DIALOGUE IRELAND - NEWSLETTER 12 - 2000
Dialogue Ireland (DI) came into existence in the 1980s as a result of a cry for help from individuals and families whose lives were affected by involvement with one or other of the New Religious Movements which had been appearing on the Irish scene since at least the early 1970s. When a family member became involved in one or other of these movements, it was and still continues to be to the established churches that many turn for information and guidance. DI represents the response of four main Christian churches – Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and Presbyterian – to these requests. These churches are the Patrons of DI and all have representatives on its committee, which is chaired by Father Martin Tierney. Through the churches' representatives on its committee, DI is accountable to each of its sponsoring churches. In addition DI has under its direction an executive group of six members which is chaired by Louis Hughes. This group, which includes our field worker, Mike Garde, meets regularly and is responsible for organising the annual conference, educational role, financial affairs, website and other publicity – in short, coordinating all of DI's activities. Those of us who work for Dialogue consider that we are involved in an important element in the mission of Irish Christianity today.
Dialogue Ireland thus approaches the New Religions from a Christian perspective. We desire to be in dialogue with these movements, and we seek to understand them better through research and through listening to what their adherents have to say. We also seek to inform our churches' members and the public at large of the beliefs, practices and, in some cases, the hidden agendas of NRMs. The most notable example in recent months of this type of 'dialogue in confrontation' arose from an aggressive and defamatory leaflet about DI, which was widely circulated by Gerard Ryan of the Scientology organisation. Readers can find the full text of our response to this on our website: http://www.esatclear.ie/~dialogueireland/
The churches provide limited financial backing for Dialogue's mission and for this we are extremely grateful. Without it we would not be able to continue at all. However, the current practice in most European countries is for governments to fund research into New Religious Movements. This is a way of recognising that some extreme groups, such as 'suicide cults' and groups that stockpile weapons, present a serious threat, not just to churches, but to society at large. In this connection we made a submission during the year to the Dail committee on Justice, Equality and women's rights. There has not as yet been any response to this. Dialogue Ireland has moreover been in negotiation with the Department of the Taoiseach with a view to obtaining State funding for our work in line with a resolution passed by the Council of Europe. Regrettably our efforts to date have not borne fruit, but we do hope for some progress on this in September.
From the Field Worker
We will continue to send out this annual newsletter, especially for those of you who have yet to enter the IT world. We will, more and more, be posting material on our website on groups like Tony Quinn Yoga, The International Church of Christ and Scientology, to mention a few. These will be updated regularly and you will find links to international sites with added information.
This year we have a conference entitled What is Evangelical Christianity? to help people to understand this group of Christians. Fergus Ryan and Fr Pat Collins CM, speakers at our conference, have written articles for this newsletter showing the direction they will take at our conference at Clonliffe College on Saturday, 21 October 2000. This year will see the start of World Religions as an examination subject at second level. Again we will have websites for the major World Religions to help with the transition to this new curriculum, especially as Ireland has no third-level chair of World Religions, an issue we are raising with government as a matter of urgency. Finally we would like to thank the four Churches that support us for their continued help.
The Irish Evangelicals
A Short Perspective by Fergus Ryan
The First Evangelical Revival had happened more than a century earlier, fired by the zeal of Rev John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) who visited Ireland twenty-one times. Wesley thought Ireland to be the most spiritually benighted place he had visited, with the people neglected by the clergy of both the Established and Catholic churches. Irish Methodism later spread to North America. Ireland's Evangelicalism also spread globally in a non-denominational movement which began at Powerscourt in 1821 known simply as 'The Brethren'.
Today Evangelicalism in Ireland has burst the banks of its Protestant river, both structurally and culturally. Within Protestantism, individual local Evangelical churches (i.e. those which emphasise the authority of Scripture, the need to be born again through faith in Christ's atoning death, and the mandate for world evangelisation) are experiencing renewed growth. The current leaders of both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Ireland are Evangelicals. While theologically liberal churches are closing everywhere, St Catherine's in Thomas Street has been recently reopened for an Anglican Charismatic ministry. Kilkenny has built a new Presbyterian church reflecting a successful Evangelical ministry. Even within Catholicism movements have arisen to express Evangelical values and lifestyle.
But there is also a part of the Evangelical movement in Ireland which, while theologically orthodox, is influenced by streams other than Protestantism or Catholicism. It is expressed in the 'New Churches', fellowships that are generally non-denominational yet 'ethnically' in continuity with the majority population. Many, though not all, are Charismatic in style. All would subscribe (along with Evangelicals in the historic churches) to the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Alliance. Now, immigrant churches are forming that are largely Evangelical/Pentecostal in emphasis. Together these 'New Churches' form the fastest growing part of Irish Christianity, and have overtaken Protestantism in central Dublin.
Given this extensive Evangelical heritage in the historic and New Churches it seems inexplicable that the Irish media and many of the clergy should be so uninformed about Irish Evangelicalism both theologically and ecclesiologically. Even today some clergy are advising their parishioners that 'born-again' Christians are cultists, and even within the reputable print and broadcast media Evangelicals are portrayed as fanatical Bible-thumpers who arrived recently from some TV evangelist's Waco-style headquarters in America. Such counsel is hurtful, misleading and, at least in some cases, mischievous.
I am grateful to Dialogue Ireland for the opportunity to present a forthcoming lecture on Evangelical Christianity, and to trace the origins, emphases and diverse expressions of the movement, with particular focus on the growing Irish phenomenon of the New Churches.
WHO IS AN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN?
The word 'Evangelical' can be understood in two main ways. In Germany it is almost synonymous with Protestantism. In English speaking countries it suggests an individualistic and biblically centered piety, such as that found in churches stemming from or deeply affected by the great revivals – notably the Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal. Most mainline Protestant Churches have an Evangelical wing. By and large Evangelical Protestants stress the foundational importance of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ. They deny that good works and the sacraments have any saving efficacy. The word Evangelical, can be used in a wider, less specifically Protestant way, to refer to beliefs and a way of life that are rooted in the scriptures as they have been traditionally interpreted by the Church. Because many Protestants in the past seemed to interpret the word Evangelical in their own distinctive way they did not think that Catholics could be Evangelical. In an effort to distance themselves from Protestantism, many if not most Catholics refrained from using the word Evangelical to describe themselves. All that began to change with Vatican II. Catholics reaffirmed their Evangelical roots. The Council frequently spoke of the primacy of the gospel and the importance of evangelization. As a result of this emphasis, there has been a growing rapprochement since the 60's between Catholics and Protestants. Nowadays an increasing number of Catholics are happy to use the word Evangelical to describe themselves when it is used in the wider less denominational sense.
It is also significant that in recent years, the Catholic understanding of the gift of faith has shifted from the post-Tridentine emphasis on mental assent to revealed doctrines taught authoritatively by the Church, on God's behalf, to the complementary notion of faith as heartfelt trust in the person, word and saving work of the Lord. As a result of this change in focus many Catholics strongly welcome and endorse the recent joint declaration of the Lutheran and Catholic churches on the doctrine of justification. It says: 'By grace alone, in faith Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.' An increasing number of Catholics, especially those who have experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of baptism in the Spirit, are utterly convinced that as a result of justifying faith they are redeemed/saved/born again, that Christ lives in their hearts through faith (Eph 3:17) and that in him these is no condemnation (Rm 8:1). While Catholics do not believe that they are saved by the sacraments they certainly do believe that they mediate the saving grace of Christ. That grace is gratefully expressed rather than merited by good works.
In the years following the Reformation, Protestants were also Evangelical in the sense that they based their faith solely upon their understanding of the scriptures. For their part Catholics became wary of the obvious dangers implicit in the private interpretation of the bible. They could see that the differing interpretations of Protestants led to a proliferation of churches. As a result they relied mainly on the teaching of the Church which mediated the riches of the bible to the people in a trustworthy way. Vatican II modified that too. It encouraged Catholics to develop a scripture based spirituality. For example, in par 133 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: 'The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful... to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.' Over the years an increasing number of Catholics have become more scripture centered and have made God's word their rule of life.
Thankfully, the word Evangelical is becoming a Christian rather than an exclusively Protestant one. Evangelicals, in all denominations need to continue to engage in on-going dialogue. For example, recently an inter-Church document was produced. It was entitled: Evangelicals & Catholics Together in Ireland. It described areas of common agreement e.g. on justification and the central role of scripture. It also pointed out that remaining differences in doctrine will only be overcome as a result of such things as shared scripture study, on-going conversion, mutual reconciliation, prayer, and 'a common effort to value, respect and protect all human beings, especially the lives of the most vulnerable amongst us.'