Homily of the Inaugural service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Homily of the Inaugural service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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Inaugural Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2016

Homily by the Very Reverend Dr Kenneth Newell OBE,

former Moderator of the Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Monday 18th January 2016, 8.00pm

St. Paul’s Church, Arran Quay, Dublin 7


‘Almighty God,

by your grace alone we have been accepted, and called to your service:

Strengthen and inspire us by your Holy Spirit,

and make us worthy of our calling; through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.’


As we commemorate the Easter Rising of April 1916, what lessons can we learn, what progress can we celebrate, and what vision do we need to embrace for the future?

It is a joy to be with you as we seek to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916. It catapulted Ireland into seven years of violent confrontation, partition and civil war on the rocky road to Independence. It was a moment of great national pride on 10 September 1923 when Ireland took her place among the League of Nations as the Irish Free State.

What lessons must we learn from our past, what progress can we celebrate over the last 100 years, and what vision should we embrace in order to shape an Ireland that is confidently inclusive, peaceful, just, compassionate, and prosperous?

The Easter Rising is a reminder of the danger of deafness:

The armed insurrection which began in Dublin on Easter Monday 24th April with 1250 members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army ended by Saturday 29th April with an unconditional surrender in the face of 16,000 British troops. Sixty-four rebels and 132 British soldiers had been killed; 254 innocent civilians had lost their lives and 2000 had been wounded. Within days of the surrender, fourteen of the leaders of the Rising were executed; a further 3,500 men and women were rounded up and imprisoned.

Dubliners were divided in their responses to the conflict. The stench of death and destruction, and the disruption of food supplies unleashed widespread antagonism towards the rebels who were hissed at and pelted with rubbish as they marched out to surrender. One journalist noted that in the poorer areas of the city ‘there was a vast amount of sympathy with the rebels’. Others admired their courage and strategy. A Dublin businessman James G. Douglas, hitherto a Home Ruler, wrote that his political outlook had changed radically during the course of the Rising and that he had become convinced that parliamentary methods would not be sufficient to remove the British presence. Support for physical force Republicanism grew steadily and within two years Sinn Fein had won a majority of Irish seats in the 1918 UK General Election.

‘From the time of the Great Famine of 1845 to 1847, certain sections of the Irish population had lost all faith in the British Government. They felt that it neither listened to their complaints nor cared about their grievances. To them, the Irish had become second class citizens in the world’s greatest empire builder. Arguments presented to London about freeing up Ireland from British Rule fell on seemingly deaf ears.’

Part of me wants to scribble across the pages of carnage within Ireland North and South over the last one hundred years two words – ‘Never Again’. But that is much too easy.   The challenge is to listen carefully and respectfully to those sections of our community that today are in pain and groan for understanding, acceptance and hope. Our lives begin to disintegrate morally, spiritually, socially and politically when we become silent about the things that really matter to ordinary people. Pray for ears to pick up the cries of distress today within our country and together work to transform the lives of those who feel excluded and in pain. Revolution is much more than smashing something; it is bringing something beautiful to birth and watching it grow for the benefit of all, not just the few.

The Easter Rising was a curtain-raiser to a century of astonishing change:

Few could have anticipated the changes we enjoy in the Ireland of 2016. One recalls the gloomy assessment of a 16th century English civil servant working in Ireland; ‘ The war of Ireland shall never end unless God set it in men’s hearts to find some new remedy that never was found before.’

Since Ireland won the freedom to determine democratically and peacefully its own future, the tide of revolution has continued to rise, not in terms of seizing power, but in the astonishing transformation of the often fractious relationships within this island and with our closest neighbour in the UK:

+the second Vatican Council called for by Pope John XXIII in 1962 opened the door to new working relationships between all the Churches of Christ, as this gathering witnesses;

+ In 1990, through friends Frs Gerry Reynolds and Alex Reid of Clonard Monastery in Belfast, I was catapulted in 1990 into prolonged private dialogue with senior republican and loyalist figures within and beyond Belfast. For eighteen months the climate of our exchanges was like typical Irish winter’s day – overcast and depressing.   Frozen mantras dominated our discussions: ‘There will be no end of republican violence until the Brits declare their intention to withdraw from NI!;   ‘There will be no loyalist let up in the paramilitary war against republicans until they declare a ceasefire!’   By 1992 I realised that some of the leading figures in republicanism and loyalism, to which we were talking, were willing to consider the possibility of conflict-resolution. I could hardly believe my eyes when in 1994 the IRA and the Combined Loyalist Military Command declared their ceasefires.

+ On 10 April 1998 I was conducting a parish mission in Cork when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I was on a Bus Eireann on my way into the city when the on-board music was interrupted with the news of the historic breakthrough. The DJ was so excited that he choose for his next song ‘There’ll be days like this’ by Van Morrison. I sang quietly to myself all the way into the city. In 1999 I never thought I would live to see the day when Sinn Fein entered Stormont, or to watch a news conference in Belfast in September 2005 when my friends Fr. Alec Reid and the former Methodist President , Rev Harold Good sat beside General Chastelain and announced that ‘ the IRA had destroyed all its arms’.

+ The State Visit of the Queen to Ireland in May 2011, the finest contribution to reconciliation by the President of Ireland, Dr Mary McAleese. These two influential women helped to lay to rest forever the ghosts of a turbulent past. For me, the two stand-out moments of the visit were firstly, the joint wreath-laying ceremonies, first of all at the Garden of Remembrance when the Queen stepped forward and laid a green laurel wreath in front of war memorial, stepped back and bowed her head in respect for ‘all those who gave their lives in the cause Irish Freedom. That dignified bow of the monarch’s head was a tacit acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the Irish struggle and an expression of sorrow for the pain our two nations had caused each other. Then a similar ceremony at the Irish War Memorial Garden in Islandbridge, dedicated ‘to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War (1914-1918).

All of these luminous moments inspire us as Christians to reach out and work for an Ireland that is inclusive, compassionate, just, reconciled, peaceful and prosperous. They act like rockets of hope exploding in the night sky into shards of colourful light and dropping into a thousand lives.   They are the glimpse that God gives us of a brighter future for all, and he always promises to guide us along the route to it; grace-nav is the Gospel’s equivalent to sat-nav.

That’s why we must leave here asking ourselves the question: ‘Lord Jesus, where do you want to take me, my church and my community here in Dublin?’ This is what I hear him saying to us:

Carry my new prayer in your heart: “Father, may my disciples be one in heart and mind just as we are” (John 17). I see Jesus slipping into the back of each of our congregations and quietly praying

“Father, make them one so that Ireland may see that you have sent your Son.”

Embody my new commandment in your life: “If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 14). Wherever your parish church is, make it inclusive, bond with other churches near you, and aspire to become ‘communities of the new commandment’.

Embrace my new vision of Ireland: Many will come from North and South, East and West, and sit down at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Matthew 8). The vision of universal reconciliation motivated the mission of Jesus; it lies at the heart of his cross and is the goal of his risen life among us. Let it energise us to weed out every vestige of estrangement amount our people and in its place plant seeds of trust and harmony. Then let us wait patiently for the abundant harvest of the God whose goodness we have lived to glimpse even in our own lifetimes.

Let us commemorate Easter Rising with respect and humility, but let us continue working for that continuing revolution of self-giving love and generous service of others that we see shining to brightly in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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