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Episcopal & Anglican Pilgrims Learn Peacemaking in Northern Ireland

Tony Baucum, left, and Shannon Johnston on the Peace Bridge, Derry, Northern Ireland.

This article first appeared in the September 1 print edition of TLC.

By Mark Michael

Thirty Northern Virginia Anglicans and Episcopalians went on pilgrimage together to Ireland early this summer to learn how to make peace. People on opposite sides of last decade’s Episcopal conflict jointly met with leaders engaged in brokering reconciliation between Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics.

The trip grew out of the unlikely friendship between a retired Episcopal bishop and the rector of one of the churches that helped lead the movement toward disaffiliation. The Rev. Tory Baucum is rector of Truro Anglican Church of Fairfax in Northern Virginia, and the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston served the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which Truro Church left in 2006.

Leading the pilgrimage together is one of several joint projects for Baucum and Johnston, who have been honored by the Archbishop of Canterbury for their work building bridges across Anglican church divisions. They are also teaming up as two of the leaders of the newly founded Truro Institute, which aims to “to inspire, model, and equip Americans to love the other for the common good.” Baucum is the institute’s founding director and Johnston the co-chair of its ecumenical and politically diverse board.

Several of the sites the Northern Virginia group visited are associated with the life of St. Patrick, who brought peace and unity to a land dominated by warfare between local chieftains. “We looked at the founding of Christianity in a warlord society,” Baucum said, “the things that Patrick did to break the cycles of violence. Christianity did not advance there at the point of the sword but with miracles, wonders, and the power of persuasion. There is still a generosity toward the Christian tradition among the Irish people. That’s because there wasn’t a violent entry into the culture.”

The last century, though, has seen recurrent bouts of violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, a region that was once the primary center of the saint’s peace-making work. In their travels, the group met with a series of church leaders who have tried to lessen the tensions and build relationships across the cultural divides. They visited a monastery founded by French Benedictines in the late 20th century to pray for peace in the region, as well as the Corrymeela Community, an ecumenical fellowship that hosts summer camps for Catholic and Protestant teens to develop friendships across denominational lines. In Belfast, they met with former paramilitary street fighters and a Pentecostal pastor who still has a price on his head for his open engagement with Catholic church leaders.

Leslie Fairfield, former professor of church history at Trinity School for Ministry, accompanied the group and made presentations at many of the sites. He said the group was especially struck by how difficult meaningful reconciliation has been in the region. “As we traveled in Northern Ireland,” he said, “we saw that since the end of “The Troubles” there has been managed disengagement, not a peacemaking success. The communities are still divided by a hundred different walls.

“There’s a recognition,” Fairfield continued, “that they need to begin with the children, to begin a long-term effort of resocialization, because still their separate populations are really living in two different worlds.” Fairfield said he was struck by a speaker at Corrymeela who spoke about how ephemeral the relationships forged at the community’s summer camps usually are. “They have no problem relating happily at camp, but when getting on buses to home, they immediately self-sort into religious communities.”

But there are a few places in Northern Ireland that are pushing back against the cultural norm of disengagement. Baucum and Johnston both spoke glowingly of their visit to Derry. Despite its blood-soaked history, Protestants and Catholics there are, in Baucum’s words, “learning to love the other as other,” a concept at the heart of their vision for the Truro Institute.

Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city, sits on the border of predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas. It was the scene of a famous 17th century anti-Jacobite siege valorized by Protestants. The Battle of the Bogside, a 1969 riot often seen as the beginning of “The Troubles,” happened in one of Derry’s Catholic neighborhoods, and it was also the site of “Bloody Sunday,” a 1972 attack by British soldiers on Catholic protesters, the single deadliest incident of the decades-long conflict.

Today, though, Derry is transformed. The group saw ample evidence of warm relationships between Protestants and Catholics, and there are tentative steps toward education children together. The Peace Bridge, which spans the River between the city’s denominational neighborhoods, is a prominent symbol of the shift, as is a bronze statue at the center of the city, “Reconciliation/Hands Across the Divide,” which was unveiled on the twentieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

In Derry, Baucum said, “they determined ‘there’s no way we can eliminate the other half.’ They decided to live together.” Johnston added. “In Derry, there was not the use of force to keep the peace, but engagement, the polar opposite. They are bringing people together in relationship and they choose to cooperate without discarding one scintilla of their identity, conviction, and principle or compromising their faith in any way. They simply worked to add engagement and peacemaking as one part of their identity and to make that one part of their expression of their faith.”

All three trip leaders noted that when Catholic journalist Lyra McKee was shot while covering a riot in Derry last April, locals hung up signs in their windows proclaiming, “Not in My Name.” Baucum added, “They are saying, ‘We’re not going back into the vortex.”

It was not lost on Baucum and Johnston that an unlikely friendship lay at the center of the city’s transformation. After his church was paint bombed in 2006, the Rev. Richard Latimer of Derry’s First Presbyterian Church was approached by local Catholic politician Martin McGuinness, a former paramilitary leader. In the face of opposition (including the withdrawal of thirty families from Latimer’s church), their friendship grew over time, and the two drew others into their deeply felt conviction that real peacemaking begins with relationships. Together they launched a “peace pledge” signed by thousands of schoolchildren, and when McGuinness died in 2017, Latimer spoke at his funeral.

“Find someone on the other side who becomes your friend and then bring other people into the ambit of that friendship,” Baucum said. He has also seen this change of heart sweep through his own congregation, as they renegotiated their relationship with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, working out a long-term arrangement to lease the church premises. “Parishioners took the lead in this,” he said. “They had been estranged, but they want to be reconciled. It has shaped the whole ethos of the parish.”

Johnston remarked how honored and humbled he was to be invited on the trip as the guest of this congregation which had once been so estranged from his diocese. It’s not that opinions have changed, he said, but real trust affection has grown across the divisions. “If you can be an appealing presence instead of trying to be a convincing presence — as in trying to change someone’s mind — it makes a great difference. Relationships come first, then you can have engagement, then you can have transformation of the human heart.”

Baucum and Johnston hope that the Truro Institute can help bring this relational approach to peacemaking to different areas of tension and conflict in our culture. Johnston said, “We do not see this happening in many places in politics or in the church. In racial relationships, there is not enough transformational engagement. We’ve grown used to political polarization and total divisiveness.”

“We are trying to teach the old civic virtues that have been lost, even in the church,” Baucum added.

The group has focused on building relationships between Christians and Jews over the past year, sponsoring an interfaith Scriptural reasoning group. They have invited Dr. Jacqueline Rivers, a Harvard sociologist, to speak at Truro on Sept. 21 as part of a new engagement with racial reconciliation issues in light of the 400th anniversary of the slave trade. An intern program, focused on training recent college graduates in peacemaking skills, has also recently been launched.

For a movement that originated as a friendship between two Anglican church leaders, there is mutual regret that the time doesn’t yet seem right for the Truro Institute to serve as a platform for reconciliation between ACNA and the Episcopal Church. A 2017 plan to focus its work in this direction had to be reworked in the face of strong reservations voiced by other church leaders.

But both Baucum and Johnston are hopeful that the time for this will eventually come. “People still have a feeling that [divisiveness] is wrong for the church,” Johnston said. “It has been noted by both sides that it doesn’t take very much to block this kind of effort as it doesn’t make common sense to people. It doesn’t take much for people to say ‘I’m not crossing this line.’ We are more ready readily able to work in other areas — political divisions racial divisions — than to work in our own backyard. Soon that critique will force us to look in our own backyards even as we work beyond them.”


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