For those working to promote ecumenism in Ireland, it has been a great encouragement to see how the 500th anniversary of the Reformation has prompted significant new developments in inter-church dialogue.

The events organised by the member churches of the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Inter-Church Meeting have all featured ecumenical outreach and engagement as a core element of the process. This in itself is not new. The same could be said, for example, of the various commemorations arising from the Decade of Centenaries, which has been used very effectively as a space for challenging and respectful dialogue leading to deeper understanding of our shared history. What is particularly significant in the case of the Reformation quincentenary, however, is that questions posed by this centenary go to the heart of our understanding of who we are as churches and how we live out our mission and commitment to Christ in the world today. The priority given to inter-church engagement in this context, therefore, underlines that we cannot fully understand our past or plan for our future without reference to, and relationship with, our fellow Christians from different traditions.

The leading figures in the Reformation did not aspire to divide the Church, and the failure to create the space for dialogue, and to allow for renewal without rejection and rupture is undoubtedly one of the great tragedies of that legacy. Another tragic aspect, with particular resonance in the Irish context, was the way in which violence was employed in the name of religion, in direct contradiction of Christ’s teaching and example. While many Christians have played a critical role in laying the foundations for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the public image of a divided Christian community weakens our credibility when we seek to bring Gospel values to the analysis of the challenges facing our society.

This brings us to another central pillar of the Reformation — the understanding of the relationships between Church, State and society. Ground-breaking dialogues between theologians are undoubtedly a positive development but will have limited value if our reflection on where we are at in this critical juncture does not engage the wider society. We need to take the dialogue out of our churches, having the courage to engage with the critical friends who can point out where we may have blind spots.

This will require us to be confident in how we express and explain our Christian faith in an increasingly secular, and sometimes hostile, society. Education and knowledge of Scripture were critical elements of the renewal envisaged by the Reformers. Today, a lack of religious literacy is a significant obstacle to raising the level of debate about moral and ethical issues at a time when major social, economic and political pressures — local and global — make such debate an urgent necessity. This can be compounded by a reluctance on the part of Christians to use an authentic Christian language in these debates, making reference to Scripture values, out of fear that they will be dismissed or rejected. We are in danger of retreating from the public square at a time when our voice is badly needed in defence of the most vulnerable and marginalised.

Luther and other Reformers were guided by a vision of a Church that was just and compassionate towards the poor. As we look at Northern Ireland today we see that those areas where the support of the Church is most needed is often where our presence is weakest, despite the best efforts of many Christians of different traditions who have devoted their lives to the service of the poor. Reconnecting with those who feel alienated from Church because of social divisions in our community needs to be a key priority in the ongoing work of renewal for the Christian Churches in Ireland.

Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World’, has been widely read by people from across the different Christian traditions, who find that it speaks to them in their experience of mission and ministry. The main purpose of the document, as the title suggests, was to remind all members of the Church of the joy of the Gospel. Believers are called to stand firm against the temptation to pessimism and look upon the obstacles we face — within Church as well as in the wider society — as challenges that help us to grow. Just as the great figures of the Reformation inspired others with their energy, commitment and the sacrifices they were prepared to make, we need to reflect on whether the way we express our faith in our daily lives is likely to inspire others to want to know more about Jesus, or to perceive our churches as welcoming communities that might have something to offer them.

A further positive dimension of this quincentenary year has been the international celebrations which many of our member churches have attended. At a time of tension and upheaval in international relations, it is helpful to be reminded that we are part of a global Christian family that offers alternative channels for building and preserving relationships, while seeking to influence the attitudes of the nation-states to which we belong. The bonds of Christian faith also make our local church communities important places of welcome for people moving here from other countries to start a new life, particularly those who have been forced to flee as a result of violence and persecution.

As we reflect on the Reformation in all its complexity, and the legacy it has left for the Church in Ireland today, we can appreciate how far we have come in terms of embracing diversity while recognising our common identity as followers of Christ. At the same time, we can see how far we still need to go to shine the light of the Gospel on the problems facing our communities, giving credible witness to Christ’s message of hope and love in a divided and wounded society.

Dr. Nicola Brady is General Secretary of the Irish Council of Churches.