Church leaders regret 'polarised public commentary' on Northern Ireland centenary service

Belfast City Hall.(Photo: Unsplash/Dimitry Anikin)

Church leaders have invited people to show "prayerful support" for a service of reflection to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland after Irish President Michael D Higgins said he would not be attending.

The Service of Reflection and Hope is to take place at St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, on 21 October 2021 to mark 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland.

It has been organised by the four main Churches - the Church of Ireland, Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Methodist Church in Ireland - in partnership with the Irish Council of Churches.

The Church leaders said the occasion will "mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland".

The Queen is expected to attend the service but Higgins said the title of the event "wasn't a neutral statement politically" and that as a head of state, it would be "inappropriate" for him to join.

He denied that his decision was a snub to the Queen. 

Responding to his comments, the leaders of the four Churches and the Irish Council of Churches have issued a statement of clarification. 

In it, they said they were "conscious that these centenaries would highlight painful moments from our past which continue to impact relationships in our present" but that they "felt a responsibility as Christian leaders to explore the opportunity to deepen the work of reconciliation in a context of respectful dialogue".

"We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it, and we all have a responsibility to contribute to the healing of relationships from our different perspectives," they said. 

"As Church Leaders we have been saddened by the polarised public commentary around our Service of Reflection and Hope.

"The tone of the public debate has shone a light on the societal wounds we wish to reflect on in this service. We wish primarily to gather in prayer for healing of relationships, and in doing so, to demonstrate a renewed commitment to working together for peace, reconciliation and the common good.

"We of course understand that not everyone will feel able to participate with us in this service, but for those who do, particularly in our local churches across this island, we wish to clarify in this statement the context and original vision for the service, and invite people to join with us in prayer and reflection."