Faith & Reason: Gunmen sheltering in the shadow of the Cross

It is no good for the churches in Northern Ireland to wring their hands over sectarian killings, says Paul Handley, Editor of the Church Times. The violence is their fault.

Last week was a pretty spectacular week for Christian unity. On Monday the Irish National Liberation Army and (probably) the Ulster Freedom Fighters acted in concert. They both killed somebody. Just to prove this wasn't a fluke, on Wednesday they did it again.

Of course, Christianity is not the sole, nor even the chief, reason why a carpet salesman, a taxi driver and three others now lie dead, but it is deeply implicated in any sectarian act in Northern Ireland. If the gunmen aren't adherents, their parents most likely are, and their neighbours, and the various people who formed their character and opinions. And if, by the slightest chance, none of these had been touched by faith, there are so many believers in the province and on the mainland, that the violence should have been stopped long ago.

Not, on balance, a good moment, then, in the history of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which this is. It is 90 years since the idea of a such a week was first tried out, and you would be forgiven for asking what, if anything, all those prayers for all those years had achieved. But never mind the 90 years: the search for Christian unity stretches back nearly 2,000 years, to those awkward commands of Jesus and Paul which suggest (to paraphrase) that any team which can't handle unity is heading for relegation. It's not Kenny Dalglish who should be worried about keeping his job, but George Carey, John Paul II and all the rest.

For an aide-memoire to those biblical sayings, one need only look down the list of texts chosen by the ecumenical group which prepares study material for Christian unity week. 1967 - "Called to one hope"; 1970 - "We are fellow workers for God"; 1984 - "Called to be one"; 1989 - "One body in Christ"; 1990 - "That they all may be one".

Why does this make such depressing reading? Because if everybody had taken the first week seriously, they wouldn't have needed any more. The text for 1996 was "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." It doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody that Christ might actually like a door or two to be opened.

It would be unfair to suggest that nothing has happened. There are now hundreds of examples of local churches of different denominations sharing buildings and resources, sometimes even ministers. Even so, at the national and international level, the churches really aren't any closer together. So many of the stories one hears about local co-operation are appended with the plea: "but don't tell the bishop/archdeacon/powers that be". And while people are being shot simply because they happen to be Catholics or Protestants, such acts of ecumenical politeness look pretty feeble.

The Church's disunity makes me think of a milkman. For years he has been delivering milk to the same street, patiently and with resignation putting up with his customers' changing tastes in bottles, cartons, silver-, red- , gold- and blue-top. Their grumbles persist, however, and provoke a couple of neighbours at the end of the street to start smashing each other's bottles on the doorstep. Fortunately for the Church, the milkman will continue to call for as long as somebody in the street wants him ("Behold, I stand at the door and ring for your order"). But having seen the antics of his customers - the grumblers as well as the bottle-smashers - is it any wonder that newcomers to the street are taking their coffee black?

And then there are the people who buy their milk from a supermarket. There are now many churches which thrive partly because they refuse to get involved in the confused, time- consuming, unrewarding business of getting institutions to merge. They can demonstrate the beneficial effect of concentrating all their efforts into the real task of the Church, which is saving souls, and can point to all the enthusiastic new people they have attracted. And as long as the mainstream churches are so half-hearted about unity, these exclusive brethren cannot be contradicted.

This is a paradox, since their response to disunity is so far from being a solution that it is actually the problem. No church separates itself from others because it thinks itself worse than they are but because it wants to be superior; this is the root cause of sectarianism. And sectarianism, cross-fertilised with the wrong cultural, social and political elements, leads to violence.

And so we return to the situation in Northern Ireland and the matter of Christian culpability. For all their hand-wringing, it is only when the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches are working more seriously for unity that they can legitimately pray for an end to the killing. Until then, they should apologise for it.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely