As folk reflect on the celebrations and commemorations to mark the centenary of the founding of Northern Ireland amid the increasing relaxation of the pandemic restrictions, the various Christian Churches across the island need to step up to the mark and enter the debate on Irish Unity.
The recent Armagh service of remembrance, reflection and hope about the creation of Northern Ireland via the route of partition caused more stir because the Queen and the Irish president did not attend rather than focusing on who actually was in Armagh last week, and indeed, what the message should be, not just in recalling the past, but in preparing a roadmap for the future.
The bottom line is - the Christian Churches have now been presented with a golden opportunity to take the initiative when it comes to developing the securing the Irish peace process. My advice is to the Churches - don’t miss the political boat!
After all, the four main Christian denominations - the Catholic Church, Church of Ireland, mainstream Presbyterianism and Methodism - are all organised on an all-island basis.
Even the fundamentalist denomination - the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, founded by the late Rev Ian Paisley in 1951 - has a number of congregations based in Southern Ireland.
The Elim pentecostal movement, which has numerous churches across the Emerald Isle, was founded in Monaghan in 1915 during the era of the Great War.
The Orange Order - which is the largest of the Protestant Loyal Orders - boasted its governing body as being the Grand Lodge of Ireland. Irish Freemasonry is also organised on an all-island basis.
While the overwhelming majority of these ‘all-island’ organisations will claim their structures existed pre-partition in the 1920s, this should not be taken as an excuse to abstain from the Irish Unity debate.
The main contribution which the Churches can make is to ensure that any debate on Irish Unity or the future of the Union is done in a calm and respectful manner. In short, the Churches must put on a united front as a soothing influence, ensuring that its clerics do not indulge in inflammatory rhetoric.
In the past, some clerics have been accused of allegedly making sermons and speeches with contentious statements. It has even been suggested that people have acted on the content of these words and have ended up with a jail term.
There is much talk about Northern Ireland’s future direction, of a shared island, of a new Ireland. What is the Christian Churches’ vision for this island over the next century? In a seemingly increasingly pluralist and secular society, how will the Christian Churches find a meaningful role in the community?
Could the various Christian denominations unite to produce a roadmap for the faith as Northern Ireland enters its second century? Or would such discussions typically descend into theological wrangling over dress codes in church, the translation of the Bible which should be used, the role of women in the Church and other side issues?
There is a real fear among some sections of the Christian community that the recent vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly on so-called ‘gay conversion therapy’ could be the thin edge of the wedge to stop Christians praying for people who face challenges, not just concerning their sexual orientation, but over many other issues in life.
Could the ridiculous situation emerge whereby some Christian who prays for someone suffering from cancer or COPD is jailed for making that prayer?
Perhaps the real issue at stake in the Irish Unity debate is whether the Christian Churches will have the freedom to actually practice their faith, let alone express that faith in public.
The Churches need to ensure Christianity does not see the emergence of the so-called ‘sermon police’, whereby the content of sermons preached in places of worship - even if they are not live-streamed - are closely monitored in terms of ‘causing offence’.
While those Christians who classify themselves as liberal in their theology may not be at risk, certainly those believers who classify themselves as evangelicals or fundamentalists and take a strong theological Salvationist position could find themselves being hauled before the courts.
And it’s not just inside places of worship whereby the Christian Churches could find their content closely monitored. Open air ministry has always been a key tool for communicating the Gospel. Would the activities of such evangelical outreaches also be intensely monitored for so-called ‘offensive material’?
For example, when my late dad was in full-time Presbyterian ministry during the Seventies, our family summer holidays were spent in Portballintrae, and our time there normally coincided with the annual beach mission by the Christian organisation, CSSM (Children’s Special Service Mission).
We would gather on the beach in front of the former Beach Hotel in the north Antrim coastal village and enjoy Bible readings, choruses, games and a wee sermon. But all it would take would be one person to lodge a complaint with the police that he or she was ‘offended’ by the evangelical content of the beach evangelists and the service could be brought to a rapid conclusion.
The Churches cannot afford to bury their heads in the historical sand and pass the buck by stating that the future development of Ireland belongs solely to the politicians and parties.
If the Churches want to have a relevant voice in the so-called new Ireland, they may need to shout a bit louder, but they will need to do so with a united platform.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.