Mapping the future of Irish Christianity. Sean O Conaill
Can there be a renewal of any of the older Christian churches in Ireland if
the challenge of ecumenism is not made central to everyone’s programme?
This is the key question raised for me by ‘Churches in Exile’ – a striking
survey of the confused religious no-man’s-land that is early 21st century
The author, Cathy Higgins, is on the staff of the Irish School of Ecumenics
(ISE) based in Trinity College, Dublin. Her book provokes many other major
questions, and is a very timely offering to any inter-church forum looking
for both a starting gun and a programme for discussion.
To begin with – and maybe also to end with – we need to sort out our
preferred nomenclature for our own troubled era. Are we all content to
think of ourselves as living ‘post-Christendom’? What about ‘post-modern’?
Would anyone bid for ‘post-evangelical’ or even ‘post-creedal’?
Higgins’s title ‘Churches in Exile’ is a pitch for at least a starting
point. We are all, she argues, in exile from whatever Christian comfort
zone we once occupied. We have been taken there by the many varieties of
secularism, by sterile ‘culture wars’, by clericalism and clerical scandals,
by the collapse of ‘modernist’ optimism and (one could add) by the failure
of our separate formation systems to endow more than a small minority of our
young people with Pentecostal fire.
It was in exile, Cathy argues, that Judaism produced its greatest poetry and
most welcoming theology – so today’s Christians should find exile from
Christendom and privilege a somewhat familiar and far from God-forsaken
Not all will want to go along with this. Current congregations may well be
composed mainly of those who want to hope that their own church leaders have
everything in hand and that ‘what worked’ in the past is essential to the
future It is probably only a small minority of NI Christians who have
availed of the ISE’s inter-church programmes – e.g. for exploring the
origins of Irish sectarianism – and who will grapple gladly with this book.
They will benefit, however, by so doing. Early chapters argue persuasively
that the historical associations of all the mainstream churches with
political power and social privilege have served them badly, have
underpinned sectarianism and European conflict, and have left those churches
seriously disadvantaged in relation to contemporary culture. The
church-state union dating from Constantine in the 4th century may well lie
at the root of all the major inter-Christian fracturings as well as our
current crisis, and civil humility must surely be a key requirement for any
Does it necessarily follow, however, that the Creeds that are shared by
Catholicism, Anglicanism and Lutheranism – finalised in the early
Christendom era – are necessarily triumphalist and divisive? It’s true, as
Higgins argues, that they omit central teachings of Jesus, such as the
prohibition of violence, but do they in themselves constitute a barrier to
an ’emergent’ ecumenical communitarian Christianity? Only, surely, if they
deny that loving rather than knowing is the primary commandment, and I can’t
see that they do that. However, this too surely can be discussed in a
relaxed way, without capitulation to what Pope Benedict rhetorically called
‘the dictatorship of relativism’.
(I must say again here, however, in defence of the Pope Emeritus that I
cannot see how anyone can argue that we humans have ‘inalienable’ rights if
they must also insist that there can be no fixed truth, no ‘rock’ to stand
on. Isn’t that too an ‘absolutist’ position?)
Cathy’s chapter on the ‘Peace Churches’ – for example the Quakers and
Mennonites who descend from the Anabaptist tradition – helps to support her
thesis that a revitalised western Christianity need not depend upon an
elaborate agreed theology, and that such theologies were often far too
tolerant of the deep blemishes of Christendom – especially the toleration of
state violence. It is a huge mistake for Catholics to label these churches
as simply ‘Protestant’ when the fact is that they suffered persecution for
being essentially different and non-violent and have made a huge
contribution to the cause of a reconciled and peaceful western church.
Other chapters on early Irish monasticism and on differing models of
Christianity in the earliest church are a very helpful introduction to the
variety of past models of church. It is surely a mistake to believe that
there was only one form of early ‘church’ – a decisive argument for
tolerating and even celebrating diversity today.
A chapter on feminist perspectives on Christian ‘patriarchy’ and on the
structures necessary for a truly egalitarian Christianity is equally
welcome. The book finishes with useful explanations of terms such as
‘post-modernism’ and with vignettes of the varieties of ’emerging church’
that have rebelled against fundamentalism and endless fragmentation.
Here Catholics can perhaps add to Cathy’s survey an account of the
Franciscan Richard Rohr’s ‘take’ on where the ’emerging church’ could go,
especially the case he makes for a recovery of the western mystical
‘non-dualistic’ tradition. All could also surely study with profit René
Girard’s rediscovery of Biblical covetousness as mimetic desire – linking
the dominant malady of contemporary culture with biblical wisdom. I do not
personally see how we can become effectively ‘counter-cultural’, or
understand the complex relationship of religion and violence, without
mastering that insight.
As to nomenclature I am thoroughly fed up with the intellectual fad for
labelling everything ‘post-‘ something or other. Our naming of the
difficult present should surely point to the future rather than the past.
We Christians always were, and probably always will be, in a
pre-kingdom-of-God state of being.
However, the search for that kingdom will certainly fail dismally, and will
not even have God’s blessing, if we do not make it together. This book has
convinced me of that and made me eager to discuss it with all my Christian
‘Churches in Exile: Alternative Models of Church for Ireland in the 21st
Century’, by Cathy Higgins, The Columba Press 2013