The only way toward unity when we are fragmented is love. When we love one another grace breaks out in fresh and exciting ways. I’m from the USA and for the whole of my publicly-conscious life I’ve never been able to comprehend why the Irish can’t get along. For a refresher, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales), and the Republic of Ireland is an independent country and not part of England. I listened in on Bobby Sands and I watched news stories about pipe bombs and I listened to the heated rhetoric of Ian Paisley. I could not wrap my mind around how intelligent Christians could spend centuries setting death traps for one another. Northern Ireland is Protestant and the Republic of Ireland is Catholic. Some in Northern Ireland want to be part of England (loyalists) and some want to be part of the Republic, and some in the Republic want to re-acquire Northern Ireland for the Republic (nationalists).
A few years back Kris and I were in the Republic and our friend, Patrick Mitchel, took us to their equivalent of a Civil War site. We visited a national museum dedicated to the Battle of the Boyne (1690). William of Orange won, the Protestants therefore had a genuine foothold in the north, the Catholics took the south, and for more than three hundred years that battle remains a festering wound. I do my best to comprehend it. During a film we were watching in the museum at the Battle’s site I noticed Patrick wiping tears from his eyes. Patrick grew up in Northern Ireland (Ulster), in Belfast, but now teaches theology at Irish Bible Institute in the Republic, in the heart of Dublin. What Patrick knows is that the gospel wants to bring God’s People into one Body. What Patrick knows is that the pain of the Battle of Boyne can be felt some three centuries later.
Enter Paul’s idea that love is the only way forward.
Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds, a Protestant pastor and a Catholic priest, are both from Northern Ireland.[i] “Gerry is as unembarrassed about being an Irish Nationalist as Ken is about being an Ulster Unionist.” Both know that love is central to making any progress in Ireland, and both know that love is central if Christians are going to map a path toward reconciliation, and both know that grace breaks out when love is central. Once Ken, while teaching the Bible as a missionary professor, met Noel Carroll, a Catholic from Dundalk. Ken tells of their progress in these words:
Slowly… I began to discover that in Christ we were not opponents, enemies, opposites, but rather brothers of the same master, children of the same heavenly father.
These next words, don’t take lightly:
In that discovery, for both Noel and myself, thirty years of conditioning to suspicion, distrust, keeping-your-distance, were removed…. the basis of our friendship was Jesus.
A theme for creating unity, for making the invisible Irish visible, is that “we cannot be right with God if we are wrong with our neighbours.” So they began to plot ways for grace to take root, and one way to hold unifying worship services. For one such service, Ken wrote a charge for the liturgy:
We are people one by the love of Christ our Saviour and Lord.
We have been changed as people by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is the pride that desires to dominate; gone is the anger that wants to undermine.
By his Holy Spirit we want to listen to each other’s hurts and fears and build together a community fit for us all to live in, furnished with the generosity, justice and compassion of Jesus Christ.
Once when attending a charismatic ecumenical meeting in Belfast, Ken saw an artistic tapestry of two people – one in green (Republic) and one in orange (Northern Ireland) – embracing. The embrace didn’t blend green into orange, or orange into green, or some ugly mixture. It was, Ken saw, a sign of what could happen. So he asked the 700 people there to find someone from the “other community” and embrace them. That public event of Catholics and Protestants embracing, green and orange in one another’s arms, led to the single-most effective initiative for unity in Ireland – the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, two churches, two pastors (Ken and Gerry), one Catholic and one Protestant, gathering for prayer, for worship, for listening to God’s Word and for fellowship.
In about 1986 a Margaret Thatcher-led discussion led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but the loyalists of Northern Ireland, often called Ulster, protested too much compromise. Signs were everywhere: “Ulster Says No!” Gerry was teaching a class at St. Gall’s monastery school when he asked his eleven-year-olds what they would like him to say to the Protestants. “When all the others had their say,” he reports, “one boy spoke up with great insight: ‘Ask them to say yes to us’.” Gerry’s mission in life was “to encourage people of both traditions to say ‘yes’ to each other.” Saying Yes to one’s neighbor makes them visible and unlocks the dam for grace flow.
How can this happen? Perhaps the wisest approach I’ve seen can be found in words of Ken: “How do you destroy an iceberg [between the two groups]? If you ram it, as in a ship, it will sink you. But if you gently nudge it towards warmer waters, it will eventually melt.” What is that warmer water? Love. Gerry says it: “Our guiding principle in these simple [unity pilgrim] visits has been the command of Jesus, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’.”
[i] Ronald A Wells, Friendship Toward Peace: The Journey of Ken Newell and Gerry Reynolds (Dublin: Blackrock, 2005), 25, 26-27, 113, 128, 141.