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w.scholes@irishnews.com

FAITH matters

THURSDAY MARCH 15 2012

Religious Affairs Correspondent: WILLIAM SCHOLES Tel: 028 9033 7544

■ DEFINING DECADE: Edward Carson, with James Craig to his left, signs the Ulster Covenant at Belfast City Hall in 1912 in protest against Home Rule. Right, the 1916 Proclamation of Independence

HE years between 1912 and 1922 saw events in Ireland that are deeply embedded in our memory. From the signing of the Ulster Covenant, the Proclamation of Independence, the Easter Rising and the civil war – all of these events have shaped this island and the psyche of all of us who live on it. As we enter a decade of commemoration the key question is how will we remember them? In a time when the consuming thoughts for most people are the effects of recession and the unfolding peace process in Northern Ireland, does it matter how or why we remember the events of a decade 100 years ago? More crucially, each part of our community will remember the decade of Irish history at the beginning of the 20th century in different ways. The events that deeply touch the memory and passions in one community will not be the same as for the other. So why is it worth looking at the events from 1912 to 1922? Some would say it is better to simply leave well alone. Is it the case that we can only take so much ‘truth’ in case fragile relationships begin to unravel? There are many compelling reasons for reflecting carefully on this decade. The events

Centenaries of decade that shaped us bring opportunities, not threats T
As we enter a decade of marking the centenaries of some of Irish history’s most significant milestones, how should 21st century Christians respond? Earl Storey outlines the Church of Ireland’s approach
that took place helped shape our subsequent life and relationships on this island. We are also too aware of the detrimental role that an uncritical appeal to history has played in our community. One of the most fundamental needs for any human being is to have a sense of identity. This comes from a knowledge of who one is, where one has come from, and how one is placed in the world. It is not only individuals who need a sense of identity. Communities have similar needs. Identity is something that is shaped not just by the present but also by the past. The ability to know who one is and where one is going will be greatly aided by some sense of the road that has already been travelled. This is why history is such a vital part of the life of any community. If only the study of history was as simple as isolating and collating bare facts. Yet, particularly in any situation of conflict, the way in which ‘facts’ are perceived and the values that are bestowed on them can make historical analysis a very subjective exercise. In examining history we remember that what guides people is not necessarily reality but our perception – how we see things. It is sometimes not so much a case of the objective retelling of objective historical ‘truths’ as interpreting events in a way that reinforces the story of a particular community. History provides for each community not just a record of events but also a series of metaphors to describe the past, present and future. The stories we tell about ourselves as well as ‘the other’ shape much more than our relationships. It shapes our psyche, self-belief and spirit of enterprise in creating a place for our neighbours and ourselves. Retelling the past is a way of describing the present. In truth, the way in which we visit the events of the past can do much to shape our future. In Ireland we are only too aware of this. The past can be “a convenient quarry which provides ammunition to use against enemies in the present”. The cause of peace is not served by ignoring history but rather by carefully reflecting on it. The words of George Santayana express a simple truth: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Finding such a process for reflection is the best way of coming to a more confident understanding of who we are. It also prevents those very few who would seek to use commemoration as a divisive tool. To assist in thinking through how these centenaries might be addressed historically, ethically and responsibly by 21st century Christians, a number of events are being planned by the Church of Ireland. The first of these is to be a conference focusing on the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant of 1912. The conference, entitled ‘Sober Reflections’, will look at the historical detail and context of the Covenant and also try to reflect theologically on how the Covenant might be addressed by the contemporary Christian conscience. The one-day event will take place on Saturday March 24, from 9.30am to 4.30pm, at Moira Parish Centre, Co Down. Professor Paul Bew (Lord Bew of Donegore) will give an overview of historical forces which gave rise to the Covenant and its significance to the political and social development of Ireland, north and south; Dr Andrew Scholes will examine the particular role and reaction of the Church of Ireland in the making and signing of the Covenant; Dr Andrew Pierce, director of the Irish School of Ecumenics (ISE), will consider theological methods of addressing a divisive historical event in a more ecumenical age; and Dr Johnston McMaster of the ISE and Ethical and Shared Remembering Project will share his recent work of theological reflection on the

What we are discovering is that peace is built by finding a way of disagreeing and dealing with difference of opinion that allows us to maintain the integrity of our position without diminishing the person with whom we disagree

Covenant and of how modern Christians might engage positively with it. The conference will be chaired by Prof David Hayton of QUB. In all probability there may not be a shared understanding of the crucial historical events that have shaped life on this island. What we are discovering is that peace is built by finding a way of disagreeing and dealing with difference of opinion that allows us to maintain the integrity of our position without diminishing the person with whom we disagree. Maintaining and showing respect does not mean avoiding the issue. We are easily tempted to the guiding principle of ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. A step beyond this is to give the appearance of saying something but in reality saying very little. Neither is helpful to thinking through important issues. Open and honest discussion is the way forward. This decade is not a threat but an opportunity – to create a new story for our neighbours and ourselves by the way we handle these vital moments in our history. ■ If you wish to attend Sober Reflections email press@ top storey.org or contact the Church of Ireland press office on 028 9082 8880.