Us and Them?

Each week one of our Research Assistants will be offering their reflections on the pieces that we have recently posted as part of the 500 Project. This piece comes from Chris Anderson.

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“Fragmentation is the Reformation’s saddest legacy.” 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has raised the difference in perception between the two communities in Northern Ireland. The community in which one is raised will determine whether the Reformation was a tragedy or triumph. The “us and them” mentality remains. An individual’s community background will often determine their perception of a wide range issues such as flags, marches and even the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

500 years ago, Martin Luther issued a blunt and outspoken challenge to his own Catholic Church. He saw the need for reform, however, it is difficult to ascertain whether the Reformation was his initial intention. What ensued was a revolution in the Church that would eventually lead to a split in the Church; something which is still very much felt today in Northern Ireland. The 500th anniversary is a wonderful opportunity to consider both spiritual and political reconciliation on this island. 

This week Paul Coulter asked, “do we still need the Reformation here?” Indeed, what was remarkable was the unified cultural resistance (in Ireland) against the Reformation. It represented resistance against the religion of their rulers, and allegiance to Irish Catholicism. Coulter asserts that the failure of the Reformation may be seen as a great victory or shame depending on one’s perspective. For some,

“The Reformation and its legacy appears a toxic relic of the past.”

Two communities and two narratives. This reflects the ethnonational political system which manifests itself in Northern Ireland through culture and religion. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there appears no better time to explore the importance of reconciliation in light of an event which, it could be argued, split the Church, society here and even the island.

Difference in belief is healthy and to be celebrated in a democratic society, however, this should not lead to dishonouring Christ. Coulter endorses the need for communities of diverse people to come together in their mutual love for Christ, rather than focus on separation into groups defined by ethnicity and culture. 

In the second article for the 500 project this week, the Attorney General John Larkin reflects on the Protestant civic culture that is unimaginable without Martin Luther’s contribution to Church history. In this place, the fallouts of the Reformation have been perceived as more favourable to Protestants.

Larkin explains how this civic culture between 1921 and 1972 largely gave unqualified support for the Northern Ireland state. Among other things, this highlights the division surrounding the Reformation and offers an interesting insight into how the two communities perceive it differently. There will always be profound differences between Unionism and Nationalism, however, political reconciliation is vital, possible in many aspects and is not the same thing as uniformity.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it is important to reflect on the state of Northern Ireland. The “us and them” mentality which remains means that the Reformation and it's political fallout continues to be viewed with suspicion by many. Without parallel efforts towards reconciliation, this may continue to be a barrier to any new and indigenous Reformation.

Thinking about the past has always been important in Northern Ireland. This has implications for how we deal with the legacy of the Reformation and the legacy of the troubles. We look forward with hope on what we have in common in order to achieve the next spiritual and political reformation.