Entitled ‘Beyond these steps - reflecting on challenges and opportunities for the next 100 years’, the seminars are primarily aimed at the Presbyterian community in Ireland. Taken together, all four forums will provide a framework for an internal conversation that seeks to recognise the shared history that there is on the island of Ireland, while promoting a thoughtful and open dialogue within the denomination itself.
The seminars will focus on different audiences from young adults and border communities to urban, working class, loyalist communities – the latter being the focus of the Ballykeel seminar. The final event will involve key decision makers within PCI. Learning from each of the previous three seminars will feed into this final session, with discussion centred on what challenges the Church’s reflections on the centenary might have for it and how they might be addressed in light of changing relationships on the island of Ireland, and between the rest of the UK and the island of Ireland.
Rev Dr Tony Davidson, convener of PCI’s Peace and Reconciliation Panel, which is organising the seminars, said that he was looking forward to the series and that the Ballykeel seminar set a high standard. “From 1921, for 11 years, PCI’s Union Theological College was home to the Parliament of Northern Ireland before it moved to Stormont. A century on, we wanted to acknowledge the role that the College played in the momentous events of 100 years ago with a special event there,” he said.
“In holding ‘On these Steps’ in September, we had a broader aim beyond the commemorative, as we wanted to provide a space to reflect respectfully on how we deal with the legacy of our shared past and how it affects current relationships today. In doing so, it was also an opportunity to hear different perspectives and build relationships while looking in hope to a shared future.”
Dr Davidson continued, “During the event we heard the views of political representatives from across the UK, Ireland and locally on this significant anniversary. We also heard a wide-ranging and thought-provoking address that spoke to all traditions represented at the event from our Moderator, Dr Bruce, while Professor Ian McBride presented an historical perspective. As we embark on ‘Beyond these Steps’, we want to explore through these seminars the themes that came out of September’s event with the wider Irish Presbyterian community.”
The first seminar involved a dialogue with a panel of three ministers working in urban, working class, loyalist communities across Northern Ireland and Debbie Watters of the restorative justice programme, Alternatives NI. Rev Dr Martin McNeely, minister of Ballykeel Presbyterian Church, welcomed just over 30 key listeners within the denomination and other interested parties to his church to reflect on how the events of 100 years ago still play out in regard to political and community expression.
He was also joined by Rev Dave Clawson, minister of West Kirk Presbyterian Church on the Shankill Road in Belfast and Rev Dr John Coulter of Ballysally Presbyterian in Coleraine. The panellists also looked at current opportunities and challenges faced by Protestant unionist loyalist communities.
Dr Davidson explained that the remaining seminars would take place in the New Year. “As we begin to go beyond the steps of Union College with these events, I was very encouraged by our first one in Ballykeel. During our time together, I read from Isaiah 61, which is often read during this Advent season. In verse four it says, ‘They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.’
“Throughout this process, we want to listen and reflect on what that may mean in the different contexts we will be exploring together, in the streets, houses, schools and estates like Ballykeel. As we reflect together, we seek to remember truthfully, therapeutically and helpfully in an attempt to use this anniversary constructively, so that in Jesus’ name, we may see the outline of a better future.”
On these Steps was livestreamed from Union Theological College on 17 September. You can watch the recording of the event, from 10 minutes & 35 seconds, here.
Photos (1) Rev Dr Tony Davidson, convener of PCI’s Peace and Reconciliation Panel, welcomes panellists and participants to the seminar and gives a brief overview of 'On these Steps' (2) Left to right, seminar chair, Jaren Jardine, PCI's public affairs officer, Rev Dave Clawson, minister of West Kirk Presbyterian Church, Belfast, Rev Dr John Coulter of Ballysally Presbyterian Church, Coleraine, Debbie Watters, Alternatives NI, and Rev Dr Martin McNeely, minister of Ballykeel Presbyterian Church (3) Following the seminar participants and panellists visited Ballykeel Primary Schook at the heart of the estate where principal, Mrs Sheeran, talked about the school and the local community it served.