Fr Gerry Reynolds’ 1994 Sermon speaks to our Theme of Scandalous Forgiveness

There is a new post by Gladys Ganiel on the Slugger O’Toole blog marking the third anniversary of the death of ecumenical peacemaker, Fr Gerry Reynolds. It reproduces his 1994 sermon at Clonard’s Holy Family Confraternity after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires. Ganiel writes:

In light of the announcement earlier this week of the theme of the 2019 4 Corners Festival (31 January-10 February 2019), ‘Scandalous Forgiveness,’ I cannot describe the vision of forgiveness that Reynolds lays out in this sermon as anything less than scandalous.

He praises loyalists for including a ‘confession’ in their ceasefire statement and says ‘the nationalists too have a sin to confess.’ He asserts that the sins of all must be forgiven before we can arrive at any sort of reconciliation.

Exhortations for those who have been wounded or bereaved to ‘forgive’ are not always helpful; indeed, there is a risk that demanding forgiveness can re-victimise people. But I don’t think that should keep us from including discussion about forgiveness in the civic conversation. That’s what the 2019 4 Corners Festival aims to do. In that light, Reynolds’ sermon is as relevant a contribution today as it was in 1994. 

You can read the full post and the full text of the sermon on Slugger.

Jim Deeds’ Poem Corporis Nostri (Our Body): Exploring Scandalous Forgiveness

Jim Deeds, an organiser of the 4 Corners Festival, has written a poem, Corporis Nostri (Our Body), that explores the theme of the 2019 4 Corners Festival, ‘Scandalous Forgiveness.’ You can read it below.

Corporis Nostri (Our Body)

The scandal
Blocking the road
May well be
That forgiveness
Cannot be mandated
Or demanded
For if it were
We could give it up
Under duress 
Wipe the dust from our feet
And be done with it

The scandal
Causing us to stumble
May well be
That forgiveness
Can only be
Given freely
Whether asked for or not
And giving it freely
Can hold us imprisoned
To feelings of… what?
Who am I betraying
In abandoning my claim on
Holding the hot stone of hurt
For all time

The scandal
Tripping us up
May well be
That forgiveness
Between us
Can prosper us
Corporis Nostri
Has not healed
Nor been helped to
Led to
See it as
Anything but losing

The scandal
Right in front of us
May well be
That forgiveness
The road less travelled
Tough to set even
A foot upon
Is the way
To peace within
Redemption for 
Corporis Nostri


Steve Stockman on the 2019 Festival Theme of Scandalous Forgiveness

The 2019 4 Corners Festival theme has been announced: Scandalous Forgiveness. Rev Steve Stockman, a founder and organiser of the Festival, has reflected on this theme. You can read it below or on his blog: “Forgiveness. What does that look like?”  Those are the words of Fr Brian Lennon at a panel event during 2018’s 4 Corners Festival. A question had come from Alan McBride, sitting in the audience. Alan wanted to know if it was necessary to forgive. Very aware that Alan had lost his wife in the Shankill bomb I was very cautious about demanding forgiveness. It was then that Brian asked what forgiveness looks like. The words triggered something inside my head. Forgiveness was a word I had used for almost 40 years. It is at the very centre of the Christian faith and yet we were asking what it looked like. Surely that question should have a quick and confident answer. In the context of Northern Ireland forgiveness was complex but I reckoned vital if we were ever going to be able to deal with our past. I think it was Alan’s question that probably fired the direction of the 2019 Festival. Professor John Brewer has for some years challenged us in the Church to keep words like forgiveness in the public conversation. That is what we will be doing in the 2019 Festival. We took a lot of time over adding the word Scandalous. I have been using the idea of scandalous grace for some time. Jesus was constantly doing scandalous acts. Whether it was the forgiveness he showed to a woman caught in the act of adultery or having dinner with a tax collector, sharing a drink at a well with a Samaritan woman or telling a Roman Centurion that he had never seen such faith in all if Israel. In Jesus culture these were all scandalous acts and forgiveness is somewhere in the mix. In Northern Ireland many will see it as scandalous if someone forgives the person who killed their husband or wife or son or daughter. It could easily be seen as a scandal if a paramilitary murderer was forgiven. Some might suggest that that isn’t justice. Yet, it might also be scandalous if those of us who talk so much about God’s forgiveness are not acting in forgiving ways – if forgiveness is not at the forefront of all that we do. I was struck recently by a scene in a television documentary. A woman, whose mother had been murdered many years before, was being told how miserable her mother’s murderer was in prison. She was so pleased to hear that. He deserved that. I have sympathy with her thoughts but on the wall in front of her was a big cross with another small cross by its side. The cross is a symbol of forgiveness. Have we concentrated ourselves on God’s forgiveness to us but somehow blocked out and ignored that Jesus asks us to follow him in being forgiving to others the way he is forgiving to us. I do believe that forgiveness is a key contributor to peace building. I believe that it can contribute to personal peace as well as societal peace. To forgive someone who has caused you deep pain is not for the good of the one you forgive so much as for you who forgives. The bitterness that we hold can damage us even more. Forgiving can let go some of the hurt and indeed control that the perpetrator holds over us. In Northern Ireland we need to be able to find forgiveness for what our communities have done to one another for hundreds of years. I believe that forgiveness is a resource, maybe the most powerful resource in delivering for us a better future. The Bible has the hope of shalom at the heart of God’s dream for the world. I believe forgiveness between human and human, community and community as well as God and humanity are  intrinsic to that intention of God’s. So our hope for 2019’s 4 Corners Festival is to look at forgiveness from a whole range of angles. We want to use poetry, song, drama as well as personal story, practical teaching as well as theological wrestling to open up and highlight the pearl of forgiveness. It will be messy and difficult. We will struggle with it, find complications in its outworking. At times it will get scandalous but maybe as we surmise it over the ten days of the Festival, and beyond, we will journey to the very heart of God and towards our own salvation and the transformation of our country. 

4 Corners Festival Is Recruiting…

The 4 Corners Festival is seeking to appoint a part-time Publicity and PR Officer. This role will act in support of the festival, by overseeing all publicity, public relations and networking with press, Churches and public from October 2018 – February 2019.

The role is funded by the 2018/19 Central Good Relations Funding Programme and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Reconciliation Fund.

View further details on the role and how to apply here.

Take Back The City – 20 years of Post-Ceasefire Songs

Take Back The City – 20 years of Post-Ceasefire Songs

It was a very special night. I don’t mean subjectively, just because what I had wanted for a few festivals finally came about and I had on the stage four great songwriters with the wonderful Stuart Bailie. No, it was more than that. There was something in the room. The power that I believe song has, giving us an evening of insight, lament, catharsis, imagining and hope. 

The respect and trust that Stuart Bailie has with Belfast songwriters and his conversational style had tonight’s singers sharing in a warm and casual style. Tony Wright waxed lyrical about County Derry and working with Iain Archer who talked about a bomb going off as he set up to play with Brian Houston outside Dr Robert’s Record Store. 

Joby Fox spoke about the early days of Energy Orchard and recreational rioting growing up in West Belfast. Ursula Burns also spoke about growing up in West Belfast and how looking back at what was normal was of course not normal at all.

The songs, four each, two in each half, were personal, rooted in the space of our city or country. They were honest, vulnerable and always hopeful.

Tony Wright formerly of And So I Watch You From Afar and now VerseChorusVerse is all about hopefulness. Tony has this infectiously positive disposition that came through in the line “Live your life in awe and wonder/the only comeback is joy” from No One As Lonely. Hope as a “she” took on the darkness in We Spoke With The Night and Sudden Song had us all wanting to move to Country Derry – a Springsteen-esque praise for place song.

Ursula Burns, “The Dangerous Harpest” as her most recent record id called, is part Kate Bush, part comedy which she beings out even more at the Edinburgh Festival. What she really is, above all, is an artist. The thought processes into tonight’s songs were so imaginatively crafted. Heartbreak Was Heartbreak reminded us that heartbreak was real on both sides of our conflict, her new song that took twenty years to write, Summer Dress, had her trying to make pretty our ugly violent city. Being Born had us laughing out loud with the humour of her row with God that she should have been born on the Falls Road but Honolulu! “I am going to be twenty five before I find out I don’t have to be plastered!” This is social comment of the highest thought and quality.

Joby Fox played in one of my favourite bands Energy Orchard but is now as human rights activist who has been raising funds for and working himself for refugees in Lesbos. Tonight he blew us away with the wow moments. The first Energy Orchard single, Belfast, that he wrote got a re-arrangement and new verse for post conflict days. A boy from West Belfast then sang Maybe I Am, Maybe I’m Not for the kids of East Belfast. Republicans and Loyalists, quite a title, then took us into the forgiveness that Gordon Wilson sent out after the death of his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bomb and, in some way, for all of us. Joby had an EP awhile back that was dedicated to John and Yoko. Tonight I saw him as our very John Lennon but, forgive me Yoko, with more authenticity! It was powerful stuff.

And there is still Iain Archer. Not as well known as the Morrison or Lightbody or most of those lauded in the rock star filled museum cabinets around the Oh Yeah Centre, where this gig was, he has had a Grammy nomination for James Bay’s Hold Back The River as well as strong songs on number 1 albums by Jake Bugg, Liam Gallagher and Example! He’s one of our very best ones!

Tonight Iain drew us into lament in the sublime Holywood Seapark, about losing his Grandfather, that touched on all our Belfast loss. Everest took a hopeless situation and like a Psalmist sang “Some other day when my morning comes/I’ll be the one that waited all night,” with a Northern Irish resilience. When It Kicks In was a frustration with the slow process of our peace but hopeful that the day will come. The day that comes will have us all singing and living the chorus of his final tune, a new one, “See the good in everyone/and let go of the bad”. Oh my!

Throw all of those songs and the conversation with Stuart in between, set in the historic Oh Yeah Centre during a 4 Corners Festival and there was a unique energy in the room. The past was held up, we looked into the darkness but somehow shone a light on it. We celebrated the transformation of the past twenty years but the power of song fuelled a celebration of our place and inspired the desire to move on… “to see the good in everyone.”

Thank God for our songwriters and these songs of cathartic redemption. More of this kind of thing!


This article was written by Steve Stockman and was first published on his blog ‘Soul Surmise’.

‘On behalf of churches, let me say sorry for the times we said to victims, “you must forgive.” ‘

The 4 Corners Festival hosted a discussion last night about why churches have not done enough to promote peacebuilding and reconciliation since the Belfast Agreement – and what Christians can do to change that.

During the question and answer part of the evening, Alan McBride, whose wife was killed in the Shankill bomb, asked a question about forgiveness. Rev Karen Sutheraman, pastor of the Down Community, responded in this way:

‘On behalf of churches, let me say sorry for the times we said to victims, “you must forgive.”’

Churches have come in for criticism for pressurising people to forgive or, worse, to ‘forgive and forget.’ Sutheraman’s apology reminded listeners that the churches have not always handled forgiveness well. And if churches are to engage constructively in the public sphere, a measure of humility about their past mistakes can go a long way.

The panelists for the ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’ event were Sutheraman, whose Down Community is influenced by the Celts and Anabaptists and promotes the values of love, grace, acceptance, hospitality, influence, creativity and risk; Fr Brian Lennon, a Jesuit priest and a founder of Community Dialogue; Rev Dr Heather Morris, former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland and currently secretary of home missions; and Rev Steve Stockman, minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church and a founder of the 4 Corners Festival. (Disclaimer: I chaired the event, and I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival.)

Lennon, who has written a book on forgiving (he emphasised that it is about forgiving, not forgiveness), said that for some people it is helpful to reframe the question from ‘Can you forgive?’ to ‘Would you like to be free?’ But he also admitted this does not work for everyone, and affirmed a comment from McBride: that forgiveness is not absolutely necessary for society to move forward. (McBride and Stephen Travers, who was injured in the Miami Showband attack, will discuss ‘Life after Death: Living Today with a Legacy of the Troubles,’ in another Festival event on Thurs 8 February at 7.30 pm, St John’s Parish Hall, 444 Falls Road).

It is well worth reading McBride’s 2007 article in the Belfast Telegraph about the difference between forgiving and letting go.

So rather than getting hung up on forgiveness – especially if forgiveness depends on someone else repenting for their sins – church leaders at national and grassroots levels might contribute to current debates by starting different conversations. Conversations that ask us to consider what our society would look like if we acknowledged each other’s suffering and how we have contributed to it; and encountered each other with mercy, compassion, empathy, and grace.

Or, Christians could start more sensitive conversations about forgiveness – something the Festival aims to do in its final event, ‘Forgiveness Remembers,’ Sunday 11 Feb at 7 pm at Knock Methodist.

This event was inspired by Rev Harold Good’s suggestion that Northern Ireland should have a day of acknowledgement to reflect on the Troubles. It is focused around conversation with Paul Farren and Robert Miller about their book, Forgiveness Remembers, chaired by Rev Cheryl Meban, and will conclude with an act of acknowledgement and a commitment to reconciliation.

During the Troubles, the churches’ most significant contributions to peacemaking came from courageous individuals like Fr Alec Reid, Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev John Dunlop, Rev Ken Newell, Rev Roy Magee, Rev Lesley Carroll, Sr Geraldine Smith, and groups like Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), among others. The contributions of the institutional churches, by and large, were limited.

Church leaders made statements together; and some denominations initiated peacebuilding projects – like the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel or the Presbyterian Church’s Peacemaking programme. But my research (and that of others) shows that these statements didn’t really reach the people in the pews, let alone those outside them; and the peacemaking programmes weren’t taken up enthusiastically across the denominations.

This pattern continues in the present. There are individuals and small groups carrying forward the work of the courageous individuals of the past. The institutional churches continue to struggle. Even the Irish Churches Peace Project (2013-2015) – which involved the four largest denominations and some smaller churches – seemed to function by putting peacebuilding activities in a box for some people to do, rather than impressing upon Christians that reconciliation is everyone’s responsibility.

Lennon cited the Presbyterian Church’s ‘Vision for Society’ statement, which was approved at its 2016 General Assembly, as a good example of a church prioritising peacebuilding. The statement is admirable: it includes confession for ‘our failure
 to live as Biblically faithful Christian peacebuilders …’ and affirms that ‘ Christian peacebuilding [is] … part of Christian discipleship.’ Yet I am willing to wager that Lennon, a Catholic priest, is more aware of this statement than thousands of Presbyterians across Northern Ireland. Even when institutional churches make statements like this, they are often received with opposition and apathy — if anyone notices them at all.

Morris spoke about how a vocation for peacebuilding should be central to Christians’ identity in a divided society like Northern Ireland, rather than a fringe activity. As an example, she mentioned the, a Christian centre for psychological and spiritual well-being, a group for which ‘reconciliation is fundamental to who they are.’

Clearly a huge challenge for the churches remains making peacebuilding and reconciliation fundamental to who they are. Illustrating the difficulty of this task, some panellists shared how their commitments to peacebuilding had taken years to develop. Stockman recalled how, as a young, naïve 18-year-old Christian, he had written a letter to the Ballymena Guardian about how Christianity should be about loving your enemy – and in his context, that was Catholics. He was rebuffed by friends and family; and also by counter-letters in that particular local press. He said it took him 30 more years before he had enough courage and conviction to become an active peacebuilder.

Sutheraman described how her upbringing in East Belfast meant she had to undergo a process of ‘re-learning’ about her faith, which was sparked by a spiritual mentor from England advising her to read about St Brigid. Brigid, of course, is a Celtic saint whose popularity, it must be assumed, is minimal in East Belfast. But Sutheraman was inspired by St Brigid’s peaceful example.

Sutheraman also said that her theological and pastoral training did not prepare her for ministering in a divided society. This is a problem that also has been recognised by the 4 Corners Festival, which organised an invitation-only event that was designed encourage seminarians and young clergy to think about this issue.

‘Talking it Over,’ held last week, was a lunchtime discussion where seminarians, young clergy, and Theology and Conflict Transformation students from Queen’s talked about what they had heard at an event in the festival the next before,  ‘A Conflict Frozen in time?’, about political loyalism. It emerged in that conversation that some seminarians feared that many of the congregations in which they could be placed would not support them in peacebuilding and reconciliation work.

But 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, the institutional churches are not the only institutions to have fallen short in promoting peacebuilding and reconciliation. To paraphrase Morris, the challenge remains for all citizens to find creative ways ‘to make reconciliation fundamental to who we are.’


This article was written by Gladys Ganiel and first posted on Slugger O’Toole here.

Breige O’Hare’s address from the BBC Radio Ulster Sunday Service

Breige O’Hare, Spiritual director at, the Christian Centre for psychological and spiritual well-being
Your talk, I said is surely the handwork of wisdom
because not one word of it do I understand.

This from Flann O’Brien, the Irish writer, offered with the reassurance that what I have to say is simply put, more in keeping with the advice of Paul gives to the Corinthians. Today, I feel as if I’m standing in the threshold, that special place in Celtic spirituality – the past is at my back, the future at my face. This is a place all of its own. I want to speak from this place, offer some contribution to the ongoing reflections on NOW-HERE-THIS in the Four Corners Festival. I’ll set out my stall a little first, and then keep the focus on Jesus. Some years ago I  listened to her story. Let’s call her Julie, though that is not here name.

She told of the mistakes…the people she hurt….those who hurt her. How she tried to make a better life for herself. How much she wanted to be loved by someone. How terrified she was of trusting again…


…Her body shook as she sobbed, arms wrapped tightly around her, her only comfort in a life of loneliness and dreadful sadness

I feel tears well up in me, burning the back of my throat. God with us, for sure: God crying too. A small part of me was picking up on a big part of her….the part that wanted to run away, not be here…not now, the part of her that didn’t want to be… this. 

It’s not easy getting a glimpse of pain, our own or someone else’s. Notice how you felt listening just now. Comfortable? Uncomfortable? Nothing?  While wonderfully life-giving to be attentive to the present moment, such attentiveness invites awareness of the full range of our experience- the full range – the experiences we keep handy and those we’d rather forget.  And in Belfast we have plenty of both.

There is great value in attending to the present moment. It reduces stress and helps with the management of anxiety. For those of faith, the relationship with God and others is more open and free, more life-giving. In business, noticing what is really going on now – operationally and emotionally – increases the chances of successful negotiation of change.

It also helps access the thing we hear so often from the mouths of our politicians: “The reality is…” It takes our eyes of the shiny perfect version of ourselves that we think we should be and instead encourages us to see who we really are, what things are really like.

Who we really are: we are a strong people, we have suffered and survived great tragedy. There’s more healing to do.

It’s hard for people who have been hurt to trust again and we are mistaken if we take for granted that we trust God simply because he is God. As this piece unfolds, I want us to see the Jesus who stops and hears Bartimaeus, to appreciate how this crazy beautiful God-man is able to be free enough to do what he does, and how because of it, we are safe with him, NOW-HERE, in THIS place.

…and I want us to pick up clues so that we might recognise where this Jesus is present and at work in us as we go through this week of the festival.

A tale of not stopping: A group of students in the seminary of a leading theological college in the US were asked to prepare sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped to help. They were told that their sermons would be filmed in another building on the campus. They were given directions and individually sent on their way. 

They don’t know that they were part of a carefully designed experiment and were being monitored. On the short trip between the two buildings each one comes across a man (actually an actor) slumped against a doorway, head down, eyes closed, clearly needing assistance. When the trainee minister passes, the actor gives a well-rehearsed groan and two coughs.

More than half of them walked straight past the man. Some of them stepped over him. Using another group of students and adding in the pressure of time – they were told they had to get to the building as soon as possible – the number stopping to help dropped to 10%

When we think about Jesus stopping, it’s easy to forget that he is human and subject to the same daily pressures as his peers.  He was coming out of Jericho, with a crowd, and probably with plenty to do. And yet still he stops. He’s done the same thing a few chapters back when a woman touches his gown. He’s on the path to somewhere and he lets himself be diverted. He lets himself be stopped, be present to the NOW-HERE-THIS of another human being, someone who would miss the cut for the wise, powerful or high social standing club Paul highlights for the Corinthians….someone to be stepped over on the way to somewhere more important.

And that word IMMEDIATELY crops up all over Mark’s gospel…the immediacy of Jesus’ presence to people, the urgency of his attention to them, his willingness to be of service to them.

It would be tempting, and possibly a relief, to imagine that when Jesus goes off to be with the Father he practises a series of techniques that make him more available to the present moment. He might have a meditation DVD or a colouring book to keep him grounded. The truth is much simpler than that and much more challenging. Jesus is able to stop in the moment, and to stop with Bartimaeus, because he is operating out of a different set of values to those in the culture. Jesus is living a life that is radically different to those around him.

Jesus walks away from a trade that would have seen him as poor as most Galileans but at least with some chance of income. He’s free to say what he wants about Caesar’s head on a coin because he’s not paying taxes – he’s not earning. He relies on help from others. He doesn’t look for a wife. Odd.

He walks away from a home-place he knows and into the desert…and nothing. Nothing. Whatever happens in there, it’s clear that he has no interest in the kind of power that the movers and shakers at the time think is important. He is not interested in money. He doesn’t care about where his next meal is coming from.

…and he doesn’t care what people think of him. Take a photo at any stage along Jesus’ journey in Mark’s gospel and you’ve got him in the frame with one of the untouchables. Every one of them fits the description Paul holds up as the antidote to the surrounding culture in Corinth – God chose what the world thinks is nothing to destroy what the world thinks is important. The nonsense, the weak, those looked down on….are God’s holy people….are set free….

No ties to money, no concern to please others, no need for status or security. Jesus has the serenity of not caring – not caring about things that don’t matter to God – because he has given up everything and is free to be wildly disturbed by and passionately present and involved in the lives of his people.

This is where we find ourselves challenged in the Four Corners Festival. We are challenged to stop, to listen to the cries of others, to be of genuine service, as Jesus was to Bartimaeus – Jesus treated him as equal, involved him in his own healing –  to learn from them, to be present to the moment and all that brings.

 But we know that’s not to be had in any technique or talk.  That’s a challenge us to live as Jesus did…to live a radically different kind of life

 and to risk appearing crazy….

…..just like Jesus…

No trying to impress others

No people pleasing

No clinging on to power

No playing it safe

No fear of those who differ from us

No ache for things than do not lead to God

Free to forgive, free to be helped by the very people we think we’re there to help.

There’s an expression for members of my own tradition…we’re called “practising Catholics”. I think it’s time that Christians stopped practising and got on with doing the real thing. Just look how our churches have managed to survive and do good limping along, not really taking Christianity out of the packaging. John and Charles Wesley lit the touch paper back in the day. I think Pope Frances is doing the same today. Could you imagine what things would be like if we unleashed Jesus’ craziness properly into the world? 

To see such in evidence is surely to see where the Risen Jesus stops and dwells in our midst. I invite you spot and celebrate this craziness…encourage it as you go through the festival in the coming days.

And as we stand on the threshold between past and future let’s not fall into the trap of thinking, crazy or not, we move forward under our own steam. Son of David have pity on me. The blind beggar is the teacher in this tale – the need for absolute and desperate dependence on Jesus. All our planning and strategizing mean nothing. Unless we know our need of God. We’re still blind. We just don’t realise it.

I believe that it is vitally important we reconnect with an experience of Jesus of the gospel, especially at this time in our history. The pain and hurt of centuries flow under this land like poisoned streams surfacing and seeping into the soil beneath our feet, in whatever place we stand. I think all of us carry the trauma and the impact of such and while we have dedicated and skilled counsellors we also have people in our society who encourage the telling of stories and the holding of hurts in ways that only serve to re-traumatise rather than heal the wounds inflicted by past violence. We’re still trying to ‘carve tomorrow from a tombstone,’ as Paul Brady sings. It begs the questions: Who benefits from keeping us in the pain? Is this what Jesus wants for us?

The threshold place is a place of waiting. Are we stopped or stuck? Do we feel safe enough to move….together….it seems to me that we need to know not just intellectually but to experience in our hearts the NOWness of this Jesus of the gospels who has walked away from everything society holds dear just so that he can be there for us. When we know we are safe with him – know in our hearts – perhaps we can be a safe place for others.

This is a threshold place,
a place between the past and the future

The Jesus who heard Bartimaeus’ plaintive cry is with you now.

He stops. You have his full attention.

What are you crying out for?

What is he asking you to let go of, to leave behind?

Bartimaeus opens his eyes and the first thing he sees is Jesus gazing at him. How could you look into the eyes of this amazing beautiful God-man Jesus and not want to be with him sharing his crazy life?

He gazes at you, at me now.


This Sermon was preached by Breige O’Hare at the 4 Corners Festival BBC Radio Ulster Sunday morning service on 4 February 2018.

A City united in Song – Festival of Choirs

A City united in Song – Festival of Choirs

The previous night people had gathered in the Oh Yeah Music Centre in the Cathedral Quarter to hear songs of the ceasefire, expressing some of the hopes and frustrations of the years since Troubles… then on Saturday a larger group gathered in that quarter’s eponymous Cathedral, St Anne’s for a different set of songs “Hear Us Now! – A Festival of Choirs…” compered by UTV’s Jude Hill.

Some of those there had moved not from the Oh Yeah Music Centre, round the corner, but the other cathedral in this divided city, St. Peter’s off the Falls Road, sharing in a tour of the two cathedrals and a walk between them, taking in the St Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre en route, and at the end of the festival of choirs the Schola Cantorum from St. Peter’s brought things to a close leading a sung Compline.

But before that the audience enjoyed 5 other choirs performing a wide range of music and reflecting both the diversity of our city and the unifying, healing power of music… ParSonik, a singing group set up to support those living with Parkinson’s Disease, Feile Women’s Singing Group, made up of women from across Belfast and beyond; Hill Croft Senior School and Makaton Choirs, Harmony North, an inter-denominational choir of post-primary school students and Sing For Life, a choir set up in partnership by Cancer Focus and the Crescent Arts Centre for those affected by cancer presented a programme of 26 pieces drawn from folk, pop, musical theatre, gospel, and classical sources, starting, on a cold winter’s night, with the ParSonik Choir singing “Bring me Sunshine” by Sylvia Dee and Arthur Kent, made famous by Morecambe & Wise, putting a smile on the face of all there. And that smile remained firmly in place throughout the evening, even when a number of songs prompted a tear or two.

Hope and Joy were recurrent themes throughout the evening with ParSonik’s version of Ode to Joy, the Feile Women’s assertion that they “Still have Joy… Hope… and Peace”, Sing for Life’s version of Labi Siffre’s “Something inside so Strong” and Harmony North’s “The Storm is Passing Over” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Perhaps some of that hope and joy simply comes through the solidarity that such choirs engender… 

The very existence of the Harmony North Choir speaks of that, embodying a unity of purpose despite coming from a highly divided corner of our city and what many argue is not only a divided but a divisive education system. In the repertoire of the other choirs were other echoes of solidarity, with ParSonik affirming in the words of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” “I’m on your side”, and finishing with Abba’s “The Way Old Friends Do”, the Feile Women singing the Liverpool FC favourite “You’lll Never Walk Alone” in a powerful performance, and Hill Croft’s Makaton Choir signing to Bruno Mars “Count on Me”.

So this was not just an exercise in musical excellence or entertainment, but a glimpse of what this city might be when it comes together in a common cause.

Or in the word of “One Voice” by the Wailin’ Jennys as sung by the Feile Women:

This is the sound of all of us

Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us
This is the sound of one voice

One people, one voice
A song for every one of us



This was originally posted on David Campton’s blog Virtual Methodist and can be found here

Seminarians, Young Clergy and Graduate Students Talk it Over at the 4 Corners Festival

Seminarians, Young Clergy and Graduate Students Talk it Over at the 4 Corners Festival

Seminarians, young clergy and graduate students gathered for lunch today at Queen’s University to discuss issues raised by the first event in the 4 Corners Festival, last night’s public event about political loyalism, ‘A Conflict Frozen in Time?’

This invitation-only lunch event was designed to provide space for seminarians and young clergy from the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations; and Queen’s graduate students from the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, and Theology, to talk about the relevance of what they learned the previous evening for their future vocations as clergy or as engaged citizens.

At ‘A Conflict Frozen in Time?’, several panellists spoke about how both Protestant and Catholic clergy engaged with loyalism during the key period 1994-1998. Those attending the lunch broke into small groups for informal discussion, and were prompted to ponder one or more of these examples from the previous evening. They were asked: ‘Put yourself in the shoes of the clergy – what do you think made them act like they did? Was what they did right or wrong? Would they have faced opposition from people in their own churches?’

Participants also were asked: ‘For seminarians and young clergy, did you learn anything that can help you in your ministry in what is still a divided, post-conflict society? For theology and conflict transformation students, did you learn anything that can help you live more constructively in a divided, post-conflict society? How can clergy, laypeople and/or theologians work together to contribute to conflict transformation and social justice in an unreconciled, divided society?’

Among the insights and perspectives that emerged from the conversations were:

  • Even today, clergy may face opposition if they try to engage with loyalism or republicanism, and/or promote reconciliation more generally;
  • Clergy, lay Christians and other concerned citizens need to support each other in peacebuilding work – you cannot do it on your own;
  • The Gospels and the examples from the past like Fr Alec Reid, Fr Gerry Reynolds, Rev Ken Newell, Rev Roy Magee, Archbishop Robin Eames, and Rev Chris Hudson teach us that peacebuilding is not an optional extra in Northern Ireland – it is an essential part of the vocations of all Christians.

Participants also observed that much of the discussion at ‘A Conflict Frozen in Time?’ had focused on the past – and they were hungry to think more about the future. The 4 Corners Festival is providing another opportunity to do just that, with a free, public event this Sunday, 4 February at the Skainos Centre, 239 Newtownards Road, ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers.’ This event will explore the part the Churches can play in society to promote reconciliation, to heal division and to end sectarianism. The contributors for this event include Rev Dr Heather Morris, Rev Steve Stockman, Fr Brian Lennon SJ and Rev Karen Sethuraman. The event will be hosted by Dr Gladys Ganiel and include musical performances. There will be a Q&A afterwards. Refreshments will be served from 7 pm with the proceedings at 7.30 sharp.

The lunchtime event was supported by the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University.

‘The Loyalism of 1994-1998 Needs to be the Standard for the Present’: 4 Corners Festival Opens with Panel in St Michael’s on the Shankill

‘The Loyalism of 1994-1998 Needs to be the Standard for the Present’: 4 Corners Festival Opens with Panel in St Michael’s on the Shankill

This article by Dr Gladys Ganiel was originally posted on Slugger O’Toole and is available here

The 4 Corners Festival opened last night with a panel discussion in St Michael’s church hall on the Shankill,  billed as ‘20 Years On: A Conflict Frozen in Time?’ In light of the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it promised to reflect on how loyalism contributed to peacebuilding in the past – and to ask how loyalism might move forward into the future.

Journalist Barney Rowan summed up the evening as the discussion was winding down: ‘The loyalism of 1994-1998 needs to be the standard for the present.’

The 4 Corners Festival runs 1-11 February and is focused on the theme ‘Now. Here. This.’, a phrase intended to encourage people to focus on the present moment and take the next step towards a better future, no matter how big or small.

The church hall was filled to capacity to hear a panel consisting of Rowan; Prof Monica McWilliams, a founder of the Women’s Coalition and former Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission; Rev Ken Newell, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who has been engaged in reconciliation work both publicly and behind the scenes for many years; William McQuiston, who served over 12 years in prison and was a prison spokesperson for the UDP; and Martin Snoddon, who served 15 years in prison for UVF activity and now has been heavily involved in grassroots peacebuilding. The discussion was chaired by Jackie Redpath.

The speakers focused on the period between 1994-1998, which included the ceasefires and the 1998 Agreement. They praised loyalism’s constructive role in the peace process and lamented current portrayals of loyalism as backward, criminal or opposed to political progress. Such stereotypes mean that loyalism’s contributions have been forgotten, and that their potential for further contributions has been dismissed.

During contributions from the floor, Chief Constable George Hamilton said that he was fascinated to hear the living history recounted by the panellists, but somewhat disappointed that more had not been said about the future. He added that he was willing to engage in dialogue about his own organisation’s role in inhibiting progress. Hamilton also said that the people who use the ‘flag of loyalism’ to discredit their community need to be ‘called out’ by their own community.

All the speakers highlighted the positive contributions of people like the late David Ervine and Ray Smallwoods; McQuiston and Snodden also recalled some of loyalism’s significant political documents like ‘Beyond the Religious Divide (1979),’ ‘Common Sense’ (1987), and ‘Shared Responsibility’ (1985). Loyalists regard these as precursors to the Belfast Agreement and indeed, there are certainly family resemblances between these documents and what resulted from the Agreement negotiations. Snodden directed listeners to University of Pittsburgh historian Tony Novosel’s excellent 2013 book, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, which offers a comprehensive analysis of progressive loyalist political thinking during the period.

There were also moments of fascination and inspiration.

McWilliams displayed old newspaper cuttings and passed a personal photo album from the period around the hall as she described how the Women’s Coalition (WC) would not have made it into the talks, had it not been for loyalism. The system the British Government devised to include small parties in the negotations was designed to accommodate the small loyalist parties, but the newly-formed WC benefitted from it. Recalling that she had pushed for this proportional representation system to be the one adopted for the Assembly, only to be rebuffed by the larger parties, she said: ‘To be inclusive, you’ve got to be creative.’

Once the talks started, the WC worked closely with the PUP and UDP. McWilliams recalled how ‘the UDP and the PUP were the gentlemen of the process. When we were being verbally berated and physically pushed by other parties, they stood up for us.’

She said that one day after Ervine had observed her being physically pushed, he told the offender that, ‘if you touch those women again, forget about the ceasefire!’ McWilliams laughed and said, ‘I told David, “We’re not worth it!” But those men gave us confidence to find our own voice when we were being silenced.’

Newell described secret, behind-the-scenes talks during which clergy met both loyalists and republicans – which resulted in some unlikely friendships. When Smallwoods was killed by the IRA in 1994, Redemptorist priests Fr Alec Reid and Fr Gerry Reynolds visited his wife in a loyalist estate in Lisburn, and later walked in his funeral procession. Newell said: ‘[People] were wondering why they were there. They were there for friendship and because Ray included them in his vision for the future.’ Newell also said that his friendship with Ervine ‘changed me’, and that ‘David Ervine and Ray Smallwoods showed me what a better way of living looks like.’

There were even opportunities for historical clarification. Rowan said it took him a long time to figure out how loyalists had known that the 1994 IRA ceasefire was coming. He now knew that the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds had received a document about it from Fr Reid, and that Reynolds had then rung four people to give them advance warning: Bill Clinton, John Major, the late Presbyterian minister Rev Roy Magee, and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister Rev Bill Hudson. Rowan said he figured either Magee and/or Hudson told loyalists, but he wasn’t sure how. Hudson was in attendance and was able to describe how Reynolds had Dick Spring get in touch with him, urging him to talk with loyalists about how this signalled the IRA’s commitment to democratic principles – and assuring them that it was not a pan-nationalist front.

Rowan also read from a handwritten note he had received from Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames, explaining that he had decided to talk with loyalists. Eames said he couldn’t allow himself to condemn deaths, and then refuse an opportunity to speak with the people who could change the violent situation.

But still, there was a sense that the optimism of 1998 had given way to disillusionment. Newell expressed his ‘regret’ that ‘hope and confidence’ had been lost. Rowan remembered how Gerry Adams had attended Ervine’s funeral on the Newtownards Road, but said ‘I don’t think Gerry Adams could walk down the Newtownards Road today.’ Redpath warned that ‘there is no future without dealing with loyalist educational underachievement.’

The event had opened with a short performance by  local Shankill drama troupe, the Heel and Ankle, which depicted three loyalists discussing how to move forward during the 1994-1998 period. Among the lines were:

‘They labelled us terrorists, and washed their hands of us … Reconciliation and negotiation will take courage – but that’s something we have no shortage of.’

This 4 Corners event captured something of the spirit of that more optimistic time in loyalism. It should remind us that pessimism is not inevitable and that people do have the power to change their future for the better.

Click here to see the full programme of Festival events.

Disclaimer: I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival, and work at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University, which supported this event.

Photos by Bernie Brown,