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“Is faith in God so problematic?” CofI Primate asks educational establishment

By Sarah Mac Donald - 21 February, 2017

Organisers, speakers and special guests who attended the opening ceremony of the Luther 500 Theological Symposium in TCD. Pic courtesy Lynn Glanville.

Christianity today has no option but to rub shoulders with World Faiths other than itself, the Church of Ireland Primate has said.

At the opening of a conference to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (1517–2017) in Trinity College last weekend, Archbishop Michael Jackson said, “The Reformation took place in a world where Christianity had no option but to rub shoulders with World Faiths other than itself.”

He acknowledged that “Some things it got spectacularly and disastrously wrong.”

Today, 500 years later, he said “Ecumenism simply is no longer sufficient” and that Christians “have no other option than to rub shoulders and to shake hands with those of World Faiths other than our own.”

He opened his address with a reference to the remains of Osney Abbey, a medieval monastery, the second largest in England in its day, which was dissolved as part of the Reformation. Its stones helped to build Oxford University – a university which today is synonymous internationally with academic endeavour and excellence.

“This is what history does to us. This is all that remains of a glorious past that once was present; this is one of the ways in which what was past is invested in a changed future,” Dr Jackson observed.

Speaking generically of the Reformation as both important and problematic, the Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough said it was important because something on the big canvas of Europe religiously and politically did in fact happen, however sporadically and scattered across time and place; and problematic because of the use of the term.

“Reformation can tend to freeze in time a concept that is in and of itself elastic, dynamic and repetitive and was life-giving in its day – and has subsequently been taken up by a range of expressions of Christianity as life-giving still. It will be fairer and fuller to speak of the Reformations,” he suggested.

Before the Reformation, the default setting of Christian religious establishments, East and West, to novelty in theology or religious community was to apply the test of heresy.

“This was the only real file on the shelf for dealing with your religious neighbour with whom you disagreed or whose flourishing you wished to truncate. The Reformation has changed that, however violent and tortured the process.”

Recalling events in Lund in Sweden on 31 October 2016, Archbishop Jackson said “We saw what we perhaps thought we would never have seen in our lifetime: Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome, and Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, signed in Lund cathedral a theological agreement: ‘From Conflict to Communion – Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017’ and in Malmo Arena a practical concordat between Caritas Internationalis and the Lutheran World Federation in aid of Syrian refugees in the Middle East.

Lund Cathedral, where Pope Francis and Bishop Munib Yuonan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, signed ‘From Conflict to Communion’ in October 2016.

“Their message was as simple as the earliest Christianity itself: what unites us is stronger than what divides us. This was a public commitment to common witness and service and in so many ways brings us full circle and out of darkness into understanding. We will continue to be different. We will, however, travel together rather than walking apart.”

In a tribute to the work of the Irish School of Ecumenics, Archbishop Jackson said reconciliation, in which Ireland, North and South, has sought to specialise, and to which the Irish School of Ecumenics has “contributed so significantly, demands of us as responsible citizens Inter Faith dialogue and understanding and respect”.

Returning to his opening illustration of Oxford University and Osney Abbey, the Archbishop asked if, in the setting of the University of Dublin 2017, the challenge to the universities is whether it is still really necessary to be “anti-religious in a world where mature humanity has long been calling all of us, religious and irreligious people and religious and irreligious institutions alike, to engage with the secular in a reconfigured humanism?”

He added that the question could extend to the wider educational establishment also.

“Is it still really necessary to find faith in God so problematic a concept, even if it is ‘not for you’, when today it seeks not to dominate and to indoctrinate but to contribute values of altruism and adventure to the human experiment and is open to criticism and to contradiction in a spirit of tolerance which goes beyond toleration?

“Do we all not need the freedom of reformation at some level of our operational existence even if we resist it at the pit of our stomach?

“Do we not live in a world where things have to continue to ‘give’ if we are all to do at least what Samuel Beckett, alumnus of this university, once invited us to do with chilling realism: Fail again. Fail better?”

The two-day theological symposium marking the quincentenary of the Reformation got under way on Friday evening in Trinity College Dublin. It was a collaborative initiative involving the Lutheran Church in Ireland and the School of Religions, Peace Studies & Theology, the School of Histories & Humanities, and the Department of Physics, Trinity College Dublin.

As part of the event a special Reformation Installation – a truck containing a travelling exhibition – was placed in the Front Square of Trinity College on Saturday. The exhibition is visiting 67 cities in 19 countries in Europe, offering the opportunity to explore Reformation stories and share thoughts and stories about the Reformation. It will finish in Wittenberg.

Provost and President of Trinity College Dr Patrick Prendergast said the university owed its foundation to the Reformation and added that few had greater impact on European history than Martin Luther.

Trinity is hosting a number of exhibitions and events to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation and he hoped that students, staff and people from further afield would engage with them.

Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick, co-chair of the Irish Inter Church Meeting, said the commemoration event was happening to witness to something extraordinary that happened 500 years ago.

Referring to the historic declaration signed in Lund, Sweden, last October by Pope Francis and the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation the Revd Martin Junge, he spoke of the importance of ecumenism. Bishop Leahy added that the weekend’s symposium was not about looking back at past events but an invitation to discover transformation as Christians.

Speaking of behalf of the Irish Council of Churches, the Rev Dr Donald Watts, former Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and past president of the ICC, said that Ireland had changed.

It had become a multi cultural, diverse society in which the Christian tradition is just one strand alongside others.

“A Christian viewpoint is best expressed by Christians together,” he suggested, adding that this was done through the Irish Inter Church Meeting and the Irish Council of Churches.

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