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On rock or sand?

17 August 2012

Nicholas Frayling on church peacebuilders

Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland
John D. Brewer, Gareth I. Higgins and Francis Teeney
OUP £60
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT241 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

TO READ this book has been, if not exactly a Lenten penance, then certainly an intellectual and spiritual exercise of equal rigour, but, at the end, with a sense that it was worth it. This study by three academic sociologists of the part played by the Churches in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and since, is not for the faint-hearted; and a cover price of £60, with no sign of a paperback edi-tion, is scarcely an encouragement.

That said, John Brewer and his co-authors, Gareth Higgins and Francis Teeney, have collected data and conducted interviews over four years with people at all levels of Church and society in Northern Ireland. The result is an important research study of the strengths and limitations of church-based peacebuilding. Their analysis does not make comfortable reading for the "institutional Churches".

The authors point to significant social and political achievements - indeed, the Churches were often ahead of innately cautious politicians - but these were largely due to what they describe as "backchannels" on the part of "independents and mavericks", clergy and lay.

Interesting light is thrown on some of the "bridge-building" that was going on, in spite of perceived sectarian attitudes within the Churches, conceived as com­munities of the like-minded. The dilemmas faced by church leaders are acknowledged: able to offer prophetic leadership, but only one step ahead of their members.

Harsh judgements are recorded on institutions that were more concerned with conflict trans-forma­tion than societal trans­formation, which Northern Ireland desperately needed, and still needs: peace processes, we are reminded, "do not end with political concordats . . .".

The authors identify the failure of the Churches to see the theology of reconciliation as "normative", instead regarding such work as secondary to pastoral care of "the tribe". The veteran peace cam­paigner John Dunlop acknowledges the validity of the criticism, but expresses the hope that "Out of the churches ought to come some prophetic people who would be supported by the rest of the church, or not undermined by them."

It is impossible to do justice to this densely argued book in a short review, but, beneath the distracting sociological jargon ("sedimentary layers of the church - civil society - state matrix" and the like), it is a challenging and important study.

Those who believe in, or yearn for, reconcil­iation at the heart of the Church's life should beat a path to the library: it will be worth the effort.

The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling is the Dean of Chichester and the author of Pardon and Peace: A reflection on the making of peace in Ireland (SPCK, 1996).

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