‘Considering Grace: Presbyterians and the Troubles’ is comprised of over one hundred Presbyterians’ experiences of the Troubles. While it was overseen by a committee of the Presbyterian Church, this is a book of grass roots stories, and demonstrates what a ‘broad church’ the denomination really is. No one group of interviewees -ministers, victims, members of the security forces, emergency responders, healthcare workers- speak with one voice; there are many perspectives, that sometimes disagree. There is much to reflect on here.
It is not an easy read, at least at first. The opening chapters tell of violent events, trauma and long-term loss. This makes for difficult reading, and you might reasonably ask if there is a need for it.
The aims of the project were clear: to assist healing and forgiveness within congregations, as well as equip the denomination to contribute to societal discussion about the past. The inference is ‘so that the future will be better’.
There is still a place for lament and remembrance (and there are voices in the book making the case for how the church has not always provided it), but the book also creates space for reflection, to consider not just what happened, but how those events affect us today. There is no doubt they do. As I write, we are approaching three years without a government; as a society, we remain divided in many different ways. We need to take stock of the past, and in its light -or perhaps from its darkness- make some decisions about how we want the future to look. In the words of one interviewee, ‘What type of future do we want to leave for our children?’
This book can help inform that conversation. If we could say, as a denomination, that our individual congregations had all been evaluating the Troubles, our experiences and our role in it …and the role of the church in peace-making …and that we are committed to concrete acts of reconciliation, then I could argue there isn’t much of a place for this book; maybe it would be helpful for others, but not very helpful for Presbyterians.
In my experience, however, that cannot be said. There are exceptions, some of whom are in the book, but in general, we have not devoted enough time to considering our role in a fractured society. More often we have recognised this is a controversial topic; an area of likely disagreement, and so we have quietly stepped away from talking about how the gospel might be expressed in peace-making and peace-building. If allowed to, this book might help open up more of that space, in the light of a broad range of experience that includes the role of quiet peacemakers, a very optimistic chapter from politicians and some challenges from an assortment of ‘critical friends’ of the denomination, with both faith and non-faith perspectives.
The book has been sensitively researched and beautifully written by Gladys Ganiel and Jamie Yohannis, and it conveys the heart and passion of the committee led by Rev Tony Davidson; the church owes them all a debt of gratitude. But the book was never meant to be the end product. The hope is not for a book that sells well, but, as the Presbyterian church’s own Vision for Society statement says, for “a more reconciled community at peace with each other, where friend and foe, working together for the common good, can experience healing and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”