After the Referendum

The summer edition of VOX is out. Thanks to a talented team of Ruth-Garvey Williams, Jonny Lindsay and Tara Byrne, it has developed and maintains a high standard, mixing news and articles and opinion pieces. Here’s a piece I have in it reflecting on the aftermath of the abortion referendum.


I have been trying to think through what the abortion Referendum result means while also trying to sort out my emotional ‘gut reaction’ to the vote. So what follows is unapologetically personal. You might agree or disagree, but hopefully we can learn from each other in the process.

Let’s start with emotions: at a deep level I’m dismayed and saddened. Christians believe that God alone is the life-giver. To take life is to assume the ‘right’ to destroy a precious work of God. But’s let’s also try to think what the result means more widely. I’ve only space to make two points on how I think the result poses profound challenges for Christians in Ireland today.

First, the Referendum was about much more than abortion. A story is a powerful thing. I don’t mean story as fiction, but story as a narrative that carries moral, emotional and personal power. The story of the YES campaign was vote for compassion, safety, liberty, inclusivity, welcome and dignity for women faced with the traumatic situation of an unwanted pregnancy. It was a vote to cast off the last shackles of our religious past: its harshness, judgementalism, cruelty, abuse, enforced adoption, and systematic humiliation of vulnerable women by a patriarchal religious culture that used power for its own ends. This is why, for some Christians I talked to, the vote was far from a black or white issue but posed a real dilemma. It was also, I think, primarily the leaving behind of the final legacy of ‘old Ireland’ that thousands of people were on the streets of Dublin to celebrate on the 26th of May 2018.

This means that in today’s Ireland, to use the language of John’s Gospel, it is the ‘world’, not the church, that embodies progress, hope and, most of all, love. And here’s the thing that churches really need to face up to and own – there is very good reason for the world to think like this. You don’t need me to re-tell the story of religion in 20th century Ireland. And let’s be honest, Protestant, evangelical and Pentecostal churches have plenty of repenting to do about our own divisions and lack of love.

I often hear it said that Christians in the West now find themselves in a context similar to that of the early Church – as marginalised small communities of believers living within a pagan Empire. I think that’s partially true, but is too easy a comparison. The first Christians had no baggage of church history. Christians in Ireland, rightly or wrongly, like it or not, are perceived as carrying a truckload. The vote shows that a large segment of the population see that baggage as bad news, not good.

Second, this means that the Referendum is primarily a challenge for the church to look at itself. Our job is not to ‘save’ Ireland – as if there is such a thing as a Christian country. The ‘world’ will do what the world will do and we cannot control it, nor should we try. No, our primary job is to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world.

This means being authentic communities of love, grace and good news. Of serving others, of preaching the gospel, of forgiving each other, of welcoming the outsider whatever their history, sexuality or status. If we are against the taking of life in principle, it means being people of peace, not war and protecting and taking care of the elderly. When it comes to abortion, it means not only talking about it, but being communities of such generous love that a woman faced with a crisis pregnancy will be supported and cared for emotionally, financially and relationally so that the community can help her bring up her child. But we can’t do that from a distance. We need to ask ourselves, are we in nice holy huddles, detached from the experience of many women (and men) faced with abortion as the only ‘solution’ to their situation? Or are we taking the time, and bearing the cost, of loving people in need sacrificially?

I’m troubled by my own answers to these questions. How about you?

5 thoughts on “After the Referendum

  1. These are challenging questions Patrick and the challenge for the church to look at itself is well put.

    The hasty comparison to the early church is indeed a problem. “We are now in Babylon” seems to be the OT version. At their worst these approaches avoid asking what “We are in Ireland in 2018” means.

    That, of course, is linked to the need to engage with narrative and I don’t think this can be understated. I could not find a single reference from church statements on the Irish referendum on abortion to Irish abortions. By this I mean there was not a sentence that had as its object or subject specifically the lives of women and their unborn children who experienced abortion through the 13th amendment (3,000+ per year), the Protection of LIfe during Pregnancy Act (c. 20 per year) or illegally through abortion pills accessed online and via An Post delivery (1,000+ per year). It was as if the “no story” story would begin with post-referendum abortions. Maybe you spotted such a reference?

    The bigger questions for evangelicals may be what does embracing a narrative approach mean for much of how evangelicalism has been expressed and lived out? On this I refer to the likes of David Fitch and the idea that evangelicalism is actually liberal (in the true sense) and only by letting go of this can things change:

  2. Richard,
    I see where Fitch is coming from. Am actually reading his book The End of Evangelicalism at the moment for prep for a course. I find a lot of his critique spot on, but also constructive, on being a faithful presence in the world and trusting God to do his work through his church – rather than trusting to politics or trying to control the culture.
    I think the only place I heard those figures in a discussion ‘Forum’ we had at our church – from a medical doctor who gave a presentation.

    • Yes, The End of Evangelicalism is an interesting read. I still tell people about that scene in the film Borat (at the rodeo) to illustrate how one lets ideologies run their course rather than antagonising them. Fitch also engages with Lacan and Zizek so there is lots of heavy reading to get stuck into. Faithful Presence (with Geoff Holsclaw) is the more practical follow-up.

  3. Hi Patrick:

    Thank you so much for this honest reflection. The vote on the 8th amendment was the hardest one that I ever had to do. I did not fit in any campaign, to be honest, I found it a much more complex issue.

    There are a couple of thoughts that came to my mind after the referendum, specially in the light of some of the responses that I heard among some evangelicals.
    One of them was that the result was a disgrace, terrible, etc. These comments carried a lot of contempt in them, an attitude that says: I am better than others.
    I have come to realise that unless I love this country, the city where I live, with the same passion and sadness that Jesus experienced over Jerusalem, I can’t expect people to pay attention to what I say. The only reason that I am not like “others” is because of God’s grace, not because I am better, I have more common sense, etc.
    So, the danger for evangelicals is to look at society with contempt. Not exactly the Jesus’ way.

    The other thing is to fall into self-pity and to throw the towel.
    We mustn’t forget that we are not writing this story, we are the protagonists in it, the writer and director is well able to deal with all the bad choices that his creation makes. He knows where the story is going, it is the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of evangelicals, Protestants, Catholics.

    Finally, as you said, this is a time for the church to humble itself and listen very carefully at what God is saying.
    I like what my dear friend Eugene Peterson says in his latest book, when he writes the introduction to the prophets:

    “Basically, the prophets did two things. First they worked to get people to accept the worst not as a religious catastrophe or a political disaster but as God’s judgment, and that not as a punishment but as a way of settings things right. It can only be embraced, not denied or avoided, for God is good and intends our salvation”
    “The second major work of the prophets was to get people who were beaten down to open themselves up to hope in God’s future, to get them on their feet again”.

    To me this is what we have to do as Jesus’ followers, to find what God is trying to put right in our lives and in the church.
    One of the things that I find very interesting is that in many congregations there is little time within the worship time, to pause, to reflect, to confess. The message at times is like: we have arrived, we are fine.
    “Consciousness of sin is a regular part of worship; despair isn’t ” (E.Peterson).

    God is speaking to us, His people, we must take time to listen, to be faced with our flaws but never to despair. We are coming to a loving and forgiving God.

  4. Ana, sorry for delay in replying, have been travelling.

    “we must take time to listen, to be faced with our flaws but never to despair” – Amen. Thanks.

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