to be 'relevant' it can only ever be partial and temporary.
b. The Roman Catholic Church is now the largest provider of A.C.E. jobs in West Belfast. Government policy has been to restrict the funding of community groups because of fears that money was used to support paramilitary groups and their political wings, particularly Sinn Féin. One of the results is that many local people resent the Church monopoly, often represented in clerical chairmanship of every financially viable local institution. Given the difficulties of setting up projects without Church backing, many community activists find themselves in opposition to Church and State. One of the most obvious results has been that the Church has become involved in local political battles with Sinn Féin. The expansion of the Church into the economic sphere by association, is regarded by many community activists as anti-democratic given existing clerical influence over schools and youth facilities.
c. In some areas the Roman Catholic Church has been the refuge for all those opposed to the I.R.A. In many working-class areas it is the only local institutional opponent. Nevertheless, the politics of A.C.E. resources has at times resulted in local community-activists resentment against the Church authorities which may be expressed as support for Sinn Féin.
d. The Protestant Churches are not popularly identified with A.C.E. in the same manner. Where Protestant Churches do have A.C.E. schemes, they often do so together or in areas where other groups (e.g. community groups, local council, Chamber of Commerce) also have active projects. The Protestant Churches are not regarded as the sole providers of community assets. Furthermore, there is usually more than one Church institution in Protestant areas, which prevents the same sense of 'monopoly' emerging. The result is that local power battles are not focused on the institutional Churches in Protestant areas to the same extent as they are in Catholic areas. This difference may further compound Protestant views of Catholicism as political domination. Nevertheless, it remains true that the larger Protestant Churches are widely regarded as the Unionist establishment at prayer. Among clergy this would include outright opposition to loyalist paramilitarism. Withdrawal of A.C.E. funds to groups suspected of paramilitary links has been less marked and where it has happened, the Churches have not been the focus of local anger.
4. Policy implications
a. A community relations policy towards 'the Churches' has to take account of the vast real differences which exist from congregation to congregation. A blanket approach can only result in unpredictable and possibly harmful results. The central institutions cannot control these results.
b. None of the Churches in Northern Ire land has developed a clear policy on inter-community relations. This may be because of the fear of institutional division. Nevertheless, the result is that the Churches are usually reactive rather than pro-active in the area of inter-community relationships. The Churches could be encouraged to present their own proposals for the involvement of Churches in policy changes. Unless there are widely-supported and well-known Church policies on inter-community relationships, institutional relations involving the Churches are likely to be unclear, unpredictable and unsatisfactory.
c. Inter-community relations cannot be improved by a policy which assumes that the Churches in toto will act in a manner significantly different from other secular institutions. Churches are organised on a parish and congregational basis and the experience of Northern Ireland is that most tend to reflect, more than they transcend community divisions. In the past some congregations and parishes have sought to reduce community boundaries while others seek some security behind reinforced separation. In secular society, reinforcement of boundaries might be called ghettoisation. Reinforcement of community boundaries is often an expression of deep fear and anger as a result of violent experiences shared by the congregation or parish at the hands of an identified enemy. This variation within institutional Churches must be recognised before any serious policy towards 'Churches' can be formulated.
d. The Churches can be encouraged to expand inter-community relationships in their areas. Conditions on inter-community dimensions to Church-based programmes attached to financial support seem an appropriate instrument. These can build on the large numbers involved in Churches and utilise the very well-developed structures and wide acceptability of the Churches. It is of major importance that encouragement' by financial or other means does not become force and that Churches are left to 'opt in' to possibilities on offer from the government. Northern Ireland Churches historically react in a defensive manner if change is seen to be imposed on them. It is imperative that the Churches be seen to take responsibility for their own commitments and choices in the area of inter-community relations.
e. A.C.E. funding has led to very serious problems in West Belfast. The centralisation of control in the hands of the clergy, seen as agents of an institution, rather than local people has had many negative effects. A.C.E. funding policy is a very blunt instrument, and the concentration of resources in clerical hands creates serious political imbalances within local communities. The government's policy aim, that money should not fall into paramilitary hands, is translated in many areas as the political vetting of the entire community. The result is a further alienation from Church and State in many places. Much thinking is needed to find ways of redefining Church involvement in order to avoid the sense of exclusion which now embitters many community groups, perhaps by encouraging more creative partnerships at local level. This is not to say that the Church should not be involved, but the nature of that involvement might be more flexible.
2 Frank Wright: "Protestant Ideology and Politics in Ulster",
European Journal of Sociology, vol. xiv, no.2 1973, pp. 213-80