I am sure you have had the experience of an interrupted conversation. For example, after a church event, you meet a friend and the conversation flows. Your ears are on full alert to the tone and content of your friend’s insights. You are enjoying the stimulation, encouragement and challenges as you ask probing questions, share anecdotes, while making an intellectual, spiritual and emotional connection. Then abruptly you are rudely interrupted, as a third person invades your personal space, and launches into an obtuse, irrelevant story. The conversation goes flat, and never recovers its former glory. You are left feeling frustrated and deflated.
Mid-March, we were rudely interrupted in the middle of a conversation. After four years of work, in November 2019, the 264-page book Considering Grace, Presbyterians and the Troubles written by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohanis, had been published. It included over 100 stories from ministers, victims, members of the security forces, those affected by loyalist paramilitarism, emergency responders and health care workers, quiet peacemakers, politicians, those who left Presbyterianism and critical friends.
The publicity surrounding regional launches had helped stimulate conversation among Presbyterians about how we responded to the Troubles. The conversation was flowing beyond the walls of the Presbyterian Church into the community. The book received good reviews and was helpful in reaching out to others who had suffered. We planned to give each member of the Northern Ireland Assembly a copy of the book and follow it up with conversation over coffee.
In my own congregation, First Armagh, we were about to complete a series of Bible studies, using the book to stimulate thought about our own local response to the Troubles. Joined by some members of the local Methodist Church, there was a high level of attendance with storytelling, biblical engagement and mutual encouragement for the future, across all generations. On 20 March 2020, a conference, Considering Grace: Unpacking the Impact, was planned for Assembly Buildings. Over 100 people had registered for the event. However we were rudely interrupted. Just that week, as coronavirus raged through the community, churches were closed, and we entered a period of intense lockdown.
A continuing conversation
I discovered that the coronavirus is rude. It has no manners. It does not care about important conversations and carefully planned conferences. I had planned on the day of the conference to conduct media interviews about the history of the Troubles, but instead I found myself being interviewed, socially distanced by UTV, outside First Armagh on the impact of the pandemic on church life. I reflected how instead of talking about history, I was living in history.
Yet those conversations, while rudely interrupted, were still worthwhile. As we found ourselves locked in our own homes, finding new ways to broadcast services, keep in touch by phone pastorally with members, and learning to live by faith day by day, some of my elders commented how they knew we would emerge from this crisis, because we had emerged from the Troubles. They talked about the resilience they had built up through dark, unpredictable, unprecedented earlier days. If God had helped in the past, when bombs exploded, members were assassinated, security measures implemented, services interrupted and alternative venues for worship sought, so God would help us through this period of unprecedented pandemic.
Resuming the conversation
Since March we have been learning how to conduct conversations virtually. So on Thursday 3 December, we plan to revisit Considering Grace: Unpacking the Impact through an online conference. We hope that the conference will help us to focus within the church not only on how we can promote reconciliation, while listening carefully to those who were most hurt through the Troubles, but also how we might train students, who will be ministering in congregations, which still bear the marks of pain and loss from that time.
As we resume the conversation, we do so in the context of the forthcoming commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the state of Northern Ireland in 2021; changes brought about by Brexit on 1 January 2021; and unresolved issues around legacy. The past retains the power to poison present relationships.
The online conference is scheduled for Thursday 3 December, beginning at 2pm. As originally planned the main speakers are Canon David Porter (pictured) and Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson.
Since 2016, David has been Chief of Staff to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Previously he was Director of ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland). David was one of the people who helped navigate the churches through the peace process, by providing perceptive theological and political insights. He has a unique understanding of Northern Ireland but also brings to the conversation experience of working on reconciliation in a global setting. David will unpack the impact of the book for wider society.
Stafford Carson was Moderator of the General Assembly in 2009-10 and since 2013 he has been Principal of Union Theological College. He served on the Advisory Committee of the ‘Dealing with the Past’ project. Stafford has his finger on the pulse of contemporary Irish Presbyterianism. He also has the memory of living and ministering through the Troubles and is committed to reconciliation in our community. As he approaches retirement at the end of 2020, he is uniquely placed to unpack the impact of the book on the ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
We will also be launching resource material written by Dave Thompson to help congregations unpack the implications of the book and revisit the ‘Vision for Society’ statement.
The conference will be opened by the Moderator, the Right Rev Dr David Bruce. There will also be a panel discussion moderated by Karen Jardine, the Public Affairs Officer which will include Dr Gladys Ganiel, and Dr Jamie Yohanis, the book’s authors, and Dr Nicola Brady, General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches, as well as the principal speakers.
I encourage you to come and join the interrupted conversation, now a little older and wiser than we were in March.
To register please click here.
Rev Tony Davidson is minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church. He was recently awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by the Presbyterian Faculty of Ireland (PTFI).