03 May 2006

Thorny seed is falling on fertile ground

Belfast Telegraph

After five years, a unique course bringing Protestants and Catholics together to study theology is being officially relaunched today. Noel McAdam examines the minor Belfast ecumenical 'miracle'
03 May 2006

Ecumenism has been hiding its light under a bushel in recent times. And perhaps with good reason. On-the-ground work has been happening quietly but seems to wither should word spread too far.

After all, the ramifications of the Easter week shared Eucharist in Drogheda, involving local Catholics and Church of Ireland members with their Rector, the Rev Michael Graham, will be on-going for some time.

The mass was inspired by Augustinian Order priest Fr Iggy O'Donovan's view that it is a "blasphemy to make religion the cause of strife" - but it may have inadvertently knocked back the very cause it sought to serve.

Tiny initiatives seem to fare better than grandiose gestures. And so it is that for five years now, every Tuesday night, a small group of Protestants and Catholics have been meeting in Belfast to study theology together, without controversy or headlines. Teaching staff also come from both communities.

And it is not as if the class has avoided tricky areas. Just last week the students discussed the thorny issue of the Eucharist, without rancour or recrimination.

In terms of the institutional churches alone the course is unique. And the involvement of Queen's University, Belfast, lends 'Exploring Theology Together' academic credibility.

Not that the Catholic hierarchy or the Methodist Church leaders who gave the joint study their blessings have exactly been exactly singing its praises from the rooftops.

Two years ago it seemed the course might be in trouble. Initial enthusiasm appeared to have waned, numbers seemed likely to dwindle and the commitment of both institutions was being called into question.

But, after some soul-searching (naturally) and a re-evaluation, led by Edgehill College principal Richard Clutterbuck and reconciliation officer Olive Bell, the course is being officially relaunched at a ceremony this afternoon.

The classes are taught by lecturers from Edgehill and Mater Dei Institute in Dublin, which have both recommitted to the course, with some input from other sources.

Fr Dermot Lane, President of Mater Dei, will be among the special guests for today's relaunch along with Duncan Morrow, Director of the Community Relations Council.

The first course began in February 2001 when more than 30 students enrolled. Students have the choice of attending a basic course of lectures, or taking a certificate course which requires students to complete an assignment, or thirdly a module course leading to a bachelor of theology degree at Queen's University.

The originators were the former principal of Edgehill, Dennis Cooke and Fr Brendan Leahy, now a senior professor at Maynooth College.

"Over the years I've learned that reconciliation work is not easy. Indeed, the personal pilgrimage in reconciliation is difficult," says Cooke.

When principal of Edgehill he insisted both ministerial and lay students think seriously about the sectarian nature of Irish society. "I ensured that every Methodist ministerial student learned about the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church from a priest and not second-hand from a colleague or myself," he says.

"Seminars were arranged for this purpose. When going on mission teams to various parts of Ireland I suggested to our local hosts that it would be useful for us to meet with local people from the community, both Catholic and Protestant."

For example, one week in Armagh included an afternoon spent in the company of the late Catholic Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich.

But a joint Protestant/Catholic theology study course was on a different level altogether. It was genuinely ground-breaking.

"It was based on the QUB Bachelor of Theology syllabus," explains Cooke. "Teaching is 50:50 Roman Catholic and Protestant. Students are from both communities. It has been an exciting experience! And it makes sense!"

Dr Leahy adds: "The course provides a space where people from different traditions can learn together and come to appreciate each other's Church tradition and theology.

"It is one of the initiatives promoted within that movement of the Holy Spirit that is increasingly drawing the churches together in dialogue and in mutual commitment to peace and reconciliation."

Theology has been defined as 'faith seeking understanding' but, for some, the pursuit of understanding on a cross-community basis would be to undermine faith. But the recent re-evaluation showed students, while predisposed to the concept, had still found the experience enriching.

There has been important cross-pollination of knowledge and insight, which added to the depth of relationships made, a report prepared by Olive Bell said.

"The students were ready and willing to look at difference," she observed. This has created something special in moving beyond divisions of conflict by literally exploring theology together.

"In all aspects of evaluation, it was the coming together in relationship with those who were different which was most cherished; this in itself is the doing of theology."

Students began to realise that you can challenge assumptions and it "gave great opportunity for interaction, sharing and discussion that made much nonsense of sectarianism."

Anyone interested in the course can contact Edgehill College, Lennoxvale, Malone Road, Belast, on 028 90 66 5870.

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