We are still working through the outcomes of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism. So today I was in Edinburgh for a meeting about one of the outcomes of the Report – to help ‘Religious leaders develop increased commitment to modelling how to respond to/overcome sectarianism’
It was a lively and interesting meeting. Chair of the Advisory Group, Dr Duncan Morrow, spoke about sectarianism as a plant – roots, leaves, branches, flowers. Others have described it as a systemic phenomenon. I’ve spent much of my life in a toxic sectarian environment so I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.
We talked about how we might do some things which might combat sectarianism – sharing aspects of the training of clergy for example. And we hovered a bit on the edge of seeing it as a religious phenomenon which churches need to solve.
So here are two things which I think about:
Firstly sectarianism is not primarily religious. Churches may be the markers of division – but they are not the division itself. I think that is true so far as it goes. But my experience in Northern Ireland was that there was a complex relationship between churches and sectarianism. Churches were part of a society in which sectarianism was a systemic phenomenon – so churches were to some extent artificially strengthened by the ‘headcount’ element of sectarianism. In that sense, churches can be complicit. But we used to say that, if they were strengthened numerically, they were also hollowed-out spiritually.
Secondly, it seems to me that sectarianism isn’t just about Protestants and Catholics, about the football terraces of Scotland or polarised communities. There are situations which are akin to sectarianism – when churches become the bearers of identity for groups and communities because there is no obvious alternative. To some extent, that is what happened to my community of origin – the Protestant community of Southern Ireland. After the Partition of Ireland, they were a minority without an obvious expression of their political or cultural identity. Throughout the history of the Irish Republic, the number of TD’s from the Protestant community has been vanishingly small. So to some extent they invested their identity in the Church of Ireland.
In the very different context of Scotland – also a context in which their are interwoven minorities – I can see how churches in general and the Scottish Episcopal Church in particular – can become the bearers of at least part of people’s identity. It’s entirely understandable. But it has a significant impact on the character of any church. And that’s part of what we work with.