Declan McSweeney returned to England more than ten years ago after being sacked. He worked in journalism in Ireland and London when he was younger and now works in the retail industry which has involved travel all over England and Scotland.
I recently found myself reflecting on how the first experiences of friendships across the Christian denomination division in Tullamore, Co Offaly prepared me for life in Britain, with its greater religious diversity.
The major minority in my youth in Tullamore was, of course, the Church of Ireland community, with a much smaller number of Methodists and Presbyterians, as well as the Jehovah’s Witness community.
I’m old enough to remember when even listening to a Church of Ireland service on the radio was considered a sin for Catholics like me, but by the 1970s I felt like that things were changing and that it was no longer taboo to enter churches of another denomination.
Every Christmas I found myself attending the Nine Lessons and Songs Service at St Catherine’s, the local church of the Church of Ireland, and the warmth of welcome there is something I always remember. As a student at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore, I remember mixed messages when it comes to interacting with other faiths.
A Christian Brother pointed to the stained glass window of Saint Catherine and said “Here is the Church established”, even though the Church of Ireland had ceased to be established in 1869! He also claimed that the British Queen was his leader, which of course is totally wrong.
I think these experiences have helped me prepare for many aspects of life in Britain, living alongside and working with many Anglicans and people of other Christian faiths, but also with Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
Some lay teachers have taken a more inclusive approach. I remember, in particular, the late John Cahill, professor of history, giving us an exercise to write the names of 10 Protestant denominations, so that we do not think only of “Catholic and Protestant”, since many Catholics have no idea of the difference between the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church, let alone the Plymouth brethren or the Pentecostals of Elim. I also remember another teacher, Murty Davoren, asking a classmate of mine from the Church of Ireland to tell the class about the rector’s sermon the previous Sunday.
I was also very aware that my parents had good friends in other faiths and thus realized that the stereotypes of some Catholics are far from reality. I am referring to the stereotypes of the Church of Ireland, in particular, which were associated with the land nobility and had associations in the past with the mistreatment of Catholics. I soon realized that such ideas obscured the wide variety of social backgrounds and political ideologies among members of the Church in Ireland. They also reflect a historical misunderstanding that some Protestants were also persecuted by Catholics in countries where they had power, for example the Huguenots in France, the Palatins in Germany, the Vaudois in Italy. It is good to see that Pope Francis has recognized this: Pope Francis apologizes for persecution of Pentecostals.
Shortly before my father’s death, I remember seeing RTÉ with him show a part of a synod of the Church of Ireland, during which Ivan Yates was applauded by the bishops when he criticized sections of the Unionist population in Northern Ireland for the treatment of Catholics, and I remember very well how impressed my father was with this.
During over 18 years working with the now closed Offaly Express, I found myself interacting closely with members of the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist communities, who were involved in a wide range of community groups. .
I remember the helpfulness of successive Presidents – the late Canon AT Waterstone and his successors, Canons Alistair Grimason and Gerald Field, and I was especially grateful to the latter for his support of my family.
I realized that I had my own wrong stereotypes, for example, of the Jewish community
I think these experiences have helped me prepare for many aspects of life in Britain, living alongside and working with many Anglicans and people of other Christian faiths, but also with Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. I realized that I had my own wrong stereotypes, for example, of the Jewish community.
Seeing Jews in a wide range of jobs and living in social housing in areas such as Stamford Hill in London or the Lower Broughton area of Salford opened my eyes, as I was largely unaware of the existence. of so much poverty within the Jewish community – for example the fact that some of its members had to rely on community food banks to get through Pesach (Passover, is one of the most important religious holidays on the Jewish calendar and this is when the Jews commemorate the liberation of the children of Israel, who were led out of Egypt by Moses.) The Jews celebrated Easter since around 1300 BC.
I have also observed that there are ethnic variations within different faith groups, for example meeting white Sikhs and black Jews.
What was especially new in Britain, however, was meeting an evangelical Christianity that was largely unknown to me in Ireland, making friends with people involved in groups with a strong focus on preaching the gospel. , and also on social action. On the other side of the Christian spectrum was the phenomenon of high church Anglicanism, something I had never encountered in Ireland – seeing Anglican churches where the Rosary is recited, and meeting Anglican nuns and women. Third Order Franciscans, made me realize just how complex Christian divisions can be.
I have been impressed by the depth of cooperation in many parts of England between the various Christian organizations, and increasingly with other faith groups as well. We hear a lot about religious conflicts, but I can only be impressed, for example, by the effort British Jews are making to welcome Afghan refugees and show solidarity with Uyghurs in China, or the ways Jews and Muslims worked togetherto fight the hatred of one or the other group.
I like to think that these first memories of Saint Catherine and welcoming neighbors to the Church of Ireland was in a way a preparation for engaging with a wide range of communities.
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