Speaking at the 88th Annual Meeting of the Irish Council of Churches in the Island Civic Centre, Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, told representatives from 14 different churches that, "secularism is not an anti-religion idea".
He added that the "public square is today defined by its fluidity, uncertainty and ambiguity; therefore it is a difficult space for people of faith", notably because the "public square is allergic to notions of authority". However, he noted that, "Christians don’t have to enter that space defensively".
The AGM was titled, ‘The Church in the Public Square’ and was part-funded by a grant from the Lisburn City Council Good Relations programme. It was opened by the Mayor of Lisburn, Alderman Paul Porter, who said, "It is encouraging to see so many Irish Churches uniting in prayer and dialogue and working hard to improve our society."
President of the Irish Council of Churches, Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke also said that, "The Christian voice must be neither clichéd nor facile. Part of the role of the Irish Council of Churches is to find that voice and to use it effectively".
In his keynote address, Fintan O’ Toole said that the, "origins of the secular State are bound up in freedom of conscience and religion and non-domination, in the United States particularly. Churches have a mixed record on neutrality of State. Churches can change their view of the State depending on whether they have a majority or minority position".
Mr O’Toole added that the culture in which churches took authority for granted, "is over and can’t be reconstituted". He also suggested that some aspects of religious experience are not public, "such as an individual relationship with God". These are "aspects...that can’t be fully articulated in the public sphere". Instead he highlighted five points of contact, which are common to all churches and can connect with public affairs: ethics, courage, humility, love and spirituality.
Mr O’Toole suggested that if the churches "hold on to these basic ideas, which are actually difficult to stick to, then they lose their anxiety about a public message and media influence".
In responding to his address, Peter Lynas, Director of Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland said that there is a distinction between, "‘soft’ secularism and ‘hard’ secularism, which is more extreme".
Mr Lynas noted how there is pressure to put faith aside in the workplace and the public square, quoting Tony Blair’s press secretary Alistair Campbell, who once said, "the Prime Minister doesn’t do God". During the responses from the floor, there were very positive contributions, with some members suggesting that the churches had also, "enjoyed the fruits of recent economic prosperity" and therefore had, "failed to be prophetic".