The modern ecumenical movement is generally dated to the Protestant Edinburgh International Missionary Conference of 1910, but it took on a new lease of life when it was espoused by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.
There had, of course, been relationships between the Irish Churches for many years prior to the holding of Vatican II, mainly through the agency of the Irish Council of Churches, founded in 1923, and of which the Church of Ireland was a founding member.
The council was in origin a body of Protestant Churches, the Russian and Romanian Orthodox having joined in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
Vatican II, however, held out the prospect of more than simply cooperation between churches, but of an aspiration to unity, and while there have, indeed, been “conversations” between several Protestant Churches with a view to unity (the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland are in a covenant relationship to that end) that is not the role of the Irish Council of Churches.
The Church of Ireland has also been involved in the work of Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commissions, the first of which was co-chaired by the then bishop of Ossory, later to be archbishop of Dublin, HR McAdoo.
Ecumenism was only one of the concerns of Vatican II, which also made great changes in Roman Catholic forms of worship, introducing use of the vernacular, for instance.
Such changes, together with a positive attitude on the part of the Vatican to shared worship among Christians, evoked a strong reaction from many Irish Christians, who welcomed the opportunity to join in worship together.
An early and far-reaching ecumenical development was the holding of regular meetings between representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Irish Council of Churches.
First held at the Ballymascanlon Hotel, near Dundalk, half-way between Dublin and Belfast, these talks gave rise to a formal ecumenical instrument that addresses theological and social issues of common concern to all Churches.
It can be said with confidence that the forming of relationships, both institutional and personal, that stemmed from closer ecumenical contacts greatly facilitated the opportunities for pastoral work that came with the “Troubles”.
Not, of course, that ecumenical activity found favour with all churches, or, indeed, with all members of some churches. But the Church of Ireland and its leaders have never, sometimes at cost to themselves, diverged from their ecumenical commitment.
Acknowledging that from some points of view the churches themselves have been part of Ireland’s inter-community problems, the Church of Ireland took a series of steps to ascertain what its own responsibilities might be and what positive contribution might be made to making atonement where this was due.
In 1997, as a starting point, the General Synod firmly declared its rejection of sectarianism, and set in train a process of self-examination to determine how “. . . to promote, at all levels of church life, tolerance, dialogue and mutual respect between the churches and society”.
Sexuality and gender
By now, however, it was becoming clear that the “differences” that so often evoked sentiments of prejudice were not confined to those between churches, but also, to quote an officially commissioned report, encompassed minority ethnic groups, people of other religions and issues of sexuality and gender.
The educational process designed to combat sectarianism and also the prejudices directed against those who fall into these other categories, is an ongoing one.The Church of Ireland established the Hard Gospel Project in 2005 to tackle sectarianism and racism and to face the challenges of historic difference in the Ireland of the 21st century.
Opportunity as well as challenge arises for the Church of Ireland, and all other Christian churches, in addressing two profound questions: how should we as a Christian church regard ourselves and our role in a rapidly changing, multifaith and multicultural 21st-century Ireland (north and south)?; how should we as individuals in the context of 21st-century Ireland (north and south) regard ourselves and our responsibilities?
The Hard Gospel Project represents a commitment by the Church of Ireland to examine not only the challenges of faith which arise for Christians in the “vertical” relationship in loving God but also the practical implications for the outworking of faith in “horizontal” relationships as expressed in Christ’s command to “love your neighbour”.