I was in England on a school trip, singing eight-part harmony, high church spiritual songs in grand cathedrals, when news of the IRA ceasefire broke. As teenagers we were overjoyed, though few of us had directly experienced the impact of The Troubles. And then we went back to singing our songs, returning to life as normal. Over the years, especially after the Good Friday Agreement was ratified by a huge majority, I have occasionally reflected back to realise how much background anxiety was present in our lives.
I can’t imagine how my parents felt when they put me on a train each morning, knowing how frequent the bomb alerts on the track took place. It was all an adventure to me, wondering why the train was stopping between stations, why we were reversing and then being put on buses. Sometimes there were actual bombs, sometimes they actually went off, but then the line would be re-opened and I’d get the train home again in the afternoon. Some weeks we would hear on an almost-daily basis of the deaths of people caught up in explosions or shot by masked men. It all became very normal.
As I became more aware of the issues in Northern Ireland in the early nineties, I was also becoming more awakened in faith and in prayer. I’d go to our wee church’s prayer meeting every Thursday evening, and we’d pray for guns to jam and bombs to fail, for no more ‘tit-for-tat’ murders to take place, and for our community (and it’s one community, not two) to be reconciled.
I am so thankful those days are behind us.
However, just as my family cannot ever take our son’s health for granted, neither can we presume that an absence of violence in Northern Ireland indicates a healthy society. The risks taken by political parties in 1998 were rewarded by the electorate not with gratitude but with the gradual donation of mandate to the very parties who were vehemently opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. For twenty years we have been on a regressive journey to a place where rights always trump reconciliation. Our history tells us that majority rule cannot be trusted. Our present reality to the east and the west proves that polarised politics doesn’t deliver. Our one success came when we were ready to compromise, but more than that, we hinted at the desire for a reconciled community. Today, even the centre-ground politicians use language and actions that push true reconciliation further away. Perhaps it’s due to sheer frustration, but the notes of hope are sounded very infrequently in Northern Ireland.
And so we find ourselves in the situation today where the most liberal abortion regime in Europe has been imposed upon our wee country. It is a scandal that something so important couldn’t be dealt with – and the law did need to change – by our own politicians. The reasons for this vary, but in my opinion they include some wanting political revenge, some just couldn’t bring themselves to say sorry for something they shouldn’t have done, some simply couldn’t make their minds up, and others huffed or ditched cooperation for the sake of popularity. The stubborn refusal, on so many levels, to talk together and learn how to be friends and how to lead together, has resulted in a law change that will – if trends follow the pattern of other countries – see a death toll far greater than The Troubles ever did. But it won’t be reported on a daily basis that one more person has died because our society didn’t care enough for their mother. After a while we might hear that services for people with Down syndrome have closed, because they literally don’t exist in Northern Ireland any longer. Soon enough, we’ll become numb to the whole situation, like teenager-me in the nineties, and we’ll find something less important to get agitated about.
So what now?
First, confession – I am vicariously responsible as a Christian leader for the church being distracted by less important things, and for a truly Pharisaic approach to faith. When we were a ‘Christian’ island, we did not show love, grace or compassion in the way we ought to have done, to those who could not follow our man-made rules. So many people have given up on the church because they did not find an embrace in the one place where it should have been guaranteed. But I’m also personally responsible, for being too pre-occupied with family or work or church to notice and care for the people struggling with pregnancy and who were forced because of the law to go through abortion in England, the traumatic birth of a child who was born sleeping, putting their child up for adoption or raising a family without the support they needed. If you’re reading this and my neglect, or the neglect of the church, has hurt you, I am so sorry.
Second, a little theology – biology seems to have settled on the concept that life begins at conception. The question is, do we have the right to end life before birth? The Bible is littered with quotations describing God’s love. Genesis says we’re made in the image of God. The Psalms speak of how God knit us together in the womb, planning out our days before there had not yet been any days. Jesus told his followers to be like little children and to pay particular attention to their care. And he called us to love one another in the same, self-sacrificial way that he loves us. If we are made in God’s image then each human being has an intrinsic value and is worthy of love – and life. However, if we believe that abortions shouldn’t happen then we must also believe that mums should be loved and given compassion and practical help when they are distressed about their pregnancy. So here’s our commitment (and I don’t only mean my church, I mean the Harte family): our door will always be open to anyone contemplating an abortion. We will walk beside you and do whatever we can to support you; come and be a part of our family, we’re noisy and apparently our sandwiches are boring, but we have fun and we love one another and you are welcome.