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Northern Ireland's Fellowship of Peace
By Mary Taylor
Despite their country’s history of violence, Catholic and Protestant clergy are working together to ensure a future of justice, peace and understanding.


A Special Bond
Healing the Wounds
A No-nonsense Community
Unity in the Third Millennium
Dialogue and Difference
The Challenge Today
Restoration and Renewal


Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship members walk together in a 2008 Good Friday Ecumenical Service in Belfast’s Ormeau Park.

POPE BENEDICT XVI has spoken of “the peace which is already bringing renewal” to the north of Ireland. At Good Shepherd Catholic Church in southeast Belfast, the theme of renewal has special significance. The beautifully restored church was reopened on December 16, 2007, and a new altar dedicated in a ceremony that was both solemn and joyful. Peace between Catholics and Protestants was shown by the attendance of Protestant clergy as special guests.

Catholic and Protestant clergy preserved a pocket of peace in Belfast’s Ballynafeigh District during 30 years of conflict. Bishop Anthony Farquhar, who conducted the dedication service, is a native of Ballynafeigh and is proud of its strong ecumenical links. Canon Robert Fullerton, parish priest at Good Shepherd, was ordained in 1957 and ministered in very troubled parts of Belfast before coming to this parish 10 years ago.

Ballynafeigh is derived from Gaelic and means “townland of the raven.” Unlike the divided communities elsewhere, its Catholics and Protestants live side by side. This has not always been easy, but priests and ministers held the community together through “The Troubles”—three decades of violence between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants.

They united in prayer and plotted peace. They approached relevant officials to solve the political crisis. “Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship,” says Bishop Farquhar, “shone the light of Christ into some of the darkest corners of society.”


A Special Bond

It all began in 1973, when the worsening conflict brought together two deeply spiritual men: Msgr. Robert Murphy of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Holy Rosary Parish and the Rev. Pat Lowry of St. John’s Presbyterian Church. A strong and special bond was formed between these two, who remained close friends throughout The Troubles.

The late Rev. Lowry even said he was closer to the monsignor than to some in his own denomination. The current minister at St. John’s, the Rev. Wilfred Orr, says this bond was “a fellowship in Christ.”

The two men extended their friendship to neighboring churches and formed a fellowship of clergy who resolved to be friends and to be seen as friends. They met openly when many Catholics and Protestants were afraid to greet one another for fear of being seen as befriending the enemy.

They held services together: Christmas carols, a Good Friday service and a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Inspired and encouraged by the clergy, others saw a need to work together. An inclusive community development association, formed in 1974, began to arrange clubs, classes, day trips and holidays, enabling Catholics and Protestants to meet.

Local parishioner Vicky McGlade believes the Clergy Fellowship was “very keen to reach out to the wider community in Ballynafeigh” so that ecumenism was “not just a ‘Churchy’ thing.”

Six churches form the Fellowship’s core. The two Catholic parishes are Holy Rosary, based at Good Shepherd Church on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, and St. Bernadette’s on Rosetta Road. The Presbyterian churches are St. John’s and Cooke Centenary. Ballynafeigh Methodist and St. Jude’s Church of Ireland complete the six, with a few other churches more loosely linked. The Fellowship’s boundaries are flexible, reflecting the group’s openness and tolerance.

Msgr. Murphy remained in the parish after his retirement. He died in 2001 and is buried in the grounds of Good Shepherd Church. He is widely regarded by Catholics and Protestants as a saintly man.

The ’70s began with rioting, internment and the tragedy of “Bloody Sunday.” Direct rule was imposed, and the British army took up positions throughout the province. Many Catholics were Irish nationalists who saw the British as an occupying force for maintaining Protestant supremacy. Many Protestants were politically Unionist who regarded Catholics with suspicion. Fear and hatred spread rapidly.

Major bombing incidents sent shock waves throughout Northern Ireland, and Ballynafeigh’s clergy helped to heal sectarian division. After the Enniskillen bomb in 1987, which killed 11 people, Catholic and Protestant clergy held a joint Sunday evening service in St. John’s.

After the 1998 bombing in Omagh, all six congregations prayed together in Good Shepherd Church. When violence came to Ballynafeigh itself, the clergy cooperated in calling for calm. Whenever a local resident was killed in a sectarian attack, Protestant and Catholic clergy visited the bereaved family together.

The Fellowship talked to government, police, health and education services, and charities to heal divisions and prevent existing problems from becoming worse. Tensions erupted when loyalist Orangemen (members of the Orange Order, a Protestant organization) marched through a Catholic and strongly nationalist section of Ormeau Road. The clergy offered to mediate.

By negotiating with representatives from the Orange Order and nationalist residents, the clergy played an important part in resolving this issue peacefully.

Father Brendan Murray was parish priest at Good Shepherd Church through much of this troubled period. When the Orange Order agreed to withdraw their disputed parade in 1997, Father Murray and two Protestant ministers made a joint statement to the press, calling the loyalist decision a “magnanimous and statesmanlike gesture.”

The clergy used public praise to encourage restraint and prevent violent confrontation. Meanwhile, the Fellowship contributed significantly to interchurch dialogue in Ireland and the United Kingdom as part of the wider peace process.

Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh describes the impact of groups such as Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship on the development of peace in Northern Ireland as “incalculable.” He praises their perseverance and foresight that contributed to the emergence of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Good Friday had long been a focus for the Fellowship’s mission to have Catholics and Protestants be seen together. After prayers in Ormeau Park, a large wooden cross was carried in procession, accompanied by a brass band and TV cameras, along Ormeau Road to Cooke Centenary Presbyterian Church. Clergy and congregations from all the churches took part in this annual service, which remains part of the Fellowship’s program.

The Rev. Jim Campbell, minister at Cooke Church for many years until his retirement, says, “It is essential to proclaim to everyone in our district that God’s love, seen so vividly in the crucifixion, is a love that cherishes equally all members of our community whatever their views and affiliations.”

Teresa Duggan, a local Catholic mother and grandmother, welcomed the cross-community church groups, which enabled her children to grow up feeling as if they were part of one community rather than two.

“Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship brought the community together. They encouraged us all to make an effort to reach across the divide,” she says.

As if peacemaking were not enough, the clergy and congregations raised thousands of pounds for charitable causes both locally and overseas.

The Rev. Orr says the churches here have had a friendly community, a “no-nonsense community,” on which to build. Myles McCormack, a young musician who grew up in Ballynafeigh, expresses this attitude. “Sectarianism goes hand in hand with idiocy,” he says.

Ballynafeigh attracts people who want a mix. Brendan Tansey, a Catholic, moved in more than 30 years ago when the area was predominantly Protestant.

“This area was heaven,” Brendan says. “People came here to live a normal life, which you couldn’t do in north, east or west Belfast. People could drink with their Protestant neighbors at the local pub—the Errigle. Many people chose this place because their children would not be bothered by paramilitaries.”

And when paramilitary groups tried to gain a foothold, “Ballynafeigh kept its head,” Brendan asserts.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Gray, minister at Cooke Church, says the Clergy Fellowship is “one of the elements in the story of Ballynafeigh that has made this a very different area from elsewhere in Belfast.” But Dr. Gray says there has always been “an ecumenical witness and an ecumenical embrace” within this area.

Dr. Gray, who studied at Columbia Theological Seminary, says fellowship between Catholic and Protestant clergy has succeeded in other areas, but nowhere else has it been pursued with such consistency.

Church strategy may be partly responsible for ecumenical enthusiasm among the clergy. Local resident Duncan Morrow suggests some ministers and priests may have been appointed to Ballynafeigh because of their ecumenical commitment.

Explaining lay ecumenism, Brendan Tansey cites social class and the housing market.

“It had been a mainly middle-class Protestant area, and became a refuge for middle-class Catholics who knew they would not be intimidated by the quiet Protestant residents. When a house went on sale, there were 10 Catholics chasing it and the house prices went up,” he says.

This was an incentive for others to sell, and the denominations gradually became more balanced.

When Ballynafeigh became more socially mixed, conflict was often headed off by a sensible attitude, reflected in the graffiti. In 1993, a minibus brought a group of children from a very different area—the Protestant section of West Belfast—to the children’s playground in Ormeau Park.

The visitors spray-painted “Shankill Road” on the wooden play equipment. Catholic children elsewhere would respond in anger, and a vicious fight could have started with parents joining in. But the local paint gang responded politely, with the slogan “Ormeau Park, actually.”

Cardinal Sean Brady, Primate of All Ireland, says, “The second millennium was marked by division within the Church and my hope will be that this millennium will be marked by the journey towards unity.”

The Fellowship’s current plans include a screening of Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, to which all the congregations and the wider public will be welcomed. Youth groups are flourishing. Rosario Club, known for its prowess at soccer, is run by Catholics, but welcomes all young people.

St. John’s recently took a mixed group of 40 teenagers to Corymeela, an ecumenical center on the north Antrim coast. St. John’s has a full-time youth worker, Jim McDowell, known as “Jimbo,” who specializes in peace and reconciliation.

His program includes comedy, rock music and drama. A keen bungee jumper, Jimbo is suitably qualified for an ecumenical leap across Belfast’s religious divide.

Ormeau Churches Together is a lay group which arranges ecumenical talks, retreats and community meals, including an annual breakfast for all six congregations. The idea for the group came from Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship, who may have had an ulterior motive.

“The clergy depend on the laypeople to do all the cooking,” member Vicky McGlade explains.

The churches where the fellowship began—Good Shepherd and St. John’s—have maintained strong links and still play a leading role in cross-community activities. The two churches cooperated in a Habitat for Humanity project last summer in Nkwazi, Zambia. A group of 20 people—10 from each church—spent a year meeting and planning the trip, which took place in July and August.

Local experts supervised the project. Together with the Zambians who were to live in the houses, the Belfast group, aged 17 to 78, made bricks by hand with earth and cement, and built four-room houses. Clearly, a lot of hard work is done by the laity.

But Michael McLaughlin, a Good Shepherd parishioner who went to Zambia, applauds the clergy’s role.

“Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship provided a much-needed focus for joint worship throughout the worst years of The Troubles, and on into the most recent decade when our community has thankfully been leaving those bad times behind,” he says.

The cross-community group forged strong and lasting friendships with each other and with the Zambians.

“We all got on terrifically well,” Michael says.

He describes how the Irish joined the Zambians in an ecumenical service every morning. The Belfast group held its own prayer and reflection session in the evenings.

Denominational Sunday services—Catholic and United Church of Zambia—lasted three hours. The walk home took another hour, then they all played soccer: Ireland vs. Zambia.

“One of my personal highlights was, after the match ended, the sun descended behind the houses. And we players, surrounded by the compound’s many children, walked back toward our houses, with the kids singing ‘Olé! Olé! Olé!’ at the tops of their voices,” Michael says.

Dialogue and respect for differences are among the values developed by interchurch groups during the conflict and adopted later by U.K. and Irish governments. Cardinal Brady has spoken of unity in difference: “We need boundaries, but these must be porous and unthreatening.”

Ballynafeigh’s clergy have thought deeply about difference. The Rev. Blair believes some differences arose simply because groups wanted to be different. He says Methodists developed a suspicion of ritual and symbol because they wanted to be different from Catholics and Anglicans. This led early Methodists to misinterpret their leader’s (John Wesley’s) aims, he thinks.

The Rev. Blair explains that John Wesley was against a formal split between the Churches, and the split happened after his death. Blair adds that early Anglicans may not have intended to split from the Catholic Church.

Difference was an important topic on October 17 when clergy came together for Donald Shriver’s talk on Peace and Remembering. The Rev. Shriver, past president of Union Theological Society in New York, was accompanied by his wife, Peggy, former assistant general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the United States.

Both Don and Peggy Shriver think differences can be a good thing. Don says an individual can be both Irish and British. Peggy believes it takes a willingness to become comfortable with unfamiliar traditions, while retaining your own.

“This takes time,” she admits, “but it can be done.”

The meeting was hosted at Cooke Presbyterian Church by Dr. Mark Gray. Catholic priests present were Father Paul Armstrong of St. Bernadette’s and Canon Robert Fullerton of Good Shepherd. Ballynafeigh Methodist Church was represented by the Rev. Wesley Blair, current chair of the Fellowship. Also present were Canon Norman Jardine of St. Jude’s and the Rev. Wilfred Orr of St. John’s.

“The Church is often the source of division in society, not only the cure for it,” Don Shriver warned at the meeting. This was true in Northern Ireland, where division has been encouraged from some pulpits.

“The Churches are sometimes an ally and sometimes an enemy of reconciliation,” the Rev. Shriver added. He quoted American poet Robert Frost from his poem “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that does not love a wall.”

This was poignant since walls still divide Catholic and Protestant housing areas in parts of Belfast. Dr. Gray linked the poem to St. Paul, who said Christ breaks down the walls that come between us.

What challenges face the churches now that the violence of The Troubles is over? The Rev. Orr says the challenge now is that “there is nothing to force us out of our camps.”

In the face of a growing secularism, churches may concentrate on maintaining their own membership at the expense of working together. Dr. Gray believes it is important to continue the peace process. The churches can heal a broken community and create a truly inclusive community grounded in justice, where everyone’s gifts and talents are used.

The challenge is learning to embrace the stranger. Strangers are no longer simply Catholic or Protestant, but include migrant workers from other cultures.

Some of the migrants are Catholics. Canon Fullerton and Father Armstrong now have parishioners from India, Africa, the Philippines and Eastern Europe, especially Poland. They occasionally offer Mass in Polish, and recently held an international food festival to encourage people from different countries to make friends.

The Clergy Fellowship continues to meet regularly and work for a peaceful community. Duncan Morrow, director of the Community Relations Council, says of the Ballynafeigh Clergy Fellowship: “They continue to show us that our future together is as brothers and sisters, not enemies.”

Good Shepherd Church was reopened on Gaudete Sunday, December 16. The magnificent high altar has been restored, and a new altar carefully designed to blend with its surroundings. Marble and sandstone, carvings and pillars, brass and bronze, mosaics and stained glass have been skillfully restored.

Bishop Anthony Farquhar, auxiliary bishop of Down and Connor, officiated at the Mass, which incorporated the dedication, anointing, incensation and lighting of the new altar.

“The author of beauty has created these things. Often, such beauty is the most eloquent testimony to the abiding presence of God,” Canon Fullerton said.

Cardinal Cahal Daly, 90, was present at the side of the sanctuary. He said the architect and builders had risen to the challenge in restoring the original 1914 church. The alterations after Vatican II were thought, at the time, to be the least required. The church has now been restored to its original form, except that the new altar enables celebration facing the people.

Renewal is about linking past, present and future, and this was reflected in the language, music and imagery. Bishop Farquhar spoke of the timelessness of the communion of saints and how we are all supported by our spiritual ancestors.

Gaelic hymns and the traditional Latin Creed were intoned with reverence. Light and water, oil and incense, color and sound, tradition and change, memory and hope—all these elements intertwined to create a deeply resonant ceremony.

Bishop Farquhar said, “Christ’s light reveals the path of light, and all who carry the name of Christ, from all Christian traditions, should carry it.”

Perhaps the most significant ritual took place at the end of the service, when Bishop Farquhar and Cardinal Daly came forward and shook hands with the Protestant clergy who were in the front pews.

The church was restored, and fellowship among Christians was renewed.


Mary Taylor is a freelance writer who has also taught philosophy and religious studies. Currently, she is penning a book about the relationship between religion and the arts. She resides in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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