Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland – Suzanne Cousins

Last week was a book launch at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute (CITI). The book in question was by Suzanne Cousins and called Generous Love in Multi-Faith Ireland: towards mature citizenship and a positive pedagogy for the Church of Ireland in Local-Muslim Mission and Engagement.

Speakers included the Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson, Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, the Head-Imam of Al-Mustafa Islamic Education & Cultural Centre Ireland and Suzanne.

Suzanne is a friend and an excellent theologian. She was ordained in 2015 and is parish ministry in Moville, Co. Donegal. The book is published as part of the CITI’s Braemor Studies Series – the best MTh dissertations of each year gets chosen and I can see why this one was in that category.

What I like about the book is that Suzanne faces head-on theological, missiological, relational and historical questions around Christian-Muslim relationships. In other words this is robust theology, backed up by detailed research (20 pages of bibliography for a 90 page book). Some of the issues addressed include:

  • Facing the reality of fear of syncretism by engaging in inter-faith dialogue
  • A call to “mature citizenship” for Church of Ireland Christians that equates to “challenging narratives of non-love” (10). Suzanne engages with Paul Ricoeur’ theology of generous love and Volf’s wonderful Exclusion and Embrace (1996) – which gave me the theme for my PhD back in the day. In other words, how can Christians counter public feelings of suspicion and antagonism towards Muslims in the West, and in Ireland in particular?
  • Is inter-faith dialogue incompatible with Christian mission?
  • If shared worship is beyond the bounds, is shared prayer syncretistic? (Anglican guidelines say that Christian participation is conditional on Christ being honoured. Christian worship is trinitarian and Christ centered)
  • Is Islam a religion of peace or of war?
  • Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Suzanne engages here particularly with Miroslav Volf’s Allah: A Christian Response (2011) which argues yes they do, but understood differently. This is a critical and controversial question and Suzanne engages with critiques of Volf. However it is answered, another follows “”Must the Church resolve these theological issues before mission and engagement is undertaken?” (53). Suzanne’s answer is no.
  • Does the Bible itself open up the possibility that “true worship may emanate from worshippers who are redeemed through Christ but not explicitly Christian”? (63)
  • Does the Bible point to a possible doctrine of universal reconciliation?

You can see what I mean about not avoiding tough questions.

The passion of the book is to resource (C of I) churches in building positive, hospitable and generous “partnerships of difference” with Muslims in Ireland that involve building relationships, conversation, collaboration and education. Referring to David F. Ford’s “Muscat Manifesto” Suzanne writes

Such partnerships do not require theological agreement, much less homogeneity, but mutual respect and mature co-operation. They do not require theological compromise that Christians and Muslims alike may fear. Not do they involve religious syncretism. Rather, the Partnership concept is based on Trinitarian Christian ethics and love. It offers Christian eschatological hope (Romans 8:21) being realised in local situations.

Such relationships may be challenging, risky and uncomfortable, but, Suzanne argues, are essential in a fragmented world. They also mirror something of God’s risky, love-filled action in the Incarnation.

Suzanne concludes her book with this – which is worth quoting at length.

The Christian virtues of faith, hope and love are ideally the defining marks of Christian people and the antithesis of cynicism, scepticism and fear (Romans 5:5; 1 Peter 3:15; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). The Church’s relationships with local Islamic communities should be distinguishable by these counter-cultural marks. The anticipated outcome for Christians engaging in positive Christian-Muslim encounters is of growth in grace as well as in knowledge, growth in the ability to anticipate joy in encounter, in the ability to truly embrace the other as oneself, and so to participate in God’s bringing of healing, wholeness and salvation to individuals and communities. Remembering the Resurrection, the source of hope at the centre of the Gospel, reminds us tha it is not foolish to expect the unexpected. Reconciliation between polarised groups happens. There is hope because of grace and the economy of gift, and because there is God, who is generous in love. (98)

I was involved in the first meeting of a inter-Christian church dialogue group last week. Having happened to read Suzanne’s book just before it was a reminder that the principles of engagement she articulates can apply not only to Christian-Muslim encounters, but to many other contexts where two groups are separated by theology, history and fears of the other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


St Patrick on love and obedience

On this St Patrick’s day a quote from Patrick’s Confession:

I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.

It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.

In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.

The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.

He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.

He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.

And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.


Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.

In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.

Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.

So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Berlin, repentance and thoughts on Ireland

I had a few days in Berlin recently. Had never been before and had wanted to visit for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole history of Germany is there on display, from its monumental impressiveness, its awesome technological efficiency to its unimaginably dark past. A visit leaves much to think about.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Alongside the visit I read Neil MacGregor’s brilliant Germany: Memories of a Nation (2014) and the history parts of this post owe a lot to his book.

Way back in my PhD I studied nationalism and national identity, particularly the belief structures that are characteristic of ‘hot’ nationalisms.

They tend to construct a simple, glorious narrative of the past that legitimizes present political goals of ‘freedom’, ‘self-determination; ‘respect’, ‘autonomy’ and national pride. Alongside such political objectives are cultural markers like language, music, art, literature, food, and so on. Such a combination forms a potent mix that gives a sense of destiny, hope, unity and willingness to suffer – and inflict suffering – in the pursuit of the utopian nationalist myth.

Such memories are everywhere in Berlin. We stayed in Moabit, just outside the city centre in an apartment up 113 steps (!) with a great view of a huge prison across the road which is also Berlin’s central criminal court.

01 prison Moabit

Why mention this? Well, with a little bit of reading (i.e. wikipedia), I found out that this prison was rebuilt after the demolition of an older one just down the road. The memories of the Gestapo and prisoners murdered in the original prison were too awful – the old site is a now a memorial garden. The stories of two murdered prisoners stand out.

One is Albrecht Haushofer who wrote the ‘Moabit Sonnets’. Jailed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, he had formerly been involved in the rise of the Nazis. He was executed by the Gestapo just as Berlin was falling. One of his sonnets was this one:

I am guilty,

But not in the way you think.

I should have earlier recognized my duty;

I should have more sharply called evil evil;

I reined in my judgment too long.

I did warn,

But not enough, and not clearly enough;

And today I know what I was guilty of.

The other was Klaus Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s older brother, executed just two weeks after Dietrich’s hanging because of his part in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and just as Soviet troops were entering the city.

Germany only became a united Empire in 1871 under Bismarck. The Siegessäule (victory column) below commemorates this short glorious period of German unity.


Yet, defeat in the first world war, subsequent humiliation, the rise of National Socialism and the evils of the Third Reich destroyed any narrative of national glory. The catastrophe of Hitler bequeathed immeasurable suffering on the Jews of Europe, cost millions of other lives and led to invasion, defeat and division of Germany between the Allies and Stalin’s Red Army.

Nowhere was this disaster more graphically played out than Berlin with the building of the Wall in 1961 – on one side a working democracy, on the other dictatorship, the Stasi and communist brutalism.

Berlin’s most famous building, the Brandenberg Gate, stood on the east side of the wall. This is where Napoleon entered Berlin in 1812, where the Nazi’s organised mass rallies and where the Russian conquest of Berlin reached its limit.



Not much remains of the Wall. The longest section is in the east of the city and is decorated on its eastern side by art from a 2009 festival.



Brezhnev and Honecker

What struck me is how pathetic a wall it was. Ugly, low and thin – it represented everything bad about Communism. Its cheap brutalism dividing people by pitiless and inhuman slabs of grey concrete.


Modern Germany is therefore unlike any other Western European nation in its relationship to its past, present and future. What is, I think, tremendously impressive is how it has sought to reflect honesty on its shameful recent past – a past that implicated in some way pretty well every German family. As MacGregor says, that past is still highly charged, often silently so. Yet, there has also been a huge effort to deal publicly and corporately with its legacy.

As Berlin has been rebuilt there has been a conscious attempt to make public the most painful memories, the supreme example being the Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe …. I know of no other country in the world that at the heart of its national capital erects monuments to its own shame. (MacGregor, Germany, xxiii)

The memorials include this one


IMG_8532And this one to the Jews of Europe

Holocaust memorial berlin

Another striking theme is the public commitment towards openness and transparency in government. I visited the Bundestag museum telling the political story of Germany, warts and all in how Hitler was democratically elected and his plans for the Jews known by all.


One fascinating model was of Albert Speer’s planned Great Hall of the People – a vast monument to the glory of the Third Reich. That’s the Brandenberg Gate in the foreground. If built it would have dwarfed even the mighty neighbouring Reichstag.


Given the history of National Socialism and of a police state in the East, there is a deep public sense that government needs to be kept in check. Unlike surveillance UK, there are very few CCTV cameras on the streets and when there are there are signs to indicate you are in a CCTV zone (like the underground).

But the most symbolic image of transparency is the re-built Reichstag, the seat of the unified German Parliament after the fall of the Wall in 1989. The huge building has a complex history. It was redesigned by British architect Norman Foster in the early 1990s. You queue up to get a ticket to visit – you need ID but there is no charge – the building belongs to the people (Dem Deutscher Volke). Foster erected a vast glass dome above the parliament chamber, a cupola where via a series of mirrors and glass panes, the public look down on the political process below. It is literally transparent – the imagery that of accountability of power to the people.




Some thoughts and questions stayed with me:

It was Hannah Arendt who talked about the “banality of evil” – how ordinary people do extraordinarily bad things. The Third Reich is one stark reminder (among many) of the accuracy of Genesis 1-11’s diagnosis of the human condition. Created in God’s image, we have an inbuilt turn to autonomy, pride, violence and injustice.

Haushofer and the Bonhoeffer brothers all lost their lives in standing up (in quite different ways) to a ‘hot’ nationalism gone toxic. As one of the great Christian theologians of the century who died for his faith, Dietrich’s refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler stands as a challenge for all Christians if their national identity starts to claim ultimate allegiance. Christ is Lord, and that means Hitler and the Third Reich was idolatry.

The importance of public national recognition of past failures: of how rare it is for there to be a sense of humility and repentance in politics.  It takes huge political courage to confront the ghosts of the past. There are good reasons it happened in Germany, but what about nearer home?

What might be issues or events in 20th Century Ireland that need airing, discussion and some sort of ownership of past failures – not just past ‘glories’?

I’m not thinking of the failures of ‘others’ – the British Empire has rather a lot of its own past to deal with. I’m thinking of 20th Century Irish history – South and North.

Some starters for ten since we are in the decade of centenaries.

  • The “right to take life” by unelected republicans inspired by Pearse’s toxic brand of religious nationalism in 1916 was generally glossed over in the 2016 commemorations.
  • The Civil War was dealt with in silence for most of the century.
  • A consequence of 1916 was deep political ambiguity in the South about the IRA campaign in the North. This, I think, has never really been acknowledged or openly discussed, let alone owned.
  • And then there is the ‘dark side’ of Catholic Ireland, a culture that was freely chosen and almost universally embraced by the people as a whole. These days the Catholic Church gets all the blame, as if it staged a coup and took over the country like in Margaret Atwood’s Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet such shifting of blame is too simple and too easy.
  • And year by year, month by month, day by day there are ongoing revelations of a deeply entrenched Irish culture of elites, secrecy, and ‘golden circles’ of business, bankers and politicians where practically no-one is ever held accountable.
  • Nowhere is the failure of the transparency of the Irish State more visible than the shambles that is the Garda Siochana. When the State Police force is itself involved in massive falsification of millions of pieces of evidence where no-one is held accountable (the breathalyzer scandal) it is a symptom of deep dysfunctionality. And that is just one scandal of a very long and very bizarre list. The current Charleton Tribunal heard eye-popping evidence this week of the then Garda Commissioner, his deputy (later Commissioner) and Garda Press Officer all conspiring to lie, misuse power and betray their duty (and country) in deliberately blackening the name of Sgt Maurice McCabe in order to discredit him and his allegations of Garda incompetence and illegality. No-one is holding their breath for anyone to be made accountable or for admission of failure or for the emergence of a deep-seated political will to effect reform and openness.

Then there is Northern Ireland.

Yes, there have been people of great courage and huge progress has been made. But the political culture is frozen. The past looms over the present. The Good Friday Agreement was a pragmatic deal that avoided deeper issues of reconciliation. That avoidance worked for a while but has run out of space. It will take acts of real political courage to confront failures of the past. And by courage I mean taking ownership of ‘my side’s’ participation in injustice. It is only humility and repentance that can unlock the future.

In terms of churches and Christians in the North – many have been outstanding and inspiring examples of courageous peace-making who have challenged their own ‘side’. But I am not at all so sure that Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) have really grappled with their relationship with political unionism. Back in that PhD (later published by OUP) I called a chapter on the PCI ‘At Ease in Zion‘ which concluded with this comment.

Volf has written that “the overriding commitment to their culture serves churches worst in situations of conflict. Churches, the presumed agents of reconciliation, are at best impotent and at worst accomplices in the strife.” Although it is apparent from my analysis that Irish Presbyterianism practised exclusion primarily through indifference rather than overt discrimination or domination, its spiritual bulwarking of the goals of Ulster unionism classify it as an accomplice during the Partition period and beyond. It can be said that the Church then represented a diluted form of belonging without distance. A significant reassessment of the PCI’s relationship with unionist identity has enabled Irish Presbyterianism to create significant distance from the ideology of its host culture. However, it seems that, as yet, the Church has only moved as far as a largely theoretical repudiation of a spiritual legitimation of national identity. As such, while no longer an accomplice, it continues to be, on this specific issue, largely impotent to confront the powerful emotive appeal of nationalism. It remains in open question whether distance, having once been lost, can be regained. (259)

Maybe you have your own suggestions?

Comments, as ever, welcome.


Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (2): Musings on some political implications

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandOne page of the Barna report Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland previously discussed here, has a list of words used by Irish youth workers across the denominational spectrum to describe young people (14-25) in Ireland today.


Roughly speaking, in order of weighting given they are listed below with more ‘negative’ characteristics on the left and more ‘positive’ ones on the right :

Anxious and Pressured               Passionate

Lost                                                  Searching

Apathetic and Bored                    Gifted

Insecure                                          Open to Ideas

Cynical                                            Hopeful

Aggressive                                      Curious

Image-Conscious                           Creative

Tech-addicted                                Campaigners for social justice








Now these are only anecdotal comments by youth workers. If you live here, do they describe your perception of Irish youth culture?

Class and social location is not discussed in the Report – a church in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin is going to have a very different youth profile to one in the streets of Tallaght a very few miles away. And then there is the urban / rural divide that splits the country.

But let’s go with the descriptions above, coupled with the statistics on religious attitudes and behaviour peppered throughout the report discussed in the previous post. What emerges in very broad terms? (and this obviously is just my reading with its own interpretative bias!).

There is a major ongoing generational shift from Christendom to post–Christendom attitudes and behaviour. It is fast and it is deep, and has not finished yet.

  • individualist morality (moral therapeutic deism) vs Christendom’s communally enforced morality
  • a late capitalist culture vs Irish Christendom’s fusion of church and state
  • lack of job security (high competition; self-promotion; extreme inequalities between older and younger generations) vs Irish Christendom’s limited opportunities and resultant high levels of emigration
  • high levels of uncertainty about the future (jobs, cost of housing, environment) vs Christendom’s modernist assumptions of ongoing progress
  • deep scepticism towards authority (political and religious in particular) vs Irish Christendom’s extreme authority structures
  • embrace of ‘flat’ communities of modern tech (Facebook, Google, Twitter) vs Irish Christendom’s numerous hierarchies [it remains to be seen when or if the ‘dark side’ of the new tech will be recognised and or resisted. It seems to me anyway that so far it has been uncritically embraced.)

None of this is that unusual in the West. But a few things make Ireland different.

1, Just how quickly it has shifted to become very similar to other liberal secular democracies. Tolerance, inclusion, individual freedom, pluralism etc.

2. Its particular relationship with Irish Catholicism, and how young people’s abandonment of that Church is all mixed up in redefining Irishness, rejecting their experience of Christianity per se, and embracing libertarian freedom (we know what we are running from, we are not sure where we are running to, but it has to be better than the past).

3. Its recent experience of capitalism. For a while it seemed to be Ireland’s new saviour, but it is proving to be a ruthless taskmaster for a young post- 2008 Crash generation.

4. Its delayed ‘sexual revolution’. Rather than the 1960s, it is only in recent times that Irish culture has ‘caught up’ with the rest of the West. My sense is that there is deep exhilaration felt at throwing off the past – almost a type of ‘liberation theology’ at work – in the adoption of same-sex marriage and in the upcoming Abortion referendum in 2018. (The Barna report did not ask about abortion – my guess is that it will be supported by a high % of 18-25 year olds in the referendum).

All of this describes, I think, a culture in ferment, uncertainty and confusion.

With the collapse of old certainties, identity politics (political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify) is beginning to exert more and more influence. The problem with such politics is that young people become focused on the battle for narrow political and social agendas that marginalise a wider sense of pluralism and the common good.

Take Katie Ascough’s recent impeachment as President of the Student Union in University College Dublin. It seems pretty clear that the reason she was voted out was that pro-life views were deemed unacceptable to hold by a student president. This is not democracy or tolerance or doing the hard work of actually debating and persuading people who hold different views to you. It is identity politics that denies your opponent the right to hold views that you find intolerable and so you seek to silence or remove them.

This is the paradox of illiberal liberalism.

My sense then is that post-Christendom Ireland is heading in the direction of increasing fragmentation, intolerance and divisiveness since when there is little to hold a centre together all you are left with is competing power groups.

What do these implications these cultural changes have for Christians in Ireland? I’ll come back to that question in the next post (dramatic pause).

Comments, as ever, welcome.







Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (1) – or ‘An investigation into the legacy of Irish Christendom’

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandFor a blog called FaithinIreland, Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland is a publication that invites some comment.

It is a Barna Report produced in partnership with Youth in Christ. Both are American organisations and the researchers, coming mostly from outside Ireland and working with people here, have done a very good job getting to grips with the complexities of the Irish religious landscape. It is a thoughtful, careful and objective summary and analysis.

A summary of the main findings is highlighted on the Barna website here. (I won’t repeat that much here but will just comment on some things that stood out to me).

It is well worth reading and for people in ministry to reflect on their implications.

The methodology is important to know – this is what was done (from the Barna website)

To understand the state of faith among Irish youth, Barna conducted a study that approached the question from several angles. In the first phase, Barna and Christ in Youth gathered youth workers from a variety of denominations for focus groups. In the second phase, four Irish interviewers spoke to young people and their youth leaders. Youth leaders who weren’t interviewed in person also had the opportunity to respond to the same survey online. The online youth study was distributed to young people in the Republic of Ireland, ages 14–25. A total of 790 youth participated in this research study. Based on this sample size, the sampling error for this study is 3.5 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

Some of the key groupings for data purposes included:

  • Practising Christians (with those identified as Christians, sometimes broken down between Catholic and non-Catholic Christians).
  • Non-Practising Christians
  • Non-Christians
  • With many of the findings divided between 14-18 yrs old and 19-25 yrs old groups.

A critical issue in interpreting the data (for me anyway) is what these terms actually mean. In the report a ‘practising Christian’ is defined by Barna as

those who identify as Christian, say their faith is very important to their life and have attended a religious service in the past month (p. 8)

Which, of  course, is a very broad category, especially in a culture where ‘going to church’ now and then is still part and parcel of Irish culture. But you have to start from somewhere.

I may have missed it, but I couldn’t find definitions of what a ‘non-practicing Christian’ was. I assume someone who self-identifies as a Christian but does not tick necessary boxes to show visible sign of actual Christian practice? (To me, in effect this equals non-Christian. Christianity is not a non-practising faith).

Non-believers are identified, I assume, via self-identification.

Having two daughters in the age bracket born and raised here and educated in a local secondary school (not a private Protestant one which a sub-culture of its own), it’s interesting talking over findings with them. Their sense is that the broadness of the categories masks a much lower engagement with even basic Christian claims, let alone a personal response of faith, repentance and living a Christian life.

This report could be called: ‘An Investigation into the Legacy of Irish Christendom’.

Some years ago I did a couple of posts on comments from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on the devastating failures of Catholic Christendom – here and here.

It’s worth repeating some of what he said then on the disaster of Christendom assumptions.

If faith centres on a personal relationship with Jesus, this will have radical implications for the rule-bound approach of traditional Catholic  catechesis.

If a mature faith in Jesus requires knowledge of the Scriptures, this will have revolutionary consequences within Irish Catholicism where most families do not possess a Bible.

If young people are going to develop in a personal authentic faith there will mean “revolutionising all our structures” including a fundamental reordering of the reliance on school-based religious instruction in Ireland to a rediscovery of the role of the local parish and of parents.

This will need “a new group of lay people” to be voluntary catechists in their parishes.

All this is needed because “we can no longer assume faith on the part of young people who have attended Catholic schools” or who come from Catholic families.

Ireland is today undergoing a further phase in a veritable revolution of its religious culture. Many outside of Ireland still believe that Ireland is a bastion of traditional Catholicism. They are surprised to discover that there are parishes in Dublin where the presence at Sunday Mass is some 5% of the Catholic population and, in some cases, even below 2%. On any particular Sunday about 18% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Dublin attends Mass.  That is considerably lower than in any other part of Ireland ….

… That the conformist Ireland of the Archbishop McQuaid era changed so rapidly and with few tears was read as an indication of a desire for change, but perhaps it was also an indication that the conformism was covering an emptiness and a faith built on a faulty structure to which people no longer really ascribed.   The good-old-days of traditional mid-twentieth century Irish Catholicism may in reality not have so good and healthy after all

… The change that has taken place in Irish culture requires radical change in the life of the Church of such an extent that in the face of it even experts in change management would feel daunted …

So the report is effectively putting flesh on the bones of the Archbishop’s words. It does not paint a pretty picture.

Nor are the findings surprising to anyone living here. After decades of being one of the most Christendom countries on earth, the findings show deep confusion over the even the most basic ideas of Christianity, let alone the shape and basis of the Christian life.

The 19-25 age group will be more significant and realistic because the 14-18 yr olds’ attendance at church events will be influenced by parental practice and how religion is still embedded in the school system.

I’ll focus on actual practices because they are somewhat more telling than abstract questions about belief in this or that doctrine which may or may not be understood.

  • 80% of 19-25 yr olds are non Christian / non-practicing. (And that remaining 20% merely represents those whose faith is important to them and have been to church in the last month)
  • Yet 70% of the sample of 14-25 yr olds identify as Christian.
  • Traditional Catholic practice is in deep trouble – only 13% and 14% of 14-25 yrs olds have prayed the rosary or go to Confession in the last 6 months. This will be lower again for 19-25 yr olds. This represents virtual abandonment of Catholic piety.
  • 11% of 14-25 yr olds have read the Bible on their own in the last 6 months (again this will be lower for 19-25 yr olds). (The Bible is pretty well a closed book to the vast majority of young Irish people. Virtually nothing can be assumed about the basic outline of the gospel story or the storyline of Scripture).
  • 8% of 14-25 yr olds have attended a Bible study in the last 6 months (again will be lower for 19-25 yr olds).
  • Even for Communion – only 42% of 14-25 yr olds have participated in the last 6 months. For many this will be have been in school or at events like Easter of Christmas. For 19-25% it will be much lower I guess. Since the vast majority of these figures are for Catholic youth, even Mass attendance, the core of Catholicism’s sacramental theology, is in crisis.

Overall there is a strong sense of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a term coined by Christian Smith and Melina Denton in the USA which goes something like this:

1) God created the world and watches over humans. 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. 4) God doesn’t need to be involved in one’s life except when there’s a problem 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

The Barna Report calls this a “morality of self-fulfillment” (p. 33). This is not surprising – after all we are all Americans now are we not? 😉

In terms of moral values, the report asked a couple of questions:

“I personally can’t live by the Church’s teaching on sexuality”

Which is a question that raises more questions than answers: What Church? What aspect of its teaching on sexuality? (e.g. if Church = RCC [as it would for most] then I would be in the 31%). That only 31% of those identifying as Christians could endorse Church teaching fully does say a lot – but it would need teased out more specifically.

“I think the Church’s teachings on sexuality and homosexuality are wrong”

A slightly less broad question. Throwing in ‘sexuality’ in again muddys the waters a bit. I suspect most answered on the issue of homosexuality.

  • ‘Christians’: only 20% said this was ‘not at all true’. 37% ‘completely true’
  • ‘Non-Christians’: 16% ‘not at all true’. 65% ‘completely true’.

This is as expected: – it is in the areas of sexual ethics, individual choice, liberation from oppressive religion, and that ‘nothing should stand in the way of love’ that contemporary Western culture is coming into sharpest conflict with historic Christian sexual morality. [For more on the beliefs behind these developments see this post]

There’s lots more in the report. And, just to be clear, I’m not at all ‘throwing hands up in despair at the youth of today’. I have a vested interest in at least two 🙂 – and admire them and their friends as they navigate life with love and courage in a very different Ireland.

Christendom in many ways was far more corrosive in its enforced hypocrisy and fusion of politics, identity and religion in an all-embracing package deal.

Again and again in this report, the sense comes over of how ‘Christianity’ is little more than external behaviour, arbitrary morality and irrelevant beliefs. I wouldn’t believe in that sort of religion either.

There is a lot more clarity and honesty being expressed as the fog of Christendom lifts. Post-Christendom is in many ways good news for Christians and Christian mission. Increasingly there is no comforting social and political bulwark for churches to rely on, let alone control.

And that is not a bad place for the church to be – a place of weakness and humility and having to think anew about its mission within a culture that has less and less connection with its Christendom past.

In the final section there are some suggestions around the need for spiritual guides and mentors.

I’ll come back with some thoughts on responses to the findings in the next post …

Comments, as ever, welcome.


The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (4): contemporary attitudes to celibacy


Two strands of teaching on love, sex and the body

STRAND ONE:  a good gift to be enjoyed

In the last few posts we’ve sketched how the Song of Songs does not need to be interpreted allegorically in order to have a rich theology of love, sex and the body (somatology). It is a celebration of an exclusive, monogamous, heterosexual union of husband and wife in a relationship of intimacy, joy, play, and love. We might say that it is a picture of idealised love between an archetypal couple.

This, if you like, is strand one of the Judeo-Christian theology of love, sex and the body.

( I should add that the Song, being about two lovers coming together for the first time, has no mention of children. The book is not really about marriage per se, more about human love. Within wider Jewish and Christian theology, one of the key ‘goods’ of marriage and the central purpose of sex is the making of children who are raised within the security of a covenant relationship between the man and the woman. So this can be added to strand one).

STRAND TWO: an inextricable link to sin and shame

We’ve also jumped forward into the New Testament and early church history to note how the death and resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst for a radical re-thinking of sex, marriage and the body, so much so that celibacy became the highest expression of Christian spirituality for over a millennium.

Strand two is predominantly Augustinian – taking the examples and teaching of Jesus and Paul seriously, but with a deep ambivalence about sex and the body, a somewhat reluctant endorsement of marriage, and with celibacy the idealised state. Sex and body are tied to shame and sin. The less sex the better and the fun, play and delight of the Song of Songs is definitely off limits. This is the strand of sexual asceticism – a hugely influential distortion of the New Testament’s positive teaching on celibacy / singleness.

A more balanced view is that both sex and singleness are good gifts (charisma) of God’s grace (charis). Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 7:7

Each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

There is no hierarchy of status or merit or achievement here – both are gifts of God.


These two strands have in other words, had fluctuating fortunes in church history. To paint with a very broad brush, strand one has made a big comeback since the Reformation, to the point where it re-emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant model of a Christian ethic of love, sex and body. The fusion of marriage, sex and children long ago eclipsed celibacy as the ideal state, particularly within Protestantism with its married clergy and rejection of enforced celibacy. Indeed, it is the nuclear family which has become the Christian ‘ideal’ regarding sex, love, relationships and children and it is that ‘norm’ that churches are often structured around.

However, within both strands, it should be noted that sex is a good gift and belongs within the domain of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside that domain is a misuse of God’s good gift. This is the orthodox and agreed teaching of the Church catholic since the earliest days of Christianity and should not be lightly dismissed.

All this sets the scene for another big jump forward in this post to sex in the 21st Century West.



My suggestion, dear reader, (with which you are welcome to disagree) is that the second strand (the ideal of celibacy) is already completely incomprehensible to the modern mind. When I say modern mind I mean us Westerners – whether Christian or not.

Within the church, in my opinion, the ideal of marriage has been assumed and reinforced in a thousand ways. The strong biblical support for celibacy in Jesus and in Paul, as well as the early church, has been overwhelmed by modern romanticism. Singleness (and therefore celibacy according to Christian teaching) is implicitly viewed as a failure; to be regretted and rarely talked about. Single people in multiple ways are left on the margins.

‘Outside’ the church, attitudes to celibacy are less ambiguous. The 40 year old virgin is a buffoon, an immature idiot, a source of comedy and pity, who must at all costs, get laid belatedly to enter adult life. Sex is the rite of passage into autonomy and self-respect. Sex is an essential part of our identity and self-expression. Sexual identity is who we are – whatever our place on the spectrum of human sexuality. To deny that identity is to deny our core being. Celibacy becomes therefore virtually a form of self-harm; it is evidence of a lack of self-respect. This is why in the movie Steve Carell has to be rescued first and foremost from himself.

If sex is essentially our culture’s idealised form of adult entertainment, a playground of pleasure and enjoyment, then those that refuse to partake in its delights must be victims of a distorted vision of human flourishing. Celibacy, on other words, is not only an idiosyncratic life choice, it is positively harmful.

And when you connect this wider cultural attitude to images of Catholic Ireland, paedophile priests, abuse, repression, and hypocrisy, you can see how celibacy is now understood to be a very dangerous idea indeed.

It was not that long ago that having a son go into the priesthood was a mark of status and honour for an Irish family. No more … just think of the brilliant scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson happens to walk with a young girl on her way to the beach. All is charmingly light-hearted and friendly until her father screeches up in a car and tears her away from the insidious danger of a priest – any priest. Gleeson’s despairing slump of his shoulders as the car drives away spoke volumes of a fatally tarnished ideal. The point of the film’s (very) black humour is various residents’ pathological antipathy towards the Church and its representative – a hatred that leads to the climax of the movie.

This post was going to be the last, but it is already too long so we’ll look at contemporary attitudes to marriage in the (really) final one inspired by the Song of Songs.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Patrick – an ancient voice against slavery

Recent figures estimate that there are about 46 million slaves in the world today. The Global Slavery Index says that slavery exists in 167 countries. India has the highest number of slaves and North Korea the highest percentage of slaves per capita.

One oft overlooked aspect of St Patrick’s legacy is that he was one of the very first voices of the post-biblical Christian world protesting against slavery. (It would be an interesting piece of research to trace the development of Christian opposition to slavery. I’m sure it exists).

slaveryHis Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus can be read at the Irish Academy website. In it, Patrick tells the story of how the soldiers has brutally attacked a group of new baptised Christians, killing many and kidnapping others to sell on to ‘apostate Scots and Picts.’

Patrick had a letter delivered to the soldiers, asking for the return of the prisoners. The soldiers scoffed at his request.

Several things stand out from Patrick’s letter.

First, rather than stand idly by, he gets involved. He does so out a moral obligation to stand up for those with whom he is ministering.

I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel, even in persecutions which are no small matter, to the very ends of the earth. This is despite the malice of the Enemy through the tyranny of Coroticus, who respects neither God, nor his priests

He is willing to confront Coroticus and asks for help from others in doing so.

I ask insistently whatever servant of God is courageous enough to be a bearer of these messages, that it in no way be withdrawn or hidden from any person. Quite the opposite – let it be read before all the people, especially in the presence of Coroticus himself.

How might Patrick’s actions be a challenge for us today to get involved for slaves who cannot act for themselves?  Organisations like IJM and Tearfund act on the behalf of slaves. Maybe the best way we can celebrate St Patrick’s day is to give to their work.

Second, as a pastor and a leader he grieves with those impacted by violence and injustice.

That is why I will cry aloud with sadness and grief: O my fairest and most loving brothers and sisters whom I begot without number in Christ, what am I to do for you?… I grieve for you who are so very dear to me.

How does Patrick’s compassion for victims speak to us today?

Third, he begins to articulate a theological critique of slavery. It takes this form:

  • No-one has a right to enslave another human being for whom Christ “died and was crucified.”
  • It matters how wealth is made.

    Riches, says Scripture, which a person gathers unjustly, will be vomited out of that person’s stomach.

  • God will judge those who act unjustly. Violence will reap its reward

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord.

  • In contrast, Christians can have hope even beyond brutal injustice and death.

This unspeakably horrifying crime has been carried out. But, thanks to God, you who are baptised believers have moved on from this world to paradise. I see you clearly: you have begun your journey to where there is no night, nor sorrow, nor death, any more.Rather, you leap for joy, like calves set free from chains, and you tread down the wicked, and they will be like ashes under your feet.

And, remarkably, but in authentic Jesus fashion, he even holds out the offer of forgiveness to Coroticus and his men if they repent and release the captives. It seems as if they were at least nominally Christian. God’s grace is available to all, but it needs a response of faith and a turning to a new life.

However late it may be, may they repent of acting so wrongly, the murder of the brethren of the Lord, and set free the baptised women prisoners whom they previously seized. So may they deserve to live for God, and be made whole here and in eternity.

This is a remarkably rich Christian response to injustice and slavery within a short letter from the 5th Century. Part of this may be because Patrick was, of course, a slave himself. He knew first hand what it was to be torn away from his home and family and trafficked to a foreign land. Indeed, Patrick is the only person we know of in the 5th century who was enslaved and lived to tell the tale.

Comments, as ever, welcome.