Welcome to p.s., an email and web discussion forum from Contemporary Christianity.

We issue p.s. every every month. In line with our aims, it seeks to "provide informed, credible and practical comment and analysis, rooted in biblical reflection and theological thought" on contemporary matters of broad public concern in Ireland.

We are aiming to engage Christian minds with issues in the public square, to inject new perspectives and provoke discussion.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this articles are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.

Click on any of the issues raised, think about what is said and leave any comments you wish.

Grace in the cracks

The last time I contributed a PS blog was in June 2016. Back then, I wrote about how the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland had appointed a Task Group to look at how the denomination had responded to the troubles.

One thing led soon to another. The blog was read by Gladys Ganiel from QUB who, in turn, contacted Rev. Dr Norman Hamilton and myself and before long was guiding us through an application for funding from the Republic of Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund.

We were blessed to win support from the fund and were then able to employ Jamie Yohanis as a researcher. 122 people were interviewed from June 2017 to April 2018 – 50 of the interviewees were women and 77 came from the border area. Some let their names be put to their stories, but many chose to remain anonymous. At every stage of the process we were aware of God’s guidance and protection as we delved into extremely sensitive issues.

The result of the project is ‘Considering Grace’, a book co-authored by Gladys and Jamie, published by Merrion Press and now available from leading bookstores as well as online at http://www.presbyterianireland.org/consideringgrace.  The book is now well into its second print run.

As we remembered the past, we were mindful that Christians are called to do so through the lens of Jesus Christ who lived, died, rose and is ascended for us. We have sought to remember therapeutically with a view to healing; truthfully with a view to justice; together with a view to peacemaking; and beyond time with a view to hope.

Ministers shared how they pastored, preached, and conducted multiple funerals under the public gaze while themselves asking enormous questions about the situations they were thrust into.

Victims of the troubles – including those who were injured, disabled or disturbed – told stories which still throb with sadness.

We also listened to those who served in the security forces, many of whom felt their lives were continually under threat, as well as First Responders including ambulance drivers, fire fighters, those in the medical professions, and an undertaker.

We heard from quiet peacemakers, who when anarchy reigned on the streets, kept order in schools, government, sporting, community and commercial life.

Politicians talked about how their faith affected their public roles during the Troubles. Presbyterians who were former paramilitaries and served prison sentences were also interviewed. The research was further enhanced by some who for various reasons left the Presbyterian Church, and we also listened to critical friends of the denomination.

At one of our Focus Groups someone said, “maybe we should move on and forget about the details of the past.” The youngest person in the room responded, “There are cracks in our wall at home. I only recently discovered those cracks were the result of a bomb in our village. And there are cracks in all our families, churches, and communities and I need to understand why those cracks are there.”

There is a need to lament the devil in the detail, the pain, anxiety, and loss caused by these cracks. There is also a need for many more stories to be voiced, written down and archived to expose the cracks in all our walls.

There was no attempt to edit out their criticism of the Presbyterian Church which included a neglect of some victims, insensitivity to victims who were made to feel they had a duty to forgive and move on, a gap between individual Congregations’ responses to atrocities and the denominational response, a disconnect with loyalist communities, disappointment that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland did not stand up to the Rev Ian Paisley’s sectarianism, and a lack of emphasis on reconciliation.

While many of the victims note how considerate and helpful their pastor was at the time of the atrocity, he or she has since moved on, or retired, and congregations and successive minsters struggled to acknowledge the ongoing needs of victims.

Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack, there is a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.” Readers of ‘Considering Grace’ will notice the light shining through the cracks.

After the Tullyvallen massacre in County Armagh in 1975 Russell Birney preached a courageous sermon, which ensured there was no retaliation. Gary and Lily had the faith, hope, and humour to keep their business open after countless bombings. Gary worked for better community relations as a local councillor while his own life was under threat.

The title of the book comes from Terry Laverty, now Minister Emeritus in Portstewart Presbyterian. Terry’s brother Robert was a policeman who was killed in Belfast in 1972. The Laverty family are from Ballycastle, and after his brother’s death Terry walked along Ballycastle beach crying out in pain to God.

On the front cover of the book the photographer captures a picture of a crack through which the light shines on that very beach. Even in our darkest moments God in his grace has kept his light shining through the cracks.

 On Thursday 6th February, Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry, will respond to readings from Considering Grace at a 4 Corners Festival event. The venue is St John’s Parish Centre, Falls Road; the time 7.30pm. Visit https://4cornersfestival.com/ for more details and to book your ticket.

 Rev. Tony Davidson is Minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church. Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.


Seventy Times Seven

Do you remember learning your times tables at school? ‘Two times two is four, three times two is six, four times two is eight…’ In the days before electronic calculators took the strain, the combination of daily classroom sing songs and homework repetition rooted the multiplication tables in our brains. However, growing up in Northern Ireland, there was one times table that I did not learn in school, or church or anywhere.  Continue reading


There have been at least three very significant events in the past month that, taken together, may - repeat may - prove to be a watershed in the current quagmire that is politics in Northern Ireland.  

The first was the brutal murder of Lyra McKee in Derry on 29 April that sent shock waves around the world, as well as bringing untold grief to her family and friends.  Her funeral service in St Anne’s Cathedral brought that electrifying moment when Fr Martin Magill called out our politicians for their failure to do government together (and did so, quite explicitly, in God’s name).  That call helped bring about the new talks currently underway to try to get devolution working again.  Continue reading


In mid-September 2019 Northern Ireland will reach a significant milestone in its history. It’s one that seems highly unlikely to attract any of the attention of our decade of centenaries, the 100th anniversaries of the Home Rule crisis and Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising, the Somme, and the establishment of the state itself.

The dates, I’m going to argue, could admittedly be debated but I’m talking about the tipping point when our post-Troubles period becomes longer than the Troubles itself; our local equivalent of 6 February 2018 when the Berlin Wall had been down longer than it was up.

In setting out these dates I’m taking as my starting point 14th and 15th August 1969 when British troops were deployed on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry, and a number of people were killed as major clashes occurred in North and West Belfast. For my end point I’m taking 31 August 1994 when the IRA announced a complete cessation of its military campaign.

I’ll readily admit there’s a level of subjectivity to these bookends. The events in mid-August 1969 weren’t a civic jack-in-the-box that popped up from nowhere and nor did violence disappear from our society at the end of August 1994. Many innocent people have suffered cruelly since then, not least the victims of the Omagh bomb and their families in August 1998. The precise date of my suggested line in the sand can be debated, but not, I believe, the core issues it raises.

So, if these events are further in the past than the days the Troubles actually occurred, how have we failed so materially to move on? Why do these shadows still fall so bleakly over our civic life and communities? Why does Northern Ireland remain so depressingly gummed up in mistrust, tribalism and ”whataboutery”?

Most of us haven’t yet worked out what good truth telling and reconciliation looks like, and we remain grievously damaged by competing narratives and the lack of any shared version of our history to gather round. Then there are all the events that have punctured trust along the way, from the parades disputes of the late nineties to two years and counting of a collapsed Stormont in the late noughties, with Brexit, RHI, an Irish language act, abortion and same-sex marriage all contributing to entrenchment. The centre ground is hollowed out and the extremes don’t even look close to wanting to do a deal.

After 20 years and counting of violence, things couldn’t go on as they were. The early 1990s had a momentum about it, an energy of ‘enough is enough’, an echoing of the ancient Hebrew cry of ‘How long, Lord?’ Our society was drained by violence, tens of thousands of families scarred, hundreds of thousands worn out and fearful. Some in the church stepped up and played their part, with bold clerics rolling up their sleeves and having hard conversations with men of violence, and initiatives such as ECONI articulating the theological imperative for reconciliation and forgiveness.

And now, after 25 years of non-violence, are we not at a place again where there should be a groundswell of frustration demanding that we can’t go on as we are? Many of us who are middle class are better off financially but we need to look around and see that the post-Troubles financial dividends have not been equally shared, with too many feeling left behind.

It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that prosperity has left too many of us with little banked but complacency, given our willingness to take for granted a level of division that ought to be intolerable.

And anyhow, are the Cathedral Quarter and Titanic Quarter and Victoria Square the best we can be and what we all longed for? Did we pine for a choice of Belfast eateries and new cars and mobile phones on three-year leases or did we not want something more?

When we talk about legacy issues in Northern Ireland we automatically see that in terms of 1969 to 1994, and enormous academic and spiritual thinking has been brought to bear on that era. But when mid-September 2019 rolls round there’ll be a longer post-Troubles era than there was a Troubles-era. And so, in order to move forward, do we need to lay aspects of those 25 years aside now, and see a new generation of peacemakers and emerge to wrestle with what has left us so wrung out, with hope and light fighting a losing battle against cynicism and darkness?

1994 to 2019 has its own legacy too, so where’s the church and where is the new theology for these times we live in going to come from? When the bombs and bullets have gone, what understanding will we seek from God for how we got to drift and deadlock, how we deal not with men in balaclavas with weapons but rather with the sapping dogmatism of a politician behind a microphone saying all the same old things, with blank faced nodding dogs from their party gathered around them.

Where’s the groundswell where good people rise up and say ‘How long, Lord?’

Colin Neill is a Board Member of Contemporary Christianity