Alf McCreary: Why there is hope for Christianity in Ireland
A warning note from GK Chesterton should be heard by anyone interested in learning more about Christianity in Ireland or elsewhere. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found insufficient. It turned out to be difficult and has not been tried ”.
In his substantial new publication The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland, Professor Crawford Gribben states that his book “does not provide a history of the Irish Church, or of its theological achievements, but sets out to study the ways in which the belief and religious behaviors were experienced in the Irish experience of Christianity ”.
Nonetheless, it provides a scholarly, important and detailed account of the main developments in Irish religious history from the earliest times to the present day.
Professor Gribben of Queen’s University Belfast has come a long way from his childhood as a member of a Co Antrim family “with a long commitment to the so called Plymouth Brethren” and he wrote a fascinating study of religion in Ireland over several centuries.
It’s an eminently readable book, and the author has a clarity that turns pages too few academics have. It provides a consummate analysis of St Patrick, the most sympathetic of the “Irish” saints, who was in fact a Roman “Western Brit”. He quotes extensively from Patrick’s autobiographical “Confessio” which gives valuable insight into the Ireland of his day, and also shows that he is a good and humble Christian – although in my own research for various books on our “patron saint “it appeared to me as surprisingly street-wise.
Professor Gribben also places Saint Columbus’ considerable contribution in context, and the publication of this book coincides with the 1,500th anniversary of his birth, as well as the 100th anniversary of the Partition of Ireland. The author takes up the broad yet detailed story of the rise of Christian Ireland, but it is the demise of that same “Christian Ireland” that provides an all-too-familiar picture.
Gribben rightly claims that “the Irish experience of secularization was sudden, shocking and decisive. On both sides of the border, the tipping point may have occurred in the mid-1990s ”.
He notes that in Northern Ireland “the peace process has led to sustained efforts to depoliticize religious identity” and that weekly church attendance has increased from over 60% in 1968 to just over 40. % in 2004. Church attendance in the Republic also dropped dramatically from 91% attending mass in the 1970s, as the grip of Catholic social education began to loosen, and the scandal of child sexual abuse and sexual debauchery has led many to lose their respect for formal religion and many of its so-called “representatives”.
However, it’s not just child abuse freaks like Father Brendan Smith or the “secret” children of Bishop Eamonn Casey or Father Michael Cleary that turn people off.
It may seem like Christianity is doomed to failure in the long run, but it has shown remarkable resilience over many centuries, and Professor Gribben is not hopeless.
In this exceptional and meaningful book, he declares “after the failure of religious nationalism, what looks like an irreparable failure, could actually be a second chance. For the old Augustinians always point to a celestial kingdom, while the new Patricks are shaping the rise of another Christian Ireland ”.
(Professor Gribben’s book is published in hardback by Oxford University Press, at £ 25)