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Faith Matters

Religious Affairs Correspondent: William Scholes tel: 028 9033 7544 email:

After becoming embroiled in the Drumcree dispute, the Church of Ireland embarked on a journey of self-examination which will mean it faces some tough decisions, writes William Scholes

Church of Ireland faces some tough questions

What’s the point?


ARL STOREY has possibly the toughest job in the Church of Ireland today. You might think that distinction falls on the shoulders of someone like Alan Harper, preparing to address the General Synod for the first time as Archbishop of Armagh on May 8, as devolution kicks back into life. Or that Canon Alan Abernethy, the newly-appointed Bishop of Connor, has the most difficult job as he faces the daunting move from parish ministry to headship of the Church’s largest diocese. But where they are working in well-established structures, Reverend Storey, pictured, is entering uncharted territory thanks to a very specific remit which amounts to a root-andbranch review of how the Church of Ireland relates not only to its members but to the wider community. The Derry-based cleric heads the Hard Gospel Project, which is examining difficult issues like sectarianism and reconciliation but is also trying to get to the heart of whether the way the Church goes about its ministry is relevant and effective in the 21st century. It all amounts to a big task in an institution as traditional as the Church of Ireland. Reverend Storey says the role is that of a critical friend, asking “the tough questions”. “The Hard Gospel is coming from the position of being committed to the welfare of the Church and its future. You don’t do anyone a service by saying everything is grand. I think there has been too much of that before,” he says. The name the Hard Gospel comes from a quotation by a retired Church of Ireland rector made during research on attitudes towards sectarianism and division within the Church. “He commented that he wanted to see a return to the ‘hard’ Gospel - a return to loving God and loving your neighbour,”

explains Rev Storey. He says the project’s remit is “to hold up a mirror to the Church but also to our wider community both north and south”. “We are asking the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland what we discover about ourselves as a Church, for example, in terms of the Troubles and sectarian division,” he says. “Or in the southern context, what the Celtic Tiger – which has brought huge changes and immigration, and made the Republic vastly different economically, socially and religiously – means for us as a Church. “In the middle of all this change, what do we find out about ourselves as a Church of Ireland in terms of the wider community? Not just in a vague kind of way but specifically about what it means to love God and your neighbour.” The roots of the Hard Gospel lie in the Drumcree dispute. “It was a huge issue for our wider community but especially the Church of Ireland,” he says. “Whatever way you spin it, it was a parade to and from a Church of Ireland church. “The church at Drumcree was in every conceivable photograph. The name was in every headline. It was even called the Drumcree issue. Ultimately, it forced the Church of Ireland to address the issues that lay behind that.” There were big differences in attitude towards the Drumcree dispute between the Church’s southern minority and its northern membership. “In the Republic many people just didn’t understand the issue,” recalls Rev Storey. “I think in all honesty that when you are very far removed physically and socially from an issue like that it is easy to comment – it is easy to suggest what the way of the Cross is when you are living 200 miles away. “Drumcree was Northern Ireland in microcosm. That’s what made it so difficult and emotive. It just brought to the fore what

everyone knew – that we live in a profoundly divided community. “The Church of Ireland found itself looking at the situation and asking, what do we as a Church do? How do we as a Church do something that is going to build peace and reconciliation in our community.” The Church commissioned a study, the biggest of its sort conducted in Ireland, to look at the issues facing it. It was published in 2003. “It came up with two things – belief within the membership that sectarianism is incompatible with Christian faith and that as a Church we wanted to do something about it,” says Rev Storey. “The brief of the Hard Gospel Project was to put that into action. This country is coming down with reports. To research and write a report is actually the easy part – it can be an excuse for not taking action – but the Church of Ireland decided it was actually going to do something.” Rev Storey was appointed as Hard Gospel director in September 2005 and works with two project officers, based on either side of the border. The Church is committed to funding the project for another two years. The Hard Gospel Project’s work has been endorsed by Archbishop Harper and his predecessor Dr Robin Eames. Rev Storey says this demonstrates that “the Church is saying these issues are central to what it means to be a Christian”. He says he is aware that ‘central’ Church schemes and projects like the Hard Gospel can become just one more thing to send an overloaded minister over the edge. “I think that hits the nail on the

head. If an organisation is functioning as it is meant to then you can add on another issue to churches or clergy,” he says. “But if a Church is creaking at the seams – and I’ve heard people at all levels say ‘church’ isn’t working the way we are doing it – then the Church needs to look at that.” This gets to the heart of the issue which Rev Storey says the Church needs to face – its culture. “As an institution there has been a culture that has sometimes paralysed it – steady as she goes, don’t rock the boat,” he explains. “It permeates all of the Church at every level. “The other culture is that of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’. That’s why we end up with nice sounding words that you can’t argue with but when you boil them down are saying nothing. “We’ve crafted the art of using words to say nothing. That happens politically but the Church has been just as guilty of it. In a situation of division more is needed.” This leads on to whether the Church’s central task is talking about Jesus or keeping the ship afloat. “The passion has got to be for the Gospel and the identity of the Church has got to be the person of Jesus Christ,” argues Rev Storey. “The most fundamental identity of the Church is not its denomination. There is a temptation for that to what really puts fire in our bellies. “I’m passionate about lots of things but my deepest passion is Jesus Christ but if our deepest passion is keeping the thing going it will manifest itself at every level. “In a sense there is nothing wrong with loving your denomination as long as you don’t love it more than Jesus Christ. “It then determines how you decide what is right and what is wrong, what action you take or don’t take, what you think is appropriate or not. “Where the rubber hits the road it is when you hit an issue and your benchmark as to what is right or wrong is decided by your passion. What would Jesus do, as opposed to what would be good for my denomination or tradition?”

■ TOURIST TRAIL: A tourist on a Belfast tour bus takes a picture of the new ‘needle in the cathedral’ at St Anne’s PICTURE: Brendan Murphy