A purpose beyond itself
“Although its popularity may have fallen off a little in recent years, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has the enormous advantage of being recognised as a time of prayer and re ection throughout the Christian West and beyond.” So says Bishop John McDowell.
The Rt Revd John McDowell, Bishop of Clogher and chairperson of the Church of Ireland Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, has been highlighting the forthcoming Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the resources which are available on its theme of victory over oppression.
Bishop McDowell continued: “In my own Diocese, I have found that the involvement of schools and young people can add a new vigour and perspective to our events while still making use of the material and ideas made available by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI).
How will 2018 be different from what has gone before? Political gridlock and the politics of hatred, however dressed up, do not have to be the norm as we search for reconciliation on this island. Over the years, leadership on all sides has failed to tell its own people truth about the way things really are. In that failure lie some of the seeds of our paralysis.
What is it that political leadership does not tell its own people? Ironically it is something known by almost everyone. It is no secret yet we pretend that we do not know it. The unspoken truth is different for each part of our community.
What did unionist leadership need to tell its own people? That political accommodation and a sharing of power would mean doing so, not just with political opponents, but with sworn enemies. What did leadership in the republican movement need to tell its own people? That after so many lost lives, even amongst its own people, the reality is that republicanism did not achieve what it tried to do by armed conflict.
Most people know and accept these realities yet they remain unspoken. All sides are tempted to act as though these things were not the case. The reason why these truths can’t be spoken is because they would pose a question in each of their respective communitities: “If that is the truth then what was all that about?” So, the pretence continues.
We are well used to political crises in Northern Ireland. But something peculiar is now happening. It is weariness, even exhaustion, amongst voters. It is more than just a sense that we have been here before, or that politics must be about more than perpetual crisis. Something has broken in people. People are worried for their livelihoods, the education of their children and health services. Perpetual political crisis with all the human consequences is no longer acceptable when there is so much else to deal with.
Increasingly people believe more is going on than the struggle to reach agreement over this or that, no matter how big or small the issue. They begin to feel that leadership on all sides has hamstrung itself, looking over their shoulders, boxed in because of the things left unspoken to their own people over years. More and more wonder if this lurks behind whatever the crisis of the moment happens to be.
They also sense that what flows from it is a logjam of decision making – decisions not just about issues that profoundly affect our everyday life, but also what sort of society we are choosing to become.
There is another truth that now needs to be spoken. It is that the only possible future for our community is not some sort of sullen hatred or endless competition between power blocks. The challenge is to find a way whereby people who have been sworn enemies and injured one another deeply can find a new way of living together. How we get there will not be easy – but let us at least be honest as to the desired destination.
It is brave political leadership that tells its own people how things really are. Yet that is the role of a leader. Leadership is not about those who lead; it is about the people who are being led and meeting their needs. It is about having a vision of the future that is good not only for your own people but also your neighbours.
The words of Ronald Heifetz still say it all. “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decisions, strength and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going … in short, someone who can make hard problems simple.” This places an impossible burden on leaders, whether self- inflicted or otherwise.
Heifetz identifies an alternative. “We should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways.” That is leadership, and the urgency of where we have arrived at suggests it is needed now.
Those who lead us must decide what sort of leaders they will be. Those of us who are led must decide what sort of leadership we honestly want – those who tell us what we want to hear or those who tell us what we need to hear.
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