Transforming sectarianism in our churches

Transforming sectarianism in our churches: Interview with Dr Siobhán Garrigan, theologian and liturgist
by Barton CREETH for Shared Future News
5 September 2012

Siobhán Garrigan identifies her nationality as both Irish and British. She made a point of stating this the first time I heard her speak. It was orientation day at Yale Divinity School (YDS), where she was then Dean of Marquand Chapel on campus. She was introducing ecumenical worship and how YDS strives to create a chapel culture where people worship amid difference and across the boundaries of division.

Garrigan’s opening gambit was a strike against dangerous conceptions of otherness — I am both Irish and British. Fixed boundaries dissolve in her imaginative landscape. When I interviewed her this morning, she reaffirmed her dual national identity and then said she also identifies as both Catholic and Protestant. Her own pronouncements of self invite difference to coexist.

Garrigan was born and raised in Liverpool to an Irish and Roman Catholic family. In her childhood home, Irish identity found expression through music, the Irish language (her mother’s native tongue), and the family’s religion. As she grew older she became suspicious of the ways in which Irish identity and notions of its authenticity are constructed — the result of feeling inadequately British in Liverpool, and, largely because of her accent, being made to feel inadequately Irish in Ireland. Her work as an academic and liturgist bears the marks of someone who has wrestled with a complicated identity and developed, over time, a celebratory sense of hybridism.

When she served as dean of the chapel at YDS, Garrigan’s personality coloured much of the worship: it was politically engaged, participatory, and eclectic. Services included folk hymns, performance art, poetry, silence, dancing, and meals. Denominational differences were invited to coexist and interact dynamically in order to reveal, even create, something distinctly new. In her writing and teaching, Garrigan explores religious ritual in situations of social and political difficulty, and has spent many years exploring the role of religion in the Irish-British conflict.

20120905 Siobhan Garrigan Book

Her latest book, The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics, and the End of Sectarianism, published in 2010 as part of Equinox Press’s “Religion and Violence” series, argues that while the Good Friday Agreement successfully established shared civic institutions, religion, a key ingredient of the conflict, has been dangerously neglected by the peace process. Garrigan’s focus is sharp, as she explores the subtle ways in which church practices in Ireland and Northern Ireland can unintentionally produce prejudice and reinforce division. She warns that there cannot be real and lasting peace until “religious life on this island desists from its sectarian attitudes and practices.” The book concludes by offering a number of practical suggestions on how church leaders can orient worship towards reconciliation.

At the Religious Difference and Conflict conference co-organised by The Open University and the Institute for Conflict Research being held at Stranmillis University College, Garrigan delivered her talk, “Using Ritual Studies to Understand Religious Difference”. I caught up with her to discuss worship, politics, and how to transform sectarianism in our churches.

Does worship in Ireland and Northern Ireland produce prejudice?

Yes it does and we need to take that much more seriously than we have. But it is important to realise that worship the world over produces prejudice. Any ritual activity conjures senses of disposition and bodily habits in us, which over time commit particular attitudes and practices to evolve. Wherever we are in the world we need to be alert to that possibility. But here in Ireland I think that yes, our worship has produced prejudice, and we have to be careful how we go forward.

What is ‘real peace’ as opposed to the ‘cold peace’ you argue we currently have in Northern Ireland?

The peace we have, while very, very welcome, is not all the peace we need. The point is, let’s not pretend that this is peace. Thank God the paramilitary-sponsored violence is largely in the past. But the attitudes between people, in my experience and study, are far from peaceful. And well, you could say, how are you defining peace? Well it probably is a very Christian-inflected notion that you have to love your enemies, you can’t be indifferent towards them, and if you’re indifferent towards them or apathetic towards antagonism, then that’s not peace.

Would you say that religion has been neglected as a key component of the peace process?

I would, but I want to say it in such a way that allocates no blame to anybody, because I really do think that the people that got us to where we’re at have done the best they could possibly do… Some pastors and priests, and ministers of all sorts, lay and ordained, have done an enormous amount over many, many years. But institutionally, and not so much at a local level, I think the churches could have perhaps done more. Either way, taking a forwards look, I think there is definitely at this point an opportunity for the churches to get much more involved, not just at a local level but at a wider level. The churches have a substantial role yet to play.

What did you set out to accomplish with your book, The Real Peace Process: Worship, Politics, and the End of Sectarianism?

I set out to make the case for those of us who have been trying to make it, that religion is involved here, that Christianity is involved. Our doctrines may be against war, of course they are, but our day-to-day practices are sectarian inflected, whether we want them to be or not.

We need a mechanism here for talking about how we are all involved in sectarianism, even though we maybe, you know, against it, rationally. Physically, and in our patterns of thought, and emotionally, we’re all tied up in it, and all of us need to try and find a way to account for it.

Some say that the conflict in Northern Ireland is not religious, but in fact an ethno-national, cultural and economic conflict. How do you respond to that interpretation?

It’s a massive subject, because I do think that religion has played a part in it for a very, very long time. It is a conflict in which religion plays a constituent role and not a small role. However, it has played a different role at different times. And it continues to play a different role in different locations. So it’s a massive subject.

The way that the British Empire constituted the nation state, at one level, has a religious component. You know, the Ascendency was Anglican, the church was Established. Religion cannot be separated. So yes, religion plays a role. The interesting question is why it has been denied or under-noticed.

What can we do to transform sectarianism in our churches? How can we build more inviting churches?

You said one of my favourite words there, you said inviting, and I do think that we need to let go of the language of inclusion — it has value in public policy, etc., but in churches, I think it was taking us up a cul-de-sac — and develop the language of invitation. Inviting one another into our churches, whether that’s people of the same denomination of different politics, or people of different denominations or churches or even different faiths, invite them over as if you were inviting them to a meal and take care of them when they’re there and ask for an invitation back.

What we need to work on in our worship, mostly, is routing out our own deep-felt sectarian dispositions, and instead cultivate ones that are as open as possible to the grace that is present in the religious ‘other’.

In the book I suggest dozens of things we can do: take flags out, write new music. The book is chock-full of practical suggestions. But the most important one, I think, is that when you’re planning worship, imagine that a person of a religion that is not yours is present. It alters how you plan.

Dr. Siobhán Garrigan is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter.

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