By John Ellis
I represented the United Reformed Church at the General Assembly of the largest Protestant denomination in Ireland, our sister Church the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). We met in their Assembly Hall in the centre of Belfast, which was built in 1905 in a Scottish style to stress the umbilical links with their mother Church. Nowadays the PCI holds on to more of the traditions of past generations than does the Church of Scotland. In principle their Assembly is much larger than ours with 1300 members, although for many of the business sessions the actual attendance was smaller than at a URC Assembly.
Many of the speeches included tributes to the Revd Dr Donald Watts who is retiring after combining the roles of Assembly Clerk and General Secretary for eleven years. During that time he has had to steer the PCI through political and financial crises of a severity fortunately unknown to the United Reformed Church.
Most Assembly debates were low key and the superficial impression of wider Belfast life was also that the controversies of “the Troubles” were over. Certainly a tourist business has built up again in certain areas of Ulster. However visiting various areas of Belfast with an expert guide, who leads a peace project for the Irish Churches, revealed a much more complex story.
In too many places there are ominously solid and permanent separation barriers or “Peace Walls” to keep polarised communities, often on opposite sides of the same street, apart. The barriers had gates in them which were usually open during the day but the communities still feel a fear of their neighbours. While “Catholic” and “Protestant” labels simplify the historic, cultural and political divisions, there is undeniably a religious element.
That made it even more encouraging to find some of the Churches working at patiently building a more robust and holistic peace. We had coffee in a Catholic area just off the Crumlin Road in a new project housed in a former Presbyterian Church; it has the strapline Building Peace, Promoting Reconciliation. At the height of the Troubles in the 1970s this church had attempted to serve the whole community and the minister, Dermot McMorran, was respected across the religious divide. One Sunday evening there was a sectarian riot going on outside the church which was making it hard for the congregation to concentrate on his sermon. So Dermot went outside and asked the rioters to desist. As it was him, they agreed to stop. Once the evening service was over, they resumed their riot where they had left off….
Today the Duncairn Centre is selective in what activities it will house, determined that everything it does contributes to building a healthy community in that deprived part of Belfast. It will not permit a single denomination to hold public worship there, for example, but will welcome ecumenical services.
We still need to pray for true peace in Belfast and across the island of Ireland.