2020 has been a peculiar year so far – and it is still not over. I think it is safe to say that this is an uncontroversial statement. It has been a year of uncertainty – economic, social and personal – and uncertainty is uncomfortable for the human condition.
To add to our uncertainties we are now just weeks away from the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union on terms as yet to be agreed – or not – with consequences we are still trying to guess.
Because of this the Irish Inter-Church Meeting published a letter towards the end of October, which develops the themes they explored with their 2018 consultation paper ‘Brexit and the Irish Churches – Pastoral Dimensions’. The Irish Inter-Church Meeting reflects the contemporary landscape of Irish Christianity across Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Reformed and independent churches. It works across the whole of the island of Ireland, working in both jurisdictions, seeking peace, reconciliation and social justice, underpinned by respect for diversity within the bonds of a common Christian identity.
In their letter, co-signed by Bishop Brendan Leahy and the Very Reverend Dr. Ivan Patterson, they call for urgency and generosity in the negotiations, pointing out the role that the churches can play in the care of some of the most vulnerable in our society and in advocacy at local, regional and national and international levels.
Economic and social uncertainty create intense pastoral challenges – a responsibility for all of us, not just for the church leadership. These can be exacerbated by political narratives that seek to reduce complexity to a division between winners and losers, and a discourse that enjoys sowing populist conflict rather than mediating civility in disagreement.
The challenges Brexit poses to local business leaders, and the impact of rising costs and limiting consumer choice may have most impact on those with the lowest incomes, people already reeling from the impact of Covid restrictions.
I wondered if Scripture would be of any help to us as we look at these problems, over which we have so little control, and I see that the gospel for Sunday 8th November is Matthew 25:1-13, the story of the five wise and five foolish virgins – a gospel that forgives the human weaknesses that all of us can fall into (in the case of the girls awaiting the bridegroom, falling asleep) but counsels the virtues of being prepared – for preparation will overcome the difficulties that our understandable human weaknesses can lead us into.
But how do we prepare when we don’t know what we are preparing for? As I write the United States is perhaps preparing for two very different futures – and they don’t know which one will prevail. How do they prepare themselves for that?
Looking at the conclusion of the Brexit paper written in 2018 by the Bishop of Down and Connor, the answer would be that preparation includes understanding the past, in order to grasp where we now stand. Then and only then can we hope to engage with the present – both with those we agree with and those with whom we don’t. The Bishop describes the many advantages that came to the island of Ireland following on from their membership of the European Union, alongside the British membership of the Union (both countries joined in the same year 1973), and the transformative effect membership had on the relationship between the two. “Our shared EU membership and framework provided a genetic context for the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland” he writes.
He advocates that alongside key civil society actors, Christians and the Churches, have a vocation to act as leavens of critical discernment and facilitators of courageous and prophetic leadership. Most importantly we all have a shared responsibility to create contexts and spaces of dialogue, of encounter, exchange and understanding – no mean feat in this day of polarised posturing and platforming via social media; a world in which ‘you’re for me, or you’re against me’ as a discourse has coarsened us all.
Dialogue does not mean stating your position, and then allowing your ‘opponent’ to state theirs. Opposing sides reach their positions through their own paths of reasoning and emotion, and are not going to suddenly abandon their own views just because the other side has presented theirs. Dialogue requires confidence, discussion around where there is agreement, kindness and acknowledgement of hurt. But the rewards of dialogue in uncertain times can be enhanced understanding, and understanding is the first step on the road to preparation.
Another of Sunday’s readings is from the book of Wisdom – it says “Wisdom is glorious, and never fades away, it is easily seen by those that love her and is found by those that seek her.” Uncertain times call for us all to be wise, and to have the humility to seek wisdom.
Dr. Susan O’Brien is director of Ecumenism for the diocese of Killaloe. She lives in Binden Street, Ennis.