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Chapter II. Witnessing to the Kingdom: Three Narratives from Different Contexts
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Chapter II

Witnessing to the Kingdom:
Three Narratives from Different Contexts

66. In exploring the biblical testimony to the kingdom of God, and the insights and comments of writers from Christian history on this theme, it is clear that Reformed and Catholics can say a great deal together. These biblical materials and insights gleaned over the centuries are important resources for Christians who are trying to live the values of the kingdom in the complex world of today.

 67. Clearly the search for unity is more than an intellectual effort. Progress in dialogue must be accompanied by a deepening communion in the life of the churches, for “it is from newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires for unity take their rise and develop in a mature way.”34 And sometimes a growing solidarity among Christians provides a vigorous spur to seek further progress in theological dialogue.

68. In this spirit we turn now to three narratives that are integral to this report. Different from the systematic reflection characteristic of chapter I, which will also characterize later chapters, the narratives that now follow are timely reminders that the faithful hearers of Christ’s proclamation of the kingdom (cf. Mark 1:14-15) bring their convictions about the kingdom of peace and justice into a labyrinth of human complexity – the myriad mixture of historical, social, cultural, political and religious factors found in every society. Each narrative describes the various and often courageous ways in which members of our Christian communities have tried to live the values of the kingdom. Even in complex conditions involving terrible conflict, facing danger and fear of violent reprisal or death itself, they sought to bring the values of the Gospel to their situation.

69. An important development in each case is that, while Reformed and Catholics began with their separate ways of confronting the major issue at hand, eventually they came to face the issues together. In doing so, they discovered a new resource for confronting the forces of the anti-kingdom, namely, the power of giving common witness to the values of the kingdom of God. By so doing, they experienced the importance of the call to be visibly one in Christ for the sake of the healing of the nations.

1. Advocating Aboriginal Rights in Canada35

70. In Canada, the challenges of witnessing to the values of the kingdom of God have included steps taken by churches to advocate the rights of aboriginal peoples. Canada is a vast land with a northern climate. Settlement stretches along the southern border leaving large parts of the interior and the north sparsely populated. Canadian society is multilingual and multicultural, a remarkable mosaic of people from diverse ethnic origins. However, reflecting its historical development, the country is constitutionally bilingual with English and French as the two officially recognized languages. According to government statistics, 76.6% of the population identifies itself as Christian. While more than thirty Christian churches are represented in Canada, eight (Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Presbyterian, Pentecostal) account for 89.2% of these. More than half (56.3%) of the Christian population are members of the Catholic Church and francophones constitute about half of this number.36

71. Over the past thirty years Christians in Canada have increasingly sought ecumenical partners for research and advocacy in issues of social justice. As a result of this collaboration various social and religious concerns have been located in numerous coalitions. Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United Churches have participated in most of these coalitions. Other churches, such as the Mennonites, the Religious Society of Friends and the Salvation Army, participated according to specific interests. Since July 2001, the work of these inter-church coalitions has been coordinated by a single agency named “Kairos: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.”37

72. The social justice coalitions have provided a vital means of practical cooperation, serving as agents of the churches’ mission to proclaim God’s kingdom in the Canadian context. Through the work of these coalitions, churches in Canada are more readily seen as signs and instruments of the liberating will of God. In particular, this narrative will now focus on the formation and mandate of the Aboriginal Rights Coalition, a coalition that reflects the experience of Christian mission to the country’s Indigenous population.38 This seems a particularly appropriate way to explore the development of their appreciation and implementation of the values of the kingdom of God as well as newer understandings of the church’s role as herald and servant of that kingdom in the Canadian context. In the various responses of this coalition, the impact of koinonia ecclesiology is clearly evident, as well as the use of structural analysis and the concepts of social sin.

73. An educational resource booklet published by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition in 1995 lists a history of key contacts between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the country now called Canada.39 The text notes that prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the country was inhabited by numerous Indigenous nations with their many different languages, cultures and spiritual traditions. In July 1534, Jacques Cartier’s contact with the Iroquois Confederacy at Gaspe included a presentation of Christian teaching. After a gap of more than seventy years, Jesse Fleche began missionary work among the Mi’kmaq in 1610. Early relationships between European settlers and the Aboriginal populations were characterised by commercial arrangements, inter-marriage, and military alliances. This relationship was formalised in treaties between various European monarchs and Indigenous nations which recognized each other’s independence and sovereignty. The Two Row Wampum Treaty of 1613, between the Iroquois and the Dutch, expresses this understanding of two nations on parallel paths: “neither going ahead nor cutting off the other”.

74. A period of colonization and treaty-making began with the British Royal Proclamation of 1763 which declared: “Aboriginal nations had rights to the lands they traditionally occupied; they should not be molested or disturbed on their lands without formal treaties being negotiated; only the Crown would have authority to enter into such agreements on behalf of the settlers.” In 1867, the British North American Act gave exclusive jurisdiction over “Indians and lands reserved for Indians” to the federal government of the newly formed Canada. From 1871 to 1921, a series of numbered treaties (#1-#11) negotiated land surrender of First Nations from Western Ontario through Alberta and the Northwest Territories. From the mid-1800s to the early 1970s, Residential Schools were established by the federal government and operated by four major Christian denominations. These schools contributed to the government agenda of assimilation, identified as official policy in its White Paper of 1969. Churches and Aboriginal peoples organized strongly against this agenda and prevented its codification into statute law. By the time the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its six-volume report in November 1996, there was a recognition that: “Assimilation policies have done great damage, leaving a legacy of brokenness affecting Aboriginal individuals, families and communities.”40 In effect, the goal of assimilating Natives into Canadian society meant the eradication of Aboriginal languages, cultures and spiritualities.

75. Believing in the fundamental unity of the human race and the universality of God’s offer of salvation, missionaries might have been expected to hold a noble view of the spiritual potential of Aboriginal people.41 Yet this theological conviction did not translate into a positive assessment of the actual spiritual state of those they encountered. Aboriginal practices which were seen as either irreligious or idolatrous were to be replaced by commitment to Christ.42 Moreover, as they attempted to achieve their desired goal, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries were themselves engaged in a conflict that went much deeper than mere denominational competition, for each party was convinced that the other was leading the Indians to perdition. In an atmosphere of mutual hostility, missionaries communicated their suspicions of Protestant heresy or Catholic superstition to Aboriginal converts.43

76. As noted before (chapter I, para. 30) the kingdom of God is both gift and task. The task “consists in the effort to live according to all the ethical instructions of the New Testament, from the sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7, Luke 6) to the exhortations of the letters (e.g. Rom 12-15)”. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, churches were recognizing the need for radical change in the historical relationship with Aboriginal peoples, many of whom were church members. Based on the kind of solidarity evident in Anglican and Roman Catholic responses to the federal government’s 1969 White Paper on Indian Policy, this new relationship would include political action on social, economic, environmental and cultural issues. The new church focus acquired added urgency as various corporations joined with governments to develop energy projects and Aboriginal people were again left out of the decision-making process.

77. The Inter-Church Project on Northern Development, or Project North, was launched by the Anglican, Roman Catholic and United Churches on September 1, 1975.44 The Lutheran Church in America – Canada Section, the Mennonite Central Committee and the Presbyterian Church in Canada joined in 1976. The Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and two Catholic religious communities, the Jesuits and the Oblates, became partners in subsequent years. A programme of research, communication and education was offered to assist the churches in supporting the activities of northern native peoples in their struggles for justice and the settlement of their land claims; and in challenging the peoples in southern Canada to become involved in creative action on ethical issues of northern development.

78. In March 1987, the sponsoring churches and church bodies agreed to suspend Project North’s operation for a year of review and restructuring. After an extensive process of consultation and evaluation, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) was launched in December 1988. Based on a decentralized model, ARC describes itself as “a coalition of Churches and Church bodies working in partnership and alliance with both Aboriginal (political) organizations and regional network groups”.45 With an emphasis on consultation, participation and networking, ARC notes its evolution “from an inter-church group to a coalition of three partner groups who make decisions and carry out the work together: churches, network groups doing the work on the ground across the country, and Aboriginal partners”.46

79. Through its programme of public education and action, ARC works to support Aboriginal peoples in some vitally important areas, namely: achieving just settlement of land rights issues; enhancing economic and political development; entrenching historic rights in the Canadian constitution; reversing the erosion of basic social rights of the Aboriginal peoples and communities; seeking reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and all strands of Canadian society; clarifying the moral and spiritual basis for action on Aboriginal justice concerns; and opposing industrial or military projects that threaten specific Aboriginal communities and the environment.

80. While ARC has an impressive history of action on behalf of Aboriginal justice issues and a clear commitment to achieving a more honourable relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples of Canada, the coalition continues to face serious challenges. Aboriginal organizations, often with the help of professional advisors, have assumed many of the roles once exercised by the churches. Yet, concern for aboriginal justice is the oldest human rights issue in Canada and ARC must find ways of broadening its base of solidarity beyond a small core of activists. Two specific challenges have come into focus so far: 1) to identify the structural links between Aboriginal communities and other sectors of Canadian society; 2) to explore the theological and spiritual dimensions of commitment to Aboriginal justice issues. Unless these challenges are met, it will be impossible to create what the Canadian churches refer to as a just relationship with the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

81. From expressions of mutual hostility in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the churches moved to ecumenical cooperation. Their common effort to create a new covenant with the Aboriginal peoples of Canada reflects a commitment to koinonia, a recognition of restored relationships as integral to the coming of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is invoked as a type of mirror of the transformation that God will work within human hearts: a new covenant, a new people who will live the covenant as God has intended from the beginning. In this context, it seems evident that the notion of the kingdom as an ideal society, characterized by equality, justice and freedom, has been accepted. For those involved in these coalitions, the kingdom of God is seen as a call toward world-transforming actions.

2. Facing Apartheid in South Africa47

82. The struggle to live, in South Africa, in light of the kingdom of God has involved in a particular way the struggle against apartheid. A potent mix of philosophical, cultural, social, legal and economic factors contributed to what became known as apartheid.48 While the history of racial tension, discrimination and segregation reaches back to the beginning of Dutch colonization of Southern Africa, there is no denying that Christian missionary efforts also formed an integral part of this story.49

83. For more than a century, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) played a decisive role in attempting to provide theological legitimation of apartheid in South Africa. In 1855 white worshippers in a rural Dutch Reformed congregation refused to share the Lord’s Supper with black Christians. The Synod held in 1857 decided that it was “preferable and scriptural” that all believers shared the same worship and the same congregation. However, where these measures, “as a result of the weakness of some,” obstructed the Christian cause, Christian privileges could be enjoyed in separate buildings and even separate institutions. As history has shown, the weakness of some became the norm for many.

84. In 1881 a separate church, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), was established for coloured Christians, and during the course of the twentieth century several others would follow, all divided according to race or ethnicity. Although these churches were regarded as daughters of the DRC, there was no structural or visible unity between them. In fact, members of the (white) DRC gradually came to believe that having separate churches for each nation was the norm according to Scripture and thus the explicit will of God.50 This church policy would later form the religious roots of the apartheid ideology, and since 1948 the official policy of apartheid. The DRC increasingly appealed to the government to introduce apartheid laws.51

85. As mentioned above (chapter I, para. 30) the Bible never speaks of our building the kingdom of God. Rather, Christians are called to humbler tasks, such as “removing obstacles to the coming of God’s kingdom, e.g. situations of injustice”, preparing people for the kingdom “by religious and moral instructions and prayer. In these ways we hasten its coming (2 Peter 3:12).” In the decades after 1948 there was growing opposition to the apartheid ideology within church circles, both inside South Africa and in the wider ecumenical movement.52 The opposition to apartheid within the Dutch Reformed Church family reached a critical moment in 1982, and once more it involved the Eucharist. At the Ottawa meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, ten black Christians from the so-called “daughter churches” in the DRC-family refused to participate in the celebration of the official Eucharist. The reason was simple. It would be false to do so in an ecumenical context, while they were excluded from the Lord’s Table in the DRC in South Africa. After a long debate the WARC General Council recognized that apartheid theology in South Africa represented a crisis for the Christian tradition itself. The most profound problem was seen to lie in the convictions and theological views legitimating apartheid praxis yet contradicting the very essence of the gospel of Christ.

86. The WARC General Council found that apartheid was a sin for three reasons: it was based on an anti-Christian premise that human beings are irreconcilable with one another; it was applied through racial structures that provided exclusive privileges to Whites at the expense of Blacks; and it created oppressive injustice and suffering for the majority of people in South Africa. So the Council declared: “this situation constitutes a status confessionis for our churches, which means we regard this as an issue on which it is not possible to differ without seriously jeopardizing the integrity of our common confession as Reformed churches. Apartheid is a sin, and the moral and theological justification of it is a travesty of the gospel and, in its persistent disobedience to the Word of God, a theological heresy.”53 As a consequence, the General Council felt obliged to suspend the membership in WARC of two churches, one of them the Dutch Reformed Church - a decision which went beyond the legal provisions of the WARC constitution.

87. On receiving the report from the Ottawa conference, the DRMC Synod also declared a status confessionis regarding the theological legitimation of apartheid. An historic moment had arrived. After decades of theological controversy and debate, the Synod needed to state clearly why it now claimed that the truth of the gospel itself was at stake. This gave birth to the Belhar Confession, an authentic expression of Reformed Christian conviction regarding the unity of the church, the reconciliation of peoples with God and with one another, justice and peace, and obedience to the Word of God. The DRMC members accepted the draft confession with enthusiasm. Over a period of four years church congregations studied the document and reported in writing on whether they found the draft acceptable as their confession of faith. Only after this process of reception did the Synod of 1986 officially accept the Belhar Confession as a confession of the DRMC.

88. Now a new phase began. As a Reformed Church, the DRMC could only claim that it had truly received the Belhar Confession once it was clear to everyone that the content of this confession had really made an impact on their spirituality and on their lives. The reception process brought about a renewed sense of identity and, in fact, gave rise to a new sense of calling to the DRMC. In 1986 the Synod decided to conduct dialogues with other members of the DRC-family on the basis of the Belhar Confession. During the very first meeting between representatives of the DRMC and delegates of the (Black, African) Dutch Reformed Church in Africa, the DRCA delegates immediately expressed their desire to accept Belhar as their own Confession. In other words, the Belhar Confession provided the basis for church union between the DRCA and the DRMC. On April 14, 1994, the Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa was born.54

89. As opposition to apartheid became increasingly militant in the 1980s, Black consciousness and Black theology continued to resonate with many Christians in South Africa. Under the leadership of Steve Biko, until his death while in the custody of the security police in 1977, the Black Consciousness Movement developed a theological analysis of the class oppression and struggle for liberation in the midst of apartheid. Redefining the term black as a class location rather than a racial classification, Black theologians struggled for liberation from the slave mentality that had been inculcated by apartheid. Not surprisingly, anti-apartheid theologians increasingly drew on the resources of Latin American liberation theology for a critique of the institutionalised violence of oppression. In the midst of the popular uprising and state repression of 1985, an ecumenical group of theologians produced the Kairos Document as a critical reflection on the relation between Christianity and violence in the South African situation. This document identified three types of theology: state, church and prophetic. While a state theology had been developed to sanctify the current regime, a church theology tacitly supported the regime by professing personal piety, neutrality and non-violence. The Kairos of South Africa, however, required a prophetic theology that directly challenged the unjust state and neutral position of official church policy. In arguing that the heresy, sinfulness and moral illegitimacy of apartheid required Christians to confront and disobey the state in order to obey God, the Kairos theologians contributed greatly to such a prophetic stance.55 Clearly, on all fronts, internationally and locally, as well as intellectually and spiritually, the Reformed Church family strove to ensure that apartheid’s “ungodly and revolting position would be destroyed”.56 In ways such as these, Reformed Christians worked to remove obstacles to the coming of God’s kingdom.

90. The Catholic Church, too, struggled against apartheid, working to root out this major obstacle to the coming of the kingdom of God. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Catholic ecclesiology often identified the church and the kingdom of God. As a result of this type of identification, church practice in South Africa worked towards establishing an alternative society within which Catholics could live their lives. For this reason schools, hospitals and other services were provided, especially within the White Settler Community, thus allowing Catholics the opportunity of finding the social services they required within a Catholic world.57 This tendency to create an alternative society was strongly reinforced by the prevalence of severe anti-Catholic attitudes and by the sense of threat and alienation experienced by Catholics in South African society, where the so-called Roman Danger was a stated problem for the Calvinist ethos of the governing Nationalist Party. For example, the minutes of the 1957 meeting of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) indicate that “the government was already determined that the Catholic Church should not rise above five percent of the population”.58 A similar goal and purpose of creating an alternative society was found in the Catholic Mission Church,59 but lack of resources meant that not all areas of life could be regulated by the church, and so education became the main focus and instrument of its missionary activity. By 1953 the Catholic Church administered 15% of all black schools, by far the most visible Catholic presence in society.

91. After Vatican II, the emerging ecclesiology emphasised more clearly the distinction between the church and the kingdom of God. By 1980 a new phase of Catholic involvement in South African society was emerging. The notions of God’s Plan for Society and The Church’s Plan to do God’s Will became the prevailing theological keys used by the South African hierarchy in their official discourse. In 1989, after ten years of consultation and planning, the bishops adopted for the church in South Africa the pastoral plan entitled Community Serving Humanity.

92. Two main reasons led to the pastoral plan. Firstly, Vatican II had evoked a reappraisal of mission and ministry throughout the world, which was continued in the 1974 assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held in Rome, which focused on Evangelization. This prompted the South African Bishops to commission their own survey of contemporary evangelization in Southern Africa. The principal problem for the Catholic Church became strikingly clear: in a country that is overwhelmingly black, it was structured along lines that were foreign and white. Secondly, the social and political situation was becoming increasingly grave especially after the student riots in Soweto on June 16, 1976.60 A process of consultation and discernment, which involved Catholics from all over Southern Africa, led eventually to the pastoral plan. This plan outlined four main objectives for the church: to be inspired by Vatican II’s understanding of the church as people of God called to holiness of life; to be related to the realities of life in Southern Africa; to be clearly visible as a community serving humanity; to be committed to the ongoing formation of all members of the church according to the vision expressed in these themes.

93. In 1985, the Theological Advisory Committee of the SACBC issued a report entitled The Things that Make for Peace. Examining the morality of violence in the South African context, the report challenged the church to face up to its political and social responsibilities: “It is the church’s task to bring God’s concern and guidance into the political realm, and not to give the impression that God is found only in religious worship or personal relationships. Jesus himself showed this type of concern when he preached not just personal salvation but the coming of God’s kingdom.”61 The kingdom brought by Jesus in his preaching establishes a new type of order. Above all, God’s reign is shown by releasing people from every kind of oppression and inspiring them to live together in freedom and peace.

94. A further important aspect of Catholic ecclesial practice in South Africa involved protest by both clergy and laity against unjust laws. Through a series of seven Pastoral Letters the bishops protested against apartheid and challenged the government by appealing to Catholic social teaching, which offers clear moral norms for nation states as well as the international community. The hermeneutical key of these letters is human dignity, and the principle of apartheid is condemned as something intrinsically evil.62 Human activities are to be directed in light of the gospel, and nationalistic aspirations cannot therefore be the final criterion by which ends are determined.63 In 1972, the bishops’ Call to Conscience represented a shift towards solidarity with the poor, especially with victims of apartheid policy. The hierarchy largely abandoned the standpoint represented by white society and moved towards a more radical commitment to the dispossessed within South African Society. This and later documents began to take up issues such as just wages, education and a more praxis oriented response.

95. With the 1977 SACBC document, Declaration of Commitment on Social Justice and Race Relations within the Church, the Catholic Church’s leadership became more actively involved in the struggle against apartheid. Among other things, the plan of action included changing derogatory social attitudes and customs, advancing black South Africans in the church, working towards a pastoral consultation with majority black participation for future policy on church life and apostolate. Justice and Peace groups began to spring up in dioceses throughout the country, and a national Commission for Justice and Reconciliation established by SACBC greatly encouraged Catholics who wanted to be involved in the struggle for equality. One of the first Catholic movements to become involved in justice issues was the Young Christian Workers. This movement was introduced into South Africa in the early 1950s and quickly got involved in worker issues. Its training methods of structured group meetings and study weekends were very effective in producing leaders, many of whom eventually became officials in trade union movements.

96. Just as the Reformed had to face the problem of internal racism, the increasingly strong stance of the Catholic Church against apartheid provoked the emergence of Catholic groups opposed to this shift. As early as 1957, the first black bishop of a diocese was appointed by the Vatican. This gave rise immediately to some white Catholics of that diocese objecting to a non-European as Bishop of Europeans. Such attitudes within settler culture, the so-called South African way of life, were common among whites, including supposedly “good Catholics”. Groups such as the Catholic Defence League emerged claiming that the Church’s efforts against apartheid were influenced by Marxist philosophy and communist agencies. They viewed the kingdom of God as an otherworldly reality and the practice of the church as a purely religious one concerned with worship. In 1979, the SACBC issued a statement repudiating their activities. In 1988, the offices of the SACBC were bombed.

97. While the above paragraphs have dealt with the Reformed and Catholic responses separately, it would be quite wrong to give the impression that the two communities operated in isolation from each other. There is no doubt that the struggle against apartheid brought churches closer together. The growing sense of shared purpose among Christians saw people and organizations working together in many projects. The Diakonia Ecumenical Agency in Durban is probably one of the best examples of this. Diakonia’s social programmes and training events involved Christians from many denominations in an attempt to respond to the socio-political crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. The various church consultations, such as those held at Cottesloe (1960) and Rustenburg (1990), allowed Christian leaders to exchange ideas and grow closer in vision and praxis. This unity of conviction was often strengthened in marches, many of which involved confrontation with the police, as well as in more structured events such as the Standing for the Truth campaign launched by the South African Council of Churches in 1988. During this period, the SACBC and other Catholic bodies issued a number of documents together with the SACC or their non-Catholic counterparts.64 The importance of ecumenical collaboration is expressed in the following SACBC statement: “There was excellent cooperation between the SACBC and the SACC on practical socio-economic and political problems since both groups were convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had to be introduced and lived in these areas and so transform South African Society.”65

98. A further observation can be made about the courageous struggle against apartheid in South Africa, especially with regard to the church local and universal. Usually a Reformed Confession is made by a geographically circumscribed Christian fellowship in response to the concrete situation which believers face in their daily lives. In the example of apartheid, however, a much wider body entered into the process. At the Ottawa meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Reformed Christians from many different parts of the world became convinced that the challenge of apartheid in South Africa had become so divisive and urgent that a moment of truth had arrived for the Alliance itself. Therefore WARC took the lead and declared the status confessionis, and then the DRMC drew consequences from this decision for its own context in South Africa.

99. The involvement of the Catholic Church in South African life over the last fifty years reflects its own self-understanding of the mutual dependence of the local and the universal church. The local Catholic Church was deeply involved in the South African struggle against apartheid, and in the challenges it faced this local church brought vital and important experiences of mission to the universal Catholic Church. The clear need for deeper inculturation of the church in local cultures is of course the most striking example.

100. At the same time, the universal church directly influenced the way in which the Catholic Church in South African Church responded to its difficult context. Vatican II’s vision of the church as people of God encouraged Catholics to be personally involved in witnessing to the values of the gospel at every level of society. The Pastoral Plan (1982) was a courageous attempt to implement such a vision in the South African context. Also, in the confrontation with racism within its own members, it was an appointment from the Vatican which brought the first black bishop into a South African diocese. The influence of Gaudium et Spes led to the emergence of Justice and Peace commissions, which in turn became rallying points for Catholics involved in the struggle for justice.

101. In short, for both Reformed and Catholic, even with their particular understandings of ecclesiology, there is little doubt that their own experience of the universal church helped to renew the church in South Africa and contributed significantly to the ways in which the local church responded to the affront which apartheid posed to the credibility of the gospel of Christ. Equally, for both Reformed and Catholic, the local church in South Africa, in trying to live the gospel in a context which dealt with some of the major challenges facing humanity, bore witness to the universal church of some timeless truths, namely, that theology and ethics, doctrine and life, confession through words and action are impossible to separate. In this sincere common witness many were martyred, others incarcerated or tortured for choosing Christ and the values of the kingdom. A few words from the celebrated Belhar Confession can express what was involved for both the Reformed Church and the Catholic Church: “The church, as the possession of God, must stand where he stands, namely, against injustice and with the wronged; in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”

3. Struggling for Peace in Northern Ireland66

102. In Northern Ireland, efforts by Christians to live by and witness to the values of the kingdom of God have involved the need to struggle against complex factors fostering violence. In its landscape and in its peoples, Northern Ireland is a place rich in beauty and culture.67 To the world outside, however, it is known largely through news bulletins reporting the most appalling violence. As with most politico-religious strife this conflict has deep historical roots. The politics of Northern Ireland are dominated by the issue of union or separation. Even in pre-violence days this political conflict was categorised along specifically religious lines as the conflict between a ruling Protestant majority with allegiance to the union with Great Britain, and a socially and politically marginalized Catholic minority with a strong belief in a united Ireland.

103. Prior to the rise of violence in the late 1960s, the Protestant and Catholic Churches remained largely uncritical of these politico-religious alliances. Until the early 1970’s there was no official dialogue between the Reformed traditions and the Roman Catholic Church; their relationship was at best one of polite co-existence, at worst, one of outright suspicion and hostility.

104. From the Protestant side, the Roman Catholic Church, and what was perceived to be its undue influence on the mechanisms and institutions of the State in the Irish Republic, was a source of considerable fear and suspicion.68 The ecclesiological model repeated by papal encyclicals such as Mystici corporis and Humani generis was that of the church as perfect society.69 Ecclesial structures and institutions were viewed as the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in history. In this context, the church was the kingdom. Reflecting this mindset to some degree, the Northern Nationalists, after partition in 1921, kept a distance from the Protestant State and became “a society within a society.”70 The Catholic Church became the key institution in integrating the community; there was an intertwining of Catholicism, Irish culture and political nationalism.

105. From the Catholic side, the Orange Order was perceived as the significant unifying force within the otherwise disparate elements of Protestantism and Unionism. Motivated by its oath, “to strenuously oppose the fatal errors of Rome” and “to uphold a Protestant State for a Protestant People”, it promoted the inter-relation of Unionism and Orangeism.71 At the heart of this alignment between Unionism and Orangeism was an often unspoken ecclesiology of the kingdom. The Orange Order was seen as the external political manifestation and celebration of the kingdom of God in what many Protestants believed to be the chosen land of Northern Ireland.

106. Therefore, until formal ecumenical dialogue between the churches in the 1970s, both communities in Northern Ireland lived largely autonomous and politically divided lives. Critically, what sustained this experience in religious terms was the existence of two mutually excluding ecclesiologies in which the proximity between the kingdom of God and visible structures of ecclesial life was presumed to translate, more or less directly, into self-contained and mutually exclusive ecclesial-political entities.

107. In the gospel of John, as already seen (cf. chapter I, para. 41), “Jesus’ mission is to bring peace. The message of the risen Christ is peace” (John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19). How then were the churches to become genuine instruments of God’s kingdom? How were they to become instruments of peace? How were they to help their respective communities through the mutually excluding ideologies of conflict to a framework of collective need and inter-dependence?

108. From the Catholic perspective, the seeds of this shift were found in the ecclesiological aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council. A previous tendency towards an insular self- understanding of the church was replaced by a deep sense of the church’s relationship with the world. At the same time, the emphasis on the church as “the sacrament of unity of the human race (LG 1) gave new impetus to the search for Christian unity as well as constructive dialogue with the other world religions. The implications of the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) for the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland were immense.

109. The new ecumenical impetus and social engagement were both timely and providential. From 1969 there was a significant escalation in cross-community tension and violence. The emergence of the working group of the four main church leaders in this same year is regarded as the first sign of official Roman Catholic-Protestant cooperation.72 As the troubles escalated this became a vital witness to cross-community tolerance and respect in an otherwise desperate situation. In May 1970, the work of the four church leaders led to the establishment of the Joint Irish Council of Churches-Roman Catholic Group.73 Church members, often at considerable personal risk, sought to give visible expression to their conviction that the kingdom of God was not served by inter-community conflict and violence. In March 1972, the Irish Episcopal Conference issued an invitation to representatives of the Protestant Churches in Ireland to attend a joint meeting at which the whole field of ecumenism might be surveyed. In response, the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) warmly welcomed the invitation from the Catholic bishops as “one of the most progressive moves made in Ireland.” This initiative, in turn, established the first Ballymascanlon Meeting in 1973, later to become the Inter-Church Meeting that continues to this day.74

110. Two of the more influential projects to emerge from this vigorous new ecumenism were the establishment of the Christmas Peace Campaign in 1974 and the Inter-Church Working Party on Violence in Ireland, which reported in 1976.75 Such joint Christian witness gave prophetic voice to the possibility of respect, tolerance, friendship and even forgiveness across the established political, religious and cultural divide. While political leadership remained locked within traditional boundaries, church leaders were trying to build bridges among local communities.76

111. The ultimate impact of these endeavours on subsequent events in Northern Ireland is incalculable. The tough issues of the day were discussed frankly and often painfully, but now within the restraining boundaries of Christian respect and forgiveness. It is testimony to the prophetic vision, foresight and perseverance of these various church-based activities that many of the concepts and values established through their reflection would emerge some twenty years later, albeit in more secular and political terms, in the Belfast Agreement.77 A particularly striking example of this is found in the principles proposed by the Inter-Church Working Party on Violence in Ireland, namely, that:

· the churches and their members act justly within themselves and towards each other;

· the churches come to the aid of victims of injustice and encourage their members to take all legitimate action to overcome injustice;78

· the churches should not hesitate to give a direct lead to public opinion on issues of justice and should stand together for all political proposals that clearly attack injustice;

· the churches should promote and support reconciliation;

· the churches should encourage all political leaders to see their task as that of reaching a just agreement with their opponents rather than that of achieving victory over them; and that to this end they should be open to any reasonable settlement proposed.

At this time such proposals were unique in terms of the values they expressed and their practical implications. From a political point of view they were prophetic.

112. At an all-island level, the Irish Bishops’ Conference established a series of Episcopal Commissions, most notably, the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, the Commission for Social Welfare and the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas. These also became valued sources of pastoral and practical aid. The ICJP, for example, provided an important mediation role during the hunger strikes in 1981; it provided detailed analysis of the religious imbalance in the ranks of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and other areas of employment (which led indirectly to the establishment of the Fair Employment Agency), and it established a joint Peace Education Project with the ICC.

113. The Roman Catholic bishops also called on the political community to address the social and economic inequalities of the day. Church representatives began to meet with British ministers of state as well as local civil servants, with whom concerns could be shared openly and honestly.79

114. One of the most influential aspects of the churches’ leadership at this time arose out of their ministry to the families of those who were killed. The very public funerals were a suitable occasion for Catholic and Protestant clergy to proclaim Christian values to the widest possible audience. Candidly reported by the media, these burials often involved heroic appeals by the bereaved: for a new spirit of forgiveness, the rejection of violence, respect for religious diversity, and the need for a way forward characterised by these values. Undoubtedly such appeals influenced both the impetus and direction of the subsequent search for a political solution.80

115. Reconciliation would mean going beyond the right and wrong of the conflict, to break the vicious cycle of reactive violence in order to create new and lasting relationships. What was required was to give full constitutional recognition to both identities and give proper political and institutional expression, at all levels of decision making, to Protestant and Catholic alike. “Northern Ireland’s problem is finding ways of sharing two traditions, not ways of suppressing one or other tradition, or of subordinating one to the other. It is a problem of giving two equally valid loyalties, which have an equally valid historic and moral right to be constitutionally recognised, an integral part of Northern Ireland. Recognition of two Ulster loyalties, two Ulster identities, is an indispensable precondition of any solution to the complex problems of Northern Ireland.”81

116. In its Preface, the Belfast Agreement commits all its participants, “to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the rights of all, and to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships”. The end of a majority rule which takes little account of the minority, the principle of cross-community consensus, the return to devolution, the creation of a Human Rights Commission, the proposal to have a Bill of Rights, the inter-dependence of North-South, East-West institutions, the Review of Policing and the Criminal Justice System, the new Equality Commission, the new Victims Commission, the recognition of linguistic diversity, the commitment to social inclusion and economic development, the commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means of resolving the Irish conflict were all both implicit and explicit in the comments and writings of many inter-church groups and individuals in the period leading up to the Belfast Agreement. The need for such commitment continues to the present day where tensions and community conflict are never far from the surface.

117. There is no doubt that religious factors such as unresolved doctrinal conflicts of the sixteenth century played a significant role in the political and cultural identity of both sides in the conflict. For many believers and non-believers alike the politico-religious strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland during the latter half of the twentieth century was more than simply a counter-witness to Christianity; it was an affront to the gospel of Christ. Four centuries after the fragmentation of the Western Church, the harmful effects of disunity are still experienced in some truly horrific ways.

118. So what was required of the churches in Northern Ireland in the face of this situation? From the evidence given above, there is no doubt that the Catholic and Protestant churches have made a profound journey together, and have tried to live the values of God’s kingdom in a truly difficult situation. But what facilitated this new common purpose?

119. With regard to the Catholic Church, it is impossible to overestimate the liberating development that resulted from the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Under the influence of the biblical studies movement, which renewed exegesis and teaching in contemporary Catholicism, the church sought to present its gospel ideals with fresh vigour. Through the work of the Council, the church perceived once again the possibility of presenting these ideals in helpful scriptural terms. This resulted of course in a renewed ecclesiology, one which opened the way for fresh developments in every local church throughout the world, including the church in Northern Ireland. A previously self-contained understanding of the church was replaced by a deep sense of the church’s relationship with the world. Catholics were officially encouraged to develop friendly relations with their Protestant neighbours.

120. It is important not to overlook the impact of the Catholic Church’s metanoia on the Protestant community itself. Clearly a change in one part of the body has the potential to affect the whole. For many there would have been surprise, and perhaps even some distrust at this sudden change of heart. Nevertheless, large sections of the Protestant Church welcomed the possibilities that could arise from a new era in inter-church relations. The ultimate potential impact of such ecumenical endeavours remains incalculable.

121. Of course, as always, a new commitment to the kingdom mandates of justice and peace was far from easy for the people involved. It called for a compelling Christian witness in the face of terrible and terrifying evil. In embracing the values of the kingdom, many personally experienced the violent resistance that Christ himself endured when he proclaimed the kingdom of God. There have been martyrs on both sides. What sustains such heroic witness? For both Catholic and Protestant there remains the primacy of grace in the prayerful celebration of Word and Sacrament. In the liturgy, the church remains in touch with the risen Lord and is inspired by this contact to remain faithful, even if that includes the ultimate witness of giving one’s life for the values of Christ’s kingdom.

122. Where do the people of Northern Ireland go from here? Clearly the churches now have a responsibility to continue to walk together in order to give further common witness to the enduring values of the kingdom of God, even if that witness continues to be met at times with the inscrutable mystery of evil.


123. The three narratives just presented, illustrating efforts to promote values of the kingdom, involve myriad factors relating to each of the specific and unique contexts. They raise important questions for Reformed and Catholics as we seek to deepen and extend the possibilities of common witness in a consistent manner. How can we discern together, in different situations, God’s will in the service of the kingdom? It is this question of discernment that we now consider together in chapter III.




  1. Second Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism 7.

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  2. Our joint commission warmly acknowledges the gracious hospitality extended to us by the Mohawk Community at Grand River United Church and also the personal stories shared with us on that occasion. We thank the Rev. Dan Manning and the elders of the Grand River Church.

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  3. Data released by the Canadian Government on May 13, 2003 as part of the national census of 2001.

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  4. Kairos defines itself as a coalition of Canadian churches, church based agencies and religious organizations dedicated to offering a faithful response to God’s call for respect of the earth and justice for its peoples. Along with its partners and community based networks, Kairos works on the following themes: Aboriginal Rights, Canadian Social Development, Ecological Justice, Education and Animation, Global Economic Justice, International Human Rights.

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  5. With the establishment of Kairos, the former Aboriginal Rights Coalition now works within the larger agency as a separate programme committee. Now called the Aboriginal Rights Committee, it has an enlarged membership which includes some non-church representatives. In recent years, the Committee has made a consistent effort to work with national and regional Aboriginal organizations such as the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the (BC) First Nations Summit, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, the Chiefs of Ontario, the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs, the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq.

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  6. Aboriginal Rights Coalition, The Sacred Path: A Journey of Healing for Canadian Churches and Aboriginal Peoples (Ottawa, 1995), 6-9.

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  7. Aboriginal Rights Coalition, “The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,” in Indigenous Perspectives of Jubilee (Ottawa, 1999), 23.

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  8. A position affirmed by two papal bulls: Inter Caetera of Alexander VI in 1453 and Sublimus Deus of Paul III in 1537. Calvin’s understanding of a universal religious consciousness (divinitatis sensum) and of the imago Dei offers a parallel basis for the dignity of all creatures before God. See, for example, Institute of the Christian Religion, I.3.1. In his Commentary on John (1.5), Calvin writes: “There are two principal parts of the light which still remain in corrupt nature: first, the seed of religion is implanted in all men; next, the distinction between good and evil is engraved on their consciences.”

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  9. John Webster Grant, Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534, Toronto, 1984, 229.

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  10. For descriptions of the divisive effects of Christian preaching, see Grant, 255, 201. At the end of the 19th century, the great majority of Aboriginal people in Canada were at least nominally Christian. According to the 1991 census, 51% of the country’s 470,000 Aboriginal people identified themselves as Catholic; 34% Protestant; 13% no religion; 2% other religions.

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  11. Information for this section is summarized from Peter Hamel, “The Aboriginal Rights Coalition,” in Christopher Lind and Joe Mihevic, Coalitions for Justice (Ottawa, 1994), 16-36.

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  12. The Sacred Path: A Journey of Healing, op. cit., 30.

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  13. Ibid., 3; this development has continued and intensified under Kairos.

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  14. We gratefully acknowledge the valuable contributions made to our dialogue in 2001 by Prof. Dirk Smit who presented a study entitled “On Learning to Speak? A South African Reformed Perspective on Dialogue”, and by Dr. Stuart C. Bate, OMI, who presented a study entitled “What Does it Mean that the Church is the Instrument of the Kingdom of God in the South African Context: A Catholic Perspective”.

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  15. Apartheid (English “apartness”) was the policy of racial segregation in the Republic of South Africa, supported traditionally by the Nationalist Party, and more recently by other right-wing groups. Under the policy, different races were given different rights. In practice, the system was one of white supremacy, while Blacks had no representation in the Central State Parliament.

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  16. The ideology has several roots: Boer concepts of racial, cultural and religious separation arising out of a sense of national uniqueness; British liberal notions of indirect rule; the concern for job protection, promoted by white workers to maintain their status in the face of a large and cheaper proletariat, to name but three.

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  17. At that time theologians of the DRC read the Bible as an apartheid Bible, finding that God was “the Maker of Separations”. For example, in the beginning God had separated the light from the dark, the waters above from the waters below, the land from the sea and so on, and all this to indicate that separation –apartheid– was the plan for creation. When God instructed humans to “be fruitful and multiply”, he meant that they should be fruitful and divide into separate groups, tribes or nations.

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  18. There were very specific Apartheid Laws passed by the Nationalist government after its victory in 1948. The Laws included the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the Population Registration Act (1949), the Immorality Act and the Group Areas Act (1950), the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act (1951), the Bantu Authorities Act and the Bantu Education Act (1953). The intention of these Acts was to separate White and Black living areas, educational provision and social intercourse. Jobs were also reserved according to race.

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  19. Within the DRC in South Africa, a few notable theologians, such as Beyers Naudé, tried to counter apartheid by insisting on the one-ness of humanity in both church and society. Removed from his ministry, Naudé led the Christian Institute during the 1970s, which drew inspiration for opposing apartheid from the struggles of the Confessing Church Movement in Nazi Germany. See P. Walshe, Church versus State in South Africa: the Case of the Christian Institute (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1983).

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  20. J.W. de Gruchy and C. Villa-Vicencio (eds.), Apartheid is a Heresy (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983).

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  21. The term “uniting” was deliberately chosen to indicate an unfinished process as well as the hope that other churches would join this process of confession.

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  22. See C. Villa-Vicencio, Between Christ and Caesar: Classic and Contemporary Texts on Church and State (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986), 259-269; also D. Van der Water, “A Legacy for Contextual Theology: Prophetic Theology and the Challenge of the Kairos,” in M. Speckman and L. Kaufmann eds., Towards an Agenda for Contextual Theology: Essays in Honour of Albert Nolan (Pietermaritzburg, 2001), 33-64.

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  23. P. Walshe, 221.

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  24. S.C. Bate, “The Church under Apartheid,” in J. Brain and P. Denis (eds.), The Catholic Church in Contemporary South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, 1999), 12-13.

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  25. SACBC 1957:26 Minutes; also J.W. de Gruchy, “Catholics in a Calvinist Country”, in A. Prior, Catholics in Apartheid Society (Cape Town,1982), 67-82.

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  26. Two distinct churches could be identified in this period: a “settler church” for the Whites and a “mission church” for the Blacks. Whilst an overall Catholic unity was encouraged the reality was very much of two separate bodies with separate fields of endeavour, culture and praxis.

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  27. This refers to the student disturbances which took place in the Transvaal African Township of Soweto, where several hundred people were killed during protests against the teaching of Afrikaans in schools. For many, this day marks the beginning of the final period of struggle against apartheid. June 16, Youth Day, is now an annual holiday in South Africa.

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  28. The Things that Make for Peace: A Report to the Catholic Bishops and the Church in Southern Africa from the Theological Advisory Commission of the Southern African Bishop’s Conference (Pretoria, 1985). One commentator describes this document as the “intellectual highpoint” of the Theological Advisory Committee to the SACBC: see A. Egan, “Catholic Intellectuals,” in J. Brain and P. Denis eds., The Catholic Church in Contemporary South Africa (Pietermaritzburg, 1999), 341.

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  29. 1957 Letter.

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  30. 1960 Letter.

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  31. See for example: Relocations: the Churches’ Report on Forced Removals in South Africa (1984); the Pastoral Letter of Natal Church Leaders on Violence and the Peace Talks (1989); and the SACC/SACBC Joint Pastoral Letter for Those Returning Home (1990).

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  32. SACBC: Plenary Minutes January 1987. Through this type of cooperation the Catholic Church became a full member of the SACC in the 1990’s.

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  33. We gratefully acknowledge the valuable contributions made to our dialogue in 2002 by Rev. Timothy Bartlett (St. Mary’s University College, Belfast), who presented a study entitled, “The Church as Instrument of the Kingdom of God in Northern Ireland: A Catholic Perspective,” and by Dr. David Stevens (General Secretary to the Irish Council of Churches and Secretary to the Irish Inter-Church Meeting), who presented a paper entitled, “The Church as Community of Common Witness to the Kingdom of God.”

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  34. The island of Ireland consists of 32 counties: the Republic (Eire) is the twenty-six counties governed from Dublin and Northern Ireland is the six counties that remained part of the United Kingdom from 1921.

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  35. An inter-denominational organization was later to make this observation: “An important part of Irish identity (in the Republic) was Catholicism. The model and mode of being of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the 150 years between Catholic emancipation and the visit of the Pope in 1979 were located in the idea of a Catholic society alternative to the alienating British colonial (and Protestant) one.” Faith and Politics Group, Transitions (Belfast, 2000), 7.

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  36. Mystici corporis, promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1943: “Christ wanted the community of men of which he was the founder to be established as a society perfect in its own order and possessing all juridical and social elements…..the eternal Father indeed wished it to be the Kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13).” This same theme emerged again in Humani generis (1950).

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  37. The Faith and Politics Group, Self-Righteous Superiority as a Cause of Conflict (Belfast, 1999), 18.

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  38. Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict and Emancipation (Cambridge, 1966), 121, 180.

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  39. Ian Ellis, Vision and Reality: A Survey of Twentieth Century Irish Inter-Church Relations (Belfast, 1992).

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  40. Irish Council of Churches, Annual Report, May 1971, 6-8.

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  41. The Irish Inter-Church Meeting, Background and Development (Belfast, 1998).

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  42. ICC-RC Group, Violence in Ireland: A Report to the Churches (Dublin, 1976).

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  43. Numerous marches, meetings and movements sprung up at this time and owed their origin, directly or indirectly, to church inspiration and support. These include the Irish School of Ecumenics, Corrymeela Community, the Cornerstone Community, the Columbanus Fellowship, the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship, the Assisi Fellowship, PACE, People Together, the Servite Priory, the Faith and Politics Group, the Churches Initiatives Group, Youthlink and a host of children’s joint holiday schemes, to name just a few.

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  44. The Agreement made between the political parties of Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments on Good Friday, April 1998 and upon which the current processes of administration of Northern Ireland are based. Officially entitled The Agreement, it is more popularly referred to as the “Good Friday Agreement” or the “Belfast Agreement”.

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  45. In practical terms this implied that members of the churches should receive more education in the social and political implications of the Gospel, that the cause of non-violence be espoused as the greatest of the causes now claiming the support of Irish Christians, and that “the churches remind their members that they have a prima facie moral obligation to support the currently constituted authorities in Ireland against all paramilitary forces and that to do so is not in any way to pre-judge longer term political and constitutional developments.” It was noted that “in protest against injustice, it will usually be more effective if the churches are able to act together, showing compassion from and to both sides.” ICC-RC Group, Violence in Ireland: A Report to the Churches, 68.

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  46. The general theme of these approaches is perhaps best summarised by the following extract from a talk given by Cardinal Daly in November 1984: “The alienation of nationalists in Northern Ireland from the political and civil institutions […] can be lessened and eventually removed only when the political process is allowed to prove itself capable of bringing about the institutional changes which will give effective expression to the nationalist identity and accord to it the constitutional legitimacy which is its right.” Cahal B. Daly, Communities Without Consensus: The Northern Tragedy (Dublin, 1984), 7.

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  47. As the Inter-Church Group on Faith and Politics has pointed out: “One of the main reasons why violence was not much greater over the past thirty years has been the way that many people have chosen consistently to seek to cut cycles of vengeance by calling for, and practising non-retaliation and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a central aspect of the Christian gospel. It has significantly penetrated Irish life, and its practice, particularly by many victims and their families, has had social and political effects.” The Faith and Politics Group, Remembrance and Forgetting: Building a Future in Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1996), 5.

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  48. Cf. Cahal B. Daly, The Price of Peace (Belfast, 1991), 3-5.

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