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Conflict, controversy and co-operation

30 November, 2000

Norman W. Taggart, a Methodist minister who was deeply involved in the Irish Council of Churches during the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, follows the story of that body as it broke new ground in ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church.

143 pp, Columba Press, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Preface and Acknowledgements
1. Personal perspective
2. The ICC and the Northern Ireland crisis
3. The ICC and the Roman Catholic Church
4. The ICC: successes, criticisms and challenges


This is the story of the Irish Council of Churches between 1968 and 1972, the first four years of ‘The Troubles’. It contains important new material and traces the first formal contacts between the Irish Council of Churches, its member churches and the Roman Catholic Church.

Sharp differences of opinion and tensions arose and were faced. Opposition to the introduction of internment was intense within the Catholic community – and indeed within Protestantism especially in the South. This opposition is explored fully in this book. The role of the joint Catholic/Protestant group on social problems is also covered in this book as is the role of another largely unpublicised Catholic and Protestant body, set up in confidence to advise church leaders on the developing crisis in Northern Ireland. The latter has not previously been discussed in detail. As a body it considered and took action on highly contentious issues like Catholic grievances, Protestant fears and allegations of police and prison brutality.

The leadership of the ICC was of the highest order over the period, with Dr Eric Gallagher (Methodist), Principal James Haire (Presbyterian) and Archbishop George Simms (the Church of Ireland) its successive chairmen. Cardinal Conway of the Catholic Church was found to be a person willing to take and respond to initiatives involving other churches. Ecumenism was still widely viewed as an irrelevance, a dangerous perversion of the gospel or an issue too hot to handle. Those involved in ecumenism in the North ran the risk of ridicule, threats and abuse. Yet these proved to be ground-breaking days for ecumenism as the Northern Ireland crisis came to the boil and Protest and Catholic relations in Ireland took important steps forward.

CHAPTER 1: A personal perspective
This is a personal perspective on the role and influence of the Irish Council of Churches between 1968 and 1972, the early years of ‘the Troubles’ as we euphemistically call them. The deteriorating situation within the community formed the continuing backdrop to everyday life and prompted many of the responses and initiatives taken by the ICC. Both words – personal and perspective – are important. Other people would have described the work of the ICC differently. Having had a part-time position in the ICC at the time, I write as an ‘insider’ whose outlook has been influenced by my upbringing and education mainly in Belfast and by periods of ministry in Sandy Row, Belfast (1961-2), India (1962-6), Sligo (1966-8), Greenisland (1968-72), London (1972-9), the Belfast Central Mission (1979-87), Cavehill (1987-9), Sri Lanka (1990-4) and Coleraine and Ballymoney (from 1994 until my retirement in 2001). The reasons for writing include the invitation from the Secretary of the ICC, Dr David Stevens; the fact that earlier accounts of the ICC in the period have tended to be rather sketchy, often being part of wider studies; the number of people still alive who were involved then in the ICC is decreasing gradually; as the Organising Secretary, I possess personal records and memories; and perhaps most tellingly, my retirement has provided time and opportunity to put pen to paper.

My childhood was spent in Woodvale, a working class district in Belfast. Our home was not conventional from a political point of view, being unionist with only a small ‘u’. We favoured Labour or socialist politics more than the flag-waving form of unionism which prevailed. Unionist myths that somehow the Protestant working class was ‘the people’, superior to the Roman Catholic working class in every way, whether or not either side had jobs, cut little ice with us. At home, anger was sometimes expressed at the injustices from which the poor – Protestants as well as Catholics – suffered. Such stances made us aware that in a sense we were part of a minority within the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. Socially and politically we therefore had at least a small degree of fellow feeling with the much larger Catholic minority, sharing with them a sense of powerlessness to influence events. The short-term rise in the fortunes of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) from the late 1950s heartened us; holding out hope of better days to come. Religiously we were Methodists, another minority grouping. Methodism sharpened our social and community conscience, softened our attitudes towards Catholics in a society scarred by sectarianism, and arising from its Arminianism and ‘the optimism of grace’ (1) helped to keep us fundamentally hopeful despite the odds against us. Later, in the 1980s, I was to use three words to describe Irish Methodism – ‘slender’, ‘struggling’ and ‘fruitful’ (2) – to draw attention to the fact that, though small, Methodism in Ireland has at best responded positively to the challenge of being a religious minority and has borne fruit.

Thirty years after an anti-UDA (Ulster Defence Association) statement made by me in June 1972, (3) I learnt of a conversation between my father and one of my brothers. By then the Troubles had taken their toll on our father, shaking his confidence, hardening his attitudes and making him more conservative. The UDA was already strong around Woodvale in 1972, where our parents still lived, and my father had apparently been ‘very upset’ by the statement, though he never discussed it with me. Perhaps he felt vulnerable in the circumstances. Where had I got ‘that stuff’, he had asked. My brother, never one to flinch from pressing a point, simply replied ‘from you’.

I have had two main concerns throughout my life, mission and unity. Not one for labels, I have none the less always considered myself an evangelical and an ecumenist. This has not been a common combination among evangelicals in Northern Ireland due to the widespread fear and mistrust of Roman Catholic teaching, practice and motivation, coupled with an assumption that vital Reformation principles might somehow be compromised through association with Catholics. The phrase ‘Romeward trend’ was widely used among those opposed to the ecumenical movement in the 1960s and 70s, referring to a likely ‘sell-out to Rome’ by so-called ‘ecumenical churches’.

After studying at Queen’s University and Edgehill College, where Methodist ministers (and nowadays lay people of varying traditions) are trained, I was sent with Margaret, my wife, to Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, for one year’s further training for service overseas. This was followed by a year’s exposure to practical ministry in Sandy Row, Belfast, a ‘missionary’ situation as demanding and challenging as any we were later to encounter elsewhere in the world. Many people in Sandy Row were unchurched. Some were ‘political Protestants’, hostile or indifferent to the Christian faith, pro-British and anti-Catholic. Others, however, were deeply committed Christians, exerting a lasting and wholesome influence upon us. During this year in Belfast we occasionally visited Anthony and Miriam Hanson who had worked for over a decade within the united Church of South India (CSI), to be given an informal introduction to life in India and the Telugu language. Anthony Hanson had been appointed canon theologian at St Anne’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Belfast, to encourage C of I clergy to undertake further studies. The appointment was not, however, universally welcomed within the C of I since some people – bishops included – were rather cool towards the CSI.

I was ordained and served in the Medak diocese of the CSI, a church formed in 1947 which brought together mainly Anglicans, Congregationalists, Methodists and Presbyterians. The CSI recognised and sought to give practical expression to the link between mission and unity. In our part of rural India, Andhra Pradesh, a predominantly Hindu society in which there was an influential and sizeable Muslim minority, we learnt to respect and work with people of other faiths. Despite long-standing restrictions concerning conversion where we first served, a leprosy hospital in and around which there was a ‘no proselytism’ rule, we found it possible to relate to people in ways relevant to their needs. India influenced us profoundly, opening us up to unfamiliar, richly textured cultures, and helping us to grow as people. We also matured through a painful experience of uncertainty, illness and family separation. We had gone to India with a one-year-old daughter. Our second child, a son, was born there. Due to his serious illness when under two years of age, Margaret and the children were forced to return suddenly to Ireland, leaving me behind. Six months later I too returned to Ireland after completing the Indian church year, and was appointed to Sligo in February 1966, a predominantly Roman Catholic community now more open to cross-community initiatives following the Second Vatican Council.

Our time in India had coincided with the holding of the Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965. Life in a remote part of rural India – an area in which most people were illiterate, communication with the outside world was rudimentary, and Christians were a tiny minority with the nearest Catholic priest several miles away – meant that the excitement and significance of the Second Vatican Council had passed us by. To live thereafter for a couple of years in Sligo was ideal, enabling us to be together again as a family, helping us to catch up with changes in the mood and spirit of Roman Catholicism, and facilitating a stimulating and fulfilling short period of cross-community ministry at a time of continuing uncertainty, while the possibility of returning to India was explored.

I was appointed part-time Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) in 1968 when hopes of returning to India were finally frustrated. The Council appointment was initially for three years, subject to satisfactory decisions being taken at the Methodist Conference in June, and was to become effective from the late summer. The Conference duly obliged, transferring me from Sligo to Greenisland on the county Antrim side of Belfast Lough, a location close to Belfast and convenient to the access routes to Dublin, the two centres for most ICC activities. From a Methodist point of view, Greenisland is on the Carrickfergus Circuit with four churches, Carrickfergus, Greenisland, Islandmagee and Whitehead. Though I was to be responsible for the church at Greenisland, I would also be required to take occasional services in each of the other churches. Few people at the Methodist Conference would have realised that part of the reason for my transfer was to enable me to take up an appointment with the ICC. It was not that the ecumenical element in the transfer was deliberately played down. Reference to my ICC appointment had been made in the ICC report received at Conference, but as far as I am aware no reference was made to it within Conference discussions or later in the published minutes of Conference. This indeed was the pattern throughout my period with the ICC, as it was for other Methodists involved with the Council including Dr Gallagher, the ICC Chairman from 1967 to 1969. It was probably more a case of low-profile ecumenism than ecumenism by stealth, a strategy encouraged by circumstances. I now, however, also see it as an indication that though Methodism has been ‘up front’ about its membership of the ICC, ecumenical involvement has somehow tended not to be regarded as being within the mainstream of the church’s life and witness. Ecumenism in the 1960s, especially in the North, was viewed as a minority interest – far down the list of priorities – or as an ecclesiastical hot potato, to be handled, if at all, with extreme caution and as little publicity as possible.

I discovered on arrival at Greenisland that only a handful of local people were aware of my coming ICC responsibilities. In a way this low-key approach was understandable, given the cool, even hostile ecumenical climate. In retrospect, however, one wonders about the wisdom and fairness of such an arrangement. Have ecumenical activists been made to pay too high a price for their involvement? Could not more have been done to affirm and support them? Most local people in Greenisland simply regarded me as their new minister, whom they expected to be with them full-time. As already noted, nothing in the minutes of Conference indicated that I would have other commitments. Interestingly, the Presbyterian Church had handled matters quite differently some years earlier, when Carlisle Patterson’s part-time secretaryship of the United Council of Churches and Religious Communions in Ireland (UCCI) – while still an active minister within the PCI – was officially endorsed and recognised within Presbyterianism. I was placed in an awkward position. Would the people in Greenisland understand my position when they came to realise, as inevitably they would, that I had other commitments? Would I be able to keep on top of things locally, providing a level of pastoral care and leadership which the people had a right to expect? Had the Greenisland congregation learnt of a comment in a Sligo newspaper in July 1968, (4) that my transfer from Sligo was ‘only incidental’ to my taking up an appointment with the ICC, my endeavour to win people’s confidence in Greenisland might well have been lost at the outset.

Could I at the same time establish and maintain good relations within the ICC? Could I measure up to their expectations of me? Only time would tell. I was conscious that with few exceptions I was not well known to many people in ICC circles. I did not come from one of the two main member churches (the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church), and I was still in the early years of my ministry and had been overseas. I was fortunate though in that Dr Eric Gallagher (he was to receive an honorary doctorate in 1971) – who did know me – was the current Chairman of the ICC as well as being President of the Methodist Church in 1967-8, and I could only assume that he and others such as Harold Sloan, the Secretary of the Methodist Conference, had sufficient confidence in me to commend me to other Council members. Principal James Haire, who was to succeed Dr Gallagher as Chairman of the ICC, was acquainted with me through my training for ministry in the late 1950s in shared classes at Edgehill College and the Presbyterian Assembly’s (later Union) College where he was now Principal. Robert Brown (the Convener of the Presbyterian Inter-Church Relations Committee) and Gordon Gray (the Presbyterian Youth Secretary) had been fellow ministerial students with me and were now involved in the ICC, as was Canon Eric Elliott (C of I) who had taught me ‘RE’ at ‘Inst’ (the Royal Belfast Academical Institution).

Whatever uncertainties may have weighed on our minds, we were soon left in no doubt as to the goodwill which awaited us as a family in Greenisland. My two ministerial colleagues on the Methodist Circuit, including Samuel Ferguson my Superintendent minister, were warm and welcoming. Our new home on Station Road was close to the Methodist church which faced the Church of Ireland building across the road. The two churches shared one Boys’ Brigade company and on occasions co-operated in other ways. Harden Johnston, the rector, was a close and friendly neighbour. A housing estate, with Protestant and Catholic residents, was within sight. The local RC chapel stood a little distance away, just off the Station Road. The Presbyterian church was on the Upper Road, towards Carrickfergus. Soon after our arrival, Margaret was invited to a coffee morning to meet some of the neighbours in the Attwood home. The Attwoods were Catholics, with their son Alex a schoolboy in those days. He was later to become a leading figure in the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a merger of several nationalist political groups in 1970. That same year – one in which the battle lines were being drawn between pro- and anti-reform parties and politicians in Northern Ireland – also saw the emergence of the moderate Alliance Party, with which some of our Greenisland Methodists were to associate. Local community relations appeared good in 1968. Margaret and I eagerly anticipated the fresh challenges we have always found in the appointments in which the itinerant system of ministry in the Methodist Church has placed us.

In 1967-8 the member churches of the ICC were the Church of Ireland, the Congregational Union, the Methodist Church, the Moravian Church, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Religious Society of Friends and the Salvation Army. Within a year the Congregational Union withdrew from the Council, apparently not for any theological reason or because of disagreement. Towards the end of my period the Lutheran Church came into membership, restoring the number of member churches to eight. The ICC was also associated with the Youth Committee of the Irish Churches (YCIC), the Churches’ Industrial Council, Christian Aid (the development agency of forty churches in Britain and Ireland), and local Councils of Churches (especially in Belfast and Dublin). Its officers were Dr Gallagher, Chairman; Principal James Haire, Vice-Chairman; Canon Robin Richey, Secretary; and John Radcliffe, Honorary Treasurer. With my appointment as Organising Secretary, Robin Richey became Assistant and Records’ Secretary. In this capacity he gave me invaluable support and encouragement over the next four years, servicing committees, writing the Council and Executive minutes (on which I have drawn for this work), relieving me of aspects of administration, and undertaking other work for the Council, especially as it related to the Republic.

The ICC summarised my tasks as advocating and interpreting ecumenism; making contact with local churches and with local Councils of Churches; monitoring the new relationships, official and unofficial, between the Irish churches including the Roman Catholic Church; working for increased co-operation between the departments of member churches; and through liaison with the British Council of Churches, making progress in these areas. Although no direct reference was made to the churches’ role in society, this was never far from mind and it quickly became my most daunting, demanding and controversial area of activity. The tasks as listed were described as my ‘primary duty’. What else was in mind, one wonders? It was a tall order for one of two part-time staff persons – the other being Robin Richey – each working from home on a part-time basis, in a body which in view of the anticipated increase in activity asked its member churches to raise their combined giving to £1080 per year. The initial payment for the two members of staff came to a total of £350 per annum, plus expenses. After a few years, I was in addition provided with a dictating machine and local part-time secretarial help, and my term as Organising Secretary was extended to 1972.

In retrospect, how did the shared appointment with the ICC work out from Greenisland’s point of view? Involvement with the ICC undoubtedly meant that I was unavailable locally at times, and I always felt apprehensive when my ecumenical activity involved me in public controversy and criticism. As early as February 1969 an article by me in the Methodist Irish Christian Advocate, entitled ‘The unity that really matters’, was given as one of two reasons why a regular reader of the paper for over thirty years cancelled his order. ‘I think it would have been a good day for Irish Methodism had Mr Taggart stayed with the Church of South India’, he wrote in a letter to the editor. (5) My ministry in Greenisland was enriched by wider contacts through the ICC, and local people were remarkably understanding and supportive of my work with the Council. Methodist Circuit minutes record many positive developments in Greenisland between 1968 and 1972. These included a successful stewardship campaign, forming a team to undertake practical work on the premises, membership classes leading to the reception of new church members of varied ages, experimental services, youth and children’s programmes, and work among women reported as flourishing. Local Methodists became involved in cross-community initiatives. For example, the peace movement Women Together became active in Greenisland, with the local branch described as one of the largest in the country.

Our family increased by two during the time, with the arrival for adoption of an Indo Mauritian baby boy early in 1969 and a Jamaican baby girl a year later. My final Circuit Quarterly meeting was held in Greenisland in early June 1972, when tributes were paid to my ministry. In response I referred to the fact that I ‘had always been received with grace and never hostility’ in the churches of the Circuit. (6) Later in the month, at a congregational event to say farewell to us as a family, the presence of Archbishop George Simms, by then the ICC Chairman, and Dr Gallagher – both representing the wider church and my ICC involvement – was much appreciated.


1. ‘Arminianism’ describes the Methodist emphasis on the universality of the offer of salvation and the freedom of individuals to accept or reject it. The Dutch theologian Arminius (1560-1609), whose writings Wesley had read, challenged the Calvinist teaching that salvation is available only to the ‘elect’, referring to those who are predestined to receive it. The phrase ‘the optimism of grace’ recurs in Methodist writings. J. M. Turner, for example, distinguishes between the ‘optimism of nature’, the Enlightenment view that humanity was fundamentally good; the ‘pessimism of grace’, the Calvinist view that humanity was fundamentally evil with some saved through God’s elective grace; and the ‘optimism of grace’, Wesley’s view that no limits could be put to what God can do in human hearts and relations through his grace offered to all  (M. Turner, John Wesley, the Evangelical Revival and the Rise of Methodism in England (2002)), p. 76.
2. N. W. Taggart, The Irish in World Methodism 1760-1900, 1986, p. X.
3. This is discussed in chapter 2, pp. 80-2.
4. The Sligo Champion, 12 July 1968.
5. The Irish Christian Advocate, 16 January and 6 February 1969.
6. The minute book of the Carrickfergus Circuit, Quarterly meeting held in Greenisland on 1 June 1972.


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