A Lesson Plan from Northern Ireland

The news concerning religion is not very encouraging these days, particularly when it is coupled with terrorism and violence, skewering its true meaning for those who seek its relevance. However, there are stories that offer glimmers of hope; there are instances where people of faith can come together to create an atmosphere where religious views are valued and not denigrated, that religious differences does not necessarily have to divide, but can offer a common ground where people can ascribe to the best that is within them and offer it as an example for the betterment of the wider society. One such hopeful story comes from Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland—a place that knows all too well the commingling of politics, religion and violence—is presently offering what may become a case study when it comes to an example of religious toleration. Irish society—both north and south—have experienced seismic changes in many different areas in recent years, some good, and some not so good. But there is one particular area where this hopeful toleration is becoming evident, and that is in the field of education. 

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What is being attempted here is something unheard of in this land of differing faiths and political traditions: representatives from various churches are coming together to formulate plans to create what would become Northern Ireland’s first interdenominational or “multi-faith” school. The Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church have entered into talks on how to go about realizing such an ambitious project. But what makes this noteworthy—and given the complicated backstory that is Ireland—is that they are reaching out to their Roman Catholic brethren and inviting them to join in this project. These Christian churches are in talks with their Roman Catholic counterparts—namely the bishops—concerning this educational endeavor. The inspiration for this proposed school is of an actual one that was created in Liverpool, back in 2011. Called Hope Academy, it was formed through the merger of Catholic and Anglican schools. The various church leaders view the success of Hope Academy as a possible template for what they envision for Northern Ireland’s educational future.  And given the history of the British Isles, it will be of no small interest to see how this experiment evolves.

It is not an understatement to point out how much religion has figured prominently in the life of the island of Ireland, both north and south, and how it has affected—often, alas, adversely—the peoples that inhabit it and how it had been appropriated for various ends by many people and not for very noble purposes. Given the sea change in religious attitudes in the last several years—mainly because of the sexual abuse crisis and the political corruption that was often in tandem with it—faith and spirituality has had to undergo a purge of what was wrong in order to made it “right” again. People and clergy have had to reassess their faith in light of what has happened and now are in a process of seeing what can be done to make what has often been called “the old values” viable once again in the lives of ordinary people in the increasingly secular world that is the 21st century. And this is why this educational experiment is of such import.

Religious schools are not newsworthy in and of themselves, especially in Ireland, particularly in the south, the Republic of Ireland. There have been church schools from time immemorial. From the beginning of modern Ireland, in the aftermath of the War for Independence and the Civil War (and even prior, for that matter), the Catholic Church had long been involved in the running of the state or “national” schools. And given the influx of immigrants of different nationalities and religious traditions, the Republic of Ireland has also had to reassess its educational programs in order to address the needs and aspirations of their new citizens. The church has come to understand this, as well. Recognizing the changing social demographics, the Catholic Church, particularly in Dublin, under Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, have started the process of ceding control of some of the schools that have traditionally been under the church’s jurisdiction, to control by the laity. And the Irish government has begun recently to establish schools to accommodate the newest among them, giving the Irish Republic’s educational system a new outlook. An educational charity called Educate Together provides the basis for and encourages the establishment of such nondenominational and coeducational schools. Though Northern Ireland has had its denominational (“religious”) schools, too—Catholic as well as Protestant—and through its historically political association with Britain, it also has had to learn how to accommodate immigrants as well. So, given this background, the announcement of a new kind of school is naturally of interest to those who are interested in the affairs of Ireland, both north and south.

The talks to found the new school are ongoing; and the signs are hopeful. As the Rev. Trevor Gribben, clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church says, this has “the potential for so much good.” And the Rev. Donald Kerr, Secretary of the Conference of the Methodist Church notes: “We have been working together with the Catholic bishops in an agreed way to found the school.” For Northern Ireland, the fact that the various Christian churches are cooperating in such a venture is a welcome—and hopeful—sign that sectarian divides are receding and becoming a thing of the past. It would have been inconceivable in recent history to hear of representatives of various Protestant churches in Northern Ireland wanting to include Roman Catholic clergy in an educational venture of this kind—or in a venture of any kind. That one fact alone shows how far Northern Ireland has come—and it is a welcome development. It is something positive to reflect on when we are daily faced with news coverage in which religion and violence are often regrettably lumped together—which, in itself, is a scandalous thing.

Apart from a religious heritage and upbringing, there is nothing more important to the building of society than education and a solid education is the foundation stone for a civilly minded—and civil—society. So, this story coming out of Northern Ireland could well be the start of something new. In recounting this new development in education, is not to say that there is no room for religious schools—they are no less important—but it is significant that people of various faiths can come together to seek ways to better themselves and society, and particularly in this way. That is something that ought to be heralded and welcomed.

In one of his books—The Honourable Schoolboy—John LeCarre wrote that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” Whether you are a student or an adult—a desk can sometimes be a dangerous place (school lessons or detailed memoranda sheets and reports notwithstanding) when you contemplate what is going on in the world and the reality of it all can lead one to want to crouch underneath the safety of the desk, hoping to evade the slings and arrows that life whizzes by in every direction. With this new interdenominational or “multi-faith” school, it is to be hoped that the lessons learned at those desks will come to foster nothing but understanding, goodwill, and—most importantly—a respect for the other person who may or may not be one of our “own.” May the lessons learned at those desks help to develop the realization that we are all part of God’s family and that society will always need to be built up, not torn down.  And maybe, if this project is successful and positive lessons are truly learned, then perhaps this will be something that even St. Patrick himself will deign to bless, in the land where he preached and practiced Christianity so long ago.

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