Pastoral Address

Leaving a Better Legacy for our Children

This Pastoral Address may well ask far more questions than it can answer. Last year’s conference in Londonderry asked the Council on Social Responsibility to carry on the work of an ad hoc committee called together a couple of years previously by the President of the day, to address the need for reconciliation in Ireland. Whilst it is true that many will perceive that it is in the North that this need is greatest, the issues concern us all throughout the island. This Pastoral Address reflects some of the thinking of the group, drawn from north and south, and invites further engagement from all of our Methodist people.  

It is now more than 20 years since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and its resounding endorsement in referenda both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since then there has been social and political progress, albeit at a frustratingly slow pace. At times it was two steps forward and one step back. Some may say that in recent years it has been one step forward and two steps back! Everyone recognises that we live in a better place now than we did during the thirty years of the Troubles. But what we have now is not good enough. While the threat of violence has greatly reduced and most of the guns decommissioned, violence has not gone away completely. We must acknowledge the tensions and divisions in our communities are growing deeper and wider principally because of the political mishandling of the Brexit project. There are, of course, complex political questions involved here. There are failures of political leadership in grasping these complexities and working through them and, despite our diminished numerical presence, our churches will need to work harder to make more meaningful contributions in the vacuum that exists.  Over the decades, the MCI has tried to struggle constructively with the political questions and has, arguably, ‘punched above our weight’ often quietly and behind the scenes. The public, of course, do not see these confidential interventions and, consequently, we get criticised for not doing anything.

However, politics is not the main focus of this Pastoral Address. Rather we want to try and address the social and spiritual issues that may lie at the root of our dis-ease. If Jeremiah were an Irishman / Ulsterman he may well still be crying: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?’  (Jer8:22)

Emotional impact of the Troubles

There are many deep wounds still in the bodies, minds and souls of the people of this land. Some have said that everyone who lives here has been affected by the Troubles. At a factual level, that does not sound true. Dr Marie Smyth, the main researcher for the Cost of the Troubles Study (1999), movingly wrote in one report; ‘the suffering has not been evenly spread, in some places it lies clotted thick upon the ground.’ The violence most impacted on a number of pockets – north and west Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Dublin and Monaghan (1974), Enniskillen (1987), Omagh (1998). However, the rural areas like Fermanagh and Armagh have experienced killings over an extended period of time. Biblically literate Methodists will quickly link that powerful phrase of “clotted thick” with the words of God himself, spoken in the wake of the first murder on this planet. ‘Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. (Gen 4:10) 

Taken at a superficial level, not everyone has been affected. Most people have moved on with their lives. They want to forget what’s happened in the past and all those awful events. 
Here lies the nature of the healing problem we are faced with - how very little of Northern Ireland is left untouched by the conflict.  At a deeper more profound level, we may not actually be aware of how much each one of us has personally been damaged by specific incidents. It means we are on constant alert, not feeling safe. The body remembers with its pre-verbal memory if it sees violence again or activated by smell. Remember, more lives have been lost through suicide since 1998 than lives lost in the years of the Troubles. In our anxiety to move on, we underestimate the extent to which the pain and hurt experienced in our extended families has indirectly affected us. That is the nature of trauma. It remains hidden and silent inside ourselves until it is triggered again by an emotional event. By not talking about the pain and processing the hurt through the means of telling our story to others, we end up transferring the trauma to the next generation for them to deal with – the very opposite of what we want to achieve. It may protect us and our children in the short term but it delays our own healing. 
Many former RUC, Garda, UDR and soldiers have not had the opportunity to reflect on those years and still carry the trauma inside. Psychologists like to put the big name of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) on this unreflected experience but it is best to see it as an emotional injury that lies yet unhealed – a sort of PTSI (Peter Levine 2010:34).  It can be healed through emotional support and truth recovery.

We also need to be aware of how trauma has affected us as helpers and carers. It is called secondary victimisation. Over and over again, we made pastoral visits to bereaved families, hearing painful stories, and, as ministers, we led funeral services.  We learned on the hoof to stay in survival mode and to calm ourselves. Looking back, we can probably recall moments of burn out and compassion fatigue. 

When pastoral care has been inadequate in the past, we may be able to explain it, but we cannot excuse it. In some times and places, where the suffering has been ‘clotted thick’ there was not enough time and spiritual energy to deal effectively with one family before being called to another in the parish in similar circumstances. Added to that, many clergy have felt inadequately prepared and resourced to deal with people suffering from trauma. One person has pointedly observed that in 8 years of training (5 medical and 3 theological) in Belfast, at the height of the Troubles, he can’t remember one reference to dealing with the emotional, psychological, social or spiritual impact of violence. The mantra, ‘whatever you say, say nothing’, was insidious and widespread. How can we measure the negative impact this has had on many individuals and families? Symptoms include headaches, sleeplessness, flashbacks and difficulties in eating. Reliance on prescription medications and self-medication, usually with alcohol has told its own sad story.  Unable to cope and with insufficient support, many have gone to an early grave. 

However, the story is not all bleak. In the early 1990’s a small group of Catholic and Protestant women formed a support group called Widows Against Violence Empower (WAVE). Now across Northern Ireland, in GB and the ROI, the WAVE Trauma Centre provides support to thousands of victims. This emotional support is offered to all, irrespective of political or religious opinion.  
The vast experience of WAVE is now also offered to helpers and carers in training. It is now difficult to go through medical or theological training (as well as nursing, social work and other fields) without being made aware of, at least, some of the psychosocial issues related to trauma. Other groups with a narrower political or geographical focus have also done good work. 

At this point in our history, what can and should we be doing to support those who have suffered most, from the perspective of the past, present and future? 
In the depths of sin and despair we cry out to God for light and hope and salvation. Jeremiah’s lament was that salvation had not come to the people of his day and that they faced only the prospect of judgment. “The harvest is past, the summer in ended and we are not saved.”  (Jer 8:20) 

Irish Methodists will quickly warm to talk of salvation. We know that ALL people need to be saved, can be saved, can know that they are saved and be saved to the uttermost. Many a Methodist preacher will have taken up this theme and pointed out the tense of the verb. I have been saved from the penalty of sin, I am being saved from the power of sin, and I will be saved from the presence of sin.  (The 3 Palliteration may appeal more to some of our Presbyterian friends!)  

Dealing With The Past

We would like to take that past/present/future paradigm and apply it to our concern for working more productively with the legacy of violence. We propose to do this by asking questions in three areas:
A.    Personal healing and within family; 
B.    The local church and inter-communal healing; 
C.    The political healing within these islands.  

In a pastoral address we will naturally focus on the first two of these, but as almost every Methodist will be a citizen here, either Irish, British or both, we should take seriously our civic responsibilities in so far as we can within these islands.  

A.    Personal healing and within Family.  

How well have we cared for the individuals and families who have suffered the most as a result of the conflict? If we listen carefully, we will hear a variety of testimonies. Some have been cared for very well, with much love and compassion and for a long time. Others have felt a short burst of sympathy in the immediate aftermath of an atrocity but then they feel that they have been forgotten.  It is understandable that the news agenda quickly moves on. The shooting of one policeman or taxi driver is quickly forgotten by all but their family and friends. Even in the larger scale atrocities that many will be able to name, who remembers the names of most of the individuals?  

Compassion is the key

What can we do? We suggest the key to this question is compassion. Trevor Hudson, a Methodist minister in South Africa, offers something precious in his little book, ‘A Mile in My Shoes – Cultivating Compassion’. (The book was first published in 1999 under the title, Compassionate Caring – A Daily Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope.) In the book Hudson describes how he developed a programme called ‘The Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope’. He designed it to enable young South Africans to reflect upon the meaning of their faith and discipleship within the harsh and oppressive socio-political realities of their nation. He helped members of his comfortable congregations to encounter their suffering neighbour.

The 3 key elements of the pilgrimage are:
•    Encounter, 
•    Reflection, and 
•    Transformation.   

Encounter involves a personal confrontation of the pain of our shattered and fragmented societies. Reflection comes through daily meditation upon Scripture in the light of the pilgrimage encounters. He didn’t coin the phrase, but he makes excellent use of – “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” Transformation into greater Christlikeness comes as a gift.  

Transformation is a new word for what we know in theology as “being saved”. It has a future eschatological dimension of course, but it is more than that. In Luke ch 7 and 8 there are a series of stories about salvation. The Greek word sozo is repeatedly used. The sinful woman in ch 7 is told, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”  (Lk 7:50)  The woman with the bleeding problem who reaches out for the hem of Christ’s garment is told, “Daughter your faith has made you well, go in peace”  (Lk 8:48)  In both cases the Greek is sozo. The first woman is saved from her debt of sin.  The second is made whole and no longer excluded because of her bleeding. No doubt we may see these two women in heaven one day, but for them salvation also meant that the rest of their lives on earth were transformed.  

Those who have been traumatised by the Troubles can have a hope of peace and justice in the world to come, but how can we help them to see their lives transformed and made whole between now and then?  
In his chapter on ‘Preparing for Pilgrimage’, Hudson gives us some direction:  
•    Learning to be present, 
•    Learning to listen, and 
•    Learning to notice.  

We wonder how well we all (especially Priests and Pastors) have done these three things in our context. The general testimony of victims is that often we were present, sometimes we listened but not often enough did we notice and have the caring compassion to share the heavy burdens.  

Legacy institutions to be established by the two governments

We also need to plan and prepare for what now looks likely to be happening at societal level. How we deal with the past violence has been a contested issue and up to now there has been no consensus on what legacy structures should be put in place. Four attempts have been made: Ken Bloomfield (1998), the Eames-Bradley Report (2009), the Haass-O’Sullivan intervention (2013) and the Stormont House Agreement (2014).  
Following the NIO consultation conducted last year, it now looks like victims/survivors and their families will be offered a number of options by the two governments acting together. However, these structures may not be in place until 2022, which may be too late for some. Within this societal context, MCI along with other churches will have a role to play in dealing sensitively with the different views that victims have on dealing with the past and to be part of a healing process. Three options are being made available to individuals.

Option 1: The investigation route
For those victims who want justice for the harm done to them and want to see the person who planted the bomb, perhaps 40 years ago, to go to prison, then, unfortunately, the chances of that are very remote, even if the bomber is still alive. As discussed in the MCI submission on the NIO Legacy Consultation (see the CSR page on MCI website), there will be a limited opportunity to get an investigation report and then to pursue an historic prosecution. However, the length of a prison sentence will probably not be more than two years. 

Option 2: The truth recovery route
Other victims do not necessarily want to pursue prosecutions but do want to know the truth about the circumstances relating to the death of their loved one. This may go beyond the identity of a particular bomber or gunman and give the opportunity to a victim/survivor to ask pertinent questions about motives and who was ‘pulling the strings’ in the shadowy background. This will be possible under what is called the Information Recovery structure and could be a follow on from the investigation report.

Option 3: Self-healing and/or encounter
Still others want to draw a line on the past. Some may have already drawn that line a long time ago. This does not mean that for them truth and justice do not matter. If fresh evidence became available, they are likely to welcome a prosecution. They do not want guilty perpetrators to sleep well at night. In fact, they don’t think much about the perpetrators. Their focus is on their own healing and wellbeing and that of their children and grandchildren.  Many are people of faith and are content to leave truth and justice in the hands of the God who will one day judge the living and the dead.  

Finally, there will be some who have the courage and inner wisdom to seek a meeting with the former combatant – republican, loyalist or soldier – in the hope of obtaining answers to their many questions that they have carried around in their heart for many years. Through the grace of God, they may find forgiveness and reconciliation in those moments.

B.    Local church and community.  

In addressing the legacy of the past, we must start with the individual and the family who carries a deep pain, but we will not finish there. We will now ask a few questions about how the local church and community can help to develop further the process of healing and reconciliation. Communities can be defined in various ways that might include religious, cultural, political, ethnic and geographical dimensions. For our purposes here, we mean primarily the local community that is the hinterland of our Methodist society or circuit.
The present reality is that in many places community relations are in a poor state. Many might have imagined that more than 20 years after the Belfast Good Friday Agreement relationships between communities would be much better than they are. In several parts of Belfast the ‘peace walls’ are longer and higher than they have ever been in order for communities to feel safe.
Clearly communities are made up of individuals and families, so where they have suffered as a result of conflict so communities have suffered. Not every community has had the same experience.  Middle class suburbs have generally not had the same experience as working class areas on an interface. The story has been different North and South and rural areas on the border have had their own particular difficult experiences. Every community has been affected in some way but, once again, in some places the suffering is ‘clotted thick’. In some communities there has been an obvious cycle of violence with tit-for-tat murders carried out in acts of retaliation. It has often been noticed that the act of retaliation is carried out not by a family member of the first victim but by someone from their community who has presumed to take on this evil responsibility. It will have been hard to keep count of the number of times that a grieving widow or son has called for no retaliation, only for that call to go unheeded. Added to this, the cancerous growth of paramilitary organisations over the years in many communities, has been a terrible disease.  

In the past there have been key community leaders who have stood out from the crowd and given local communities positive leadership that has helped to ease tensions, heal old wounds and enable a community to reach out to others from another community. Sometimes in church communities this has been costly work. In times when ‘ecumenism’ was seen by some to be a dirty word – either for theological or cultural reasons – those who made such ventures had to swim against the tide. Sometimes the most valuable peace-building work was done not at a high political level but on the ground in communities and between communities.  

This year Conference is in Cork and we may not be aware collectively of how communities are still not able to talk about past political violence one hundred years ago. These days, we are hearing for the first time or being reminded of what happened to ‘big house’ Protestants in west Cork. We are having to face the terrible deeds that were done by insurgent republicans on the RIC and then the reprisals by the Black and Tans during the war of independence (1919-21) and subsequently in the Civil War when families became divided over whether they should give an oath to the King.  Perhaps, the silence that has reigned about these deeds can now be seen as a way for society and families to cope with the past but the failure to work through them may have allowed the virus of violence to surface again decades later.

What can we do in our local churches and communities to build a better future for ourselves and our grandchildren? Perhaps an honest attempt to answer some the following questions would be a place to start. 
•    Do we talk and listen to people in our own community in order to give them courage and permission to talk and listen to others from another community?  
•    Have we recognised our own sins and failures, and sought forgiveness?  Are we willing to offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us?  In our search for truth are we willing to tell the truth, even if it may reflect badly on us?  
•    Is healing the hurts of our broken communities and building reconciliation a priority in our mission?  Is the matter even on our church council agenda?  How often do we pray for healing and peace?  
•    Some years ago MCI produced a liturgy called, Healing the Hurts.  Can we reuse that, and/or develop other spiritual resources that will be a soothing balm to promote healing?  

C.    Political healing and forgiveness between Northern Ireland, Ireland and Britain. 

Finally, a few brief observations and comments from the bigger political point of view. Over the years the Methodist Church in Ireland has tried to play a constructive though critical role in relation to the big political questions.  We will not mention particular names, but all who read this will be able to bring to mind several Methodist people who have played an important and prophetic role in peacebuilding, the brokering of ceasefires, the decommissioning of weapons and dealing with the trauma of the Troubles. Whilst the big political questions we face at the moment are not the primary focus of this pastoral address, we affirm that it is part of the prophetic role of our church to speak truth to power, to be a voice for the victims and to help in the never ending work of peacebuilding, political forgiveness and inter-communal reconciliation. We just have to work harder to ensure that the political violence we have experienced through all those years never comes back again. 

Following Mr Wesley, we have always sought to be ‘the friend of all and the enemy of none.’ That phrase trips easily off the tongue, but in a fallen world full of sinful people, ourselves included, the task is not an easy one. In our search for truth and justice we are called to remember grace and mercy. In a secular world where forgiveness is superficially understood as a therapeutic tool, we are called to lives of radical repentance under the shadow of the cross.  

This work is difficult, be it dealing with the trauma of the past, the pain of the present or building hope for the future we do so by grace with the hope of being saved to the uttermost.  

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. 2 Cor 5 17-20  

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