Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern
John D. Brewer, Gareth I. Higgins and Francis
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
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).