COI Gazette – 13th November 2015

Irish Churches consider Christian witness in a ‘rights-based’ society

peakers’ Panel, from left: The Revd Anthony Peck, Baroness O’Loan, Gillian Kingston (Panel Moderator), Professor Neville Cox, Glenn Jordan and Sr Joan Roddy

Speakers’ Panel, from left: The Revd Anthony Peck, Baroness O’Loan, Gillian Kingston (Panel Moderator), Professor Neville Cox, Glenn Jordan and Sr Joan Roddy

Senior representatives of Christian denominations in Ireland gathered recently for the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, the formal meeting between the Roman Catholic Church’s Irish Episcopal Conference and the Irish Council of Churches.

The 22nd-23rd October meeting, which took place at the Mount St Anne’s retreat centre in Co. Laois, addressed the issue identified by its organisers of “a growing perception that an increasingly rights-based civil society is encroaching upon the world of faith and presenting new challenges for the missional work of the Churches”.

The speakers were Baroness O’Loan, former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and an active parliamentarian in the House of Lords; the Revd Anthony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation with a specialist academic interest in religious freedom; Professor Neville Cox, Associate Professor of Law and Director of Law School development in Trinity College Dublin; Glenn Jordan, Director of the Northern Ireland Law Centre; and Sr Joan Roddy, Outreach Worker with the Jesuit Refugee Service Ireland.




The relationship between the different world faiths has become a top priority issue not only for the faith communities themselves but also for secular authorities. Religion, as we know only too well in Ireland, can have close associations with community division, sectarianism and violence. This is not a good report. Nonetheless, things need not be so and we can certainly say that when religion results in such undesirable outcomes, it is not conveying the love that is at the heart of God.

Despite the fact that there is much interreligious tension in the world today, it also can be recorded that there is increasing interfaith collaboration and dialogue and a growing awareness of the need for true mutual respect among the adherents of the different faiths. This is the other side of the interfaith ‘coin’ and, in particular in this connection, the 2011 ecumenical report, Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct, has been most helpful in stimulating proper reflection on the topic. That report was in fact the subject of a recent symposium in Leeds, organized by Leeds Trinity University, under the leadership of Kirsteen Kim, Professor of Theology and World Christianity there (report, World News, page 8).

Because this is indeed a very difficult and at times quite controversial subject, Christian Witness in a Multi- Religious World gained immense weight by virtue of the fact that it was the result of collaboration between three important parties: the WCC’s own Programme on Interreligious Dialogue and Co-operation, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance. It started out by affirming that “mission belongs to the very being of the Church” and that proclaiming the Word of God and witnessing to the world are “essential for every Christian”, while also
pointing out that all of this must be done “according to Gospel principles, with full respect and love for all human beings”.

The issues of social cohesion, the ethics of evangelization and the call to conversion – all identified by Professor Kim at the Leeds symposium – do need further exploration in the current global context but, as global issues, they naturally impact different societies in different ways.

In considering the basis of Christian witness, Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World highlighted that, for Christians, it is “a privilege and joy to give an accounting for the hope that is within them and to do so with gentleness and respect”. This Christian witness, the report stated, “includes engaging in dialogue with people of different religions and cultures”, while also acknowledging that, in some places, living and proclaiming the Gospel is “difficult, hindered or even prohibited”, yet Christians were “commissioned by Christ to continue faithfully in solidarity with one another in their witness to him”. Engaging in “inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means” is a betrayal of the Gospel, the report stated, pointing out that “Christians affirm that while it is their responsibility to witness to Christ, conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit … They recognize that the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills in ways over which no human being has control.”

The Church is called to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ and the love of God to every human being. That is the Church’s ongoing mission and it undoubtedly requires saying things with which many people of other faiths will disagree, but Christian mission is never a licence to be disrespectful.


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