Saturday, 20 July 2024

How the Irish Council of Churches and Irish Inter-Church Meeting work together today

This article follows on in this series marking the centenary of the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) and the fifty-year anniversary of the Ballymascanlon Talks which led to the formation of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM).

From my experience of international inter-church work, I would say that the structures developed for the island of Ireland in the form of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM) and its relationship to the Irish Council of Churches (ICC), given practical expression through the work of the Irish Inter-Church Committee (IICC), represent a unique response to the particular circumstances of the Irish context.

Practices vary around the world in terms of the participation of the Catholic Church in national inter-church structures, from full membership in some places to others where there is no formal relationship. On this island, the Protestant and Orthodox members of the ICC relate to each other through a formally constituted Council. This is the registered charity for inter-church work, working across both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. The Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference relates to the ICC through the IICM, which is an activity of the ICC, underpinned by a Memorandum of Operation, with a Joint Management Committee to consider issues of governance and resources, and the Irish Inter-Church Committee (IICC) where the work of relationship-building and outreach is developed.

These structures are undoubtedly complex - during my time as ICC General Secretary (2016-2021) I was often told there were too many 'I's and too many 'C's confusing our inter-church space - but I would argue that these structures have helped, rather than hindered, the development of strong working relationships between Christian churches on the island of Ireland in recent years. When I took up the role of General Secretary the IICM had just been through a process of restructuring and renewal led by my predecessor, Mervyn McCullagh.

Prior to 2015 the IICM structure was larger, with separate bodies for theological and social issues, both reporting to the Irish Inter-Church Committee. In the restructuring process this work was brought together in the IICC to help ensure best use of resources. At the same time, an in-depth process of reflection and dialogue on the values, identity and purpose of the structures had taken place, leading to the adoption of a new logo with the accompanying message 'Churches in Ireland - Connecting in Christ' placing the shared identity in Christ at the heart of all the churches seek to do together.

It was a great privilege for me to work with ICC/IICM at a time when both bodies had a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to maximise the impact of their work and outreach. I began by listening to the experiences and priorities of member church representatives. A significant contribution was made by the late Rev Dr John Stephens of the Methodist Church who emphasised the need for the work of ICC and IICM to be complementary, but not overlapping, because Church representatives did not have time to attend the same meeting twice! With this in mind, the Joint Management Committee took a lead role in designing annual work plans that provided a variety of opportunities for engagement - the meetings of the ICC Executive moved around the island, engaging with individual member churches and local inter-church groups, to share learning and offer encouragement. The Irish Inter-Church Committee met in Dundalk and provided the space for detailed work on advocacy and public engagement. It was a great encouragement that ICC members considered it vital to include the Catholic Church in all of this work which, during my time, included issues of peace and reconciliation, Brexit, homelessness, climate justice and racial justice amongst others. I suggest that the relationships that make this work possible are supported by the inter-church structures which, despite their complexity, offer clarity in terms of processes and parameters for collective decision-making. The diversity and different experiences of members are respected, so that collective endeavours add value, rather than taking a lowest common denominator approach.

Fifty years on from its establishment the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, now an annual residential gathering, continues to make an important contribution to the life of the churches. Each year a priority theme from the work of the IICC is explored in-depth and prayerfully, through both informal and formal dialogue, using a range of different methodologies and a wide variety of contributors. In the relationships that make possible honest dialogue and reflection on major challenges facing churches and society, we see the value of the investment that has been made over time in the development of our national inter-church structures. The consistent commitment to meeting and sharing, with a strong sense of purpose, and also with the freedom to bring our concerns as well as our hopes and good news has created a space for encounter and fellowship that offers a model to a wider society that is struggling more and more to hold spaces for respectful dialogue about difference.

Dr Nicola Brady
Former ICC General Secretary

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