On 4 July, the Irish Mission president, pastor Dan Serb and pastor Adam Keough, Dublin Senior Pastor participated at a meeting called by the Taoiseach (Irish Prime-Minister), Mr. Leo Varadkar. The event was held at St. Patrick’s Hall in the Dublin Castle and it was a plenary meeting with churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations.
The background of this meeting was outlined in the programme of the day. This dialogue process, established by the Government in 2005, “forms part of the [Irish] Government’s commitment to carry out wide-ranging and inclusive consultation on public policy. It also reflects the increasingly diverse range of faith-based communities in Ireland and the important role they play in today’s society”.
The dialogue forms part of the Irish Government’s commitment to carry out wide-ranging and inclusive consultation on public policy. It also reflects the increasingly diverse range of faith-based communities in Ireland and the important role they play in today’s society.
Alongside the Seventh-day Adventist church, there were over 25 other organisations represented, including the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland, Atheist Ireland, Church of Ireland, Evangelical Alliance Ireland, Humanist Association of Ireland, Irish Buddhist Union, Irish Jewish Community, Islamic Centre of Ireland, Lutheran Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Sikh Community in Ireland, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Ireland, the Russian Orthodox Church in Ireland, and Vedic Hindu Cultural Centre Ireland.
The event began with lunch which was followed by a family photo of the participants. After the photo and informal introductions, participants moved into the main meeting hall where they were welcomed by Mr. Andrew Munro, Assistant Secretary, Department of the Taoiseach. In the presence of the media, the Taoiseach then gave his opening address. Mr. Varadkar began by introducing the initiative as a means to building a new relationship between religious and non-confessional organisations, and the State; he called it “a new covenant” which recognises common interests and respects differences, and which addresses interests which go beyond religion such as housing, immigration, and the impact of Brexit on Ireland. The Taoiseach also acknowledged that Ireland has experienced considerable change in the last while, where 1 in 10 people declare that they adhere to no religion, and where 1 in 6 people was not born in Ireland; this makes Irish society one of the most diverse in the world, defined by pluralism rather than an absolutist secularism, and where such dialogue is necessary and needs to take place regularly. Mr. Varadkar concluded his address by stating that this initiative is “a bit of an experiment” which he hopes would work.
The meeting was then open to the floor where, after excusing the media, the participants were asked to address three main themes:
- effective structured dialogue,
- inclusive and diverse communities, and
The dialogue consisted of participants raising various issues and concerns with government ministers and representatives responding. Here are some of the main ideas presented: the role of faith and religion still is, and should remain, important in today’s society; such dialogues should translate into concrete and tangible implementation; the state needs to remain neutral in matters of faith; individuals should be protected from the ‘tyranny of the majority’; dialogue participation needs to be enlarged in order for prejudice barriers to be broken down; for the relationship between ‘Church and State’ to be efficient, the wrongs of the past need to be acknowledged and addressed.
Pastor Serb raised the issue of the great difficulty in purchasing land or property for places of worship. As the right to worship also translates into the right to hold property for that purpose, this difficulty needs to be addressed by means of putting together a guide of codes and rezoning practices as well as redefining what ‘church’ means. Pastor Serb gave the Ranelagh church in Dublin as a fitting example of church facilities offering community services and programmes on a daily basis through the work of the Cuisle Centre; the ‘centre of influence’ concept was expounded upon thus highlighting that ‘church’ should be understood as a gathering place for the community rather than for a community. Also, the ‘church’ is a place which facilitates integration within the Irish society for the immigrant segment of our congregants, and networking between State and ‘church’ should be sought to this effect. This latest point was welcomed by Mr. David Stanton, Minister of State with special responsibility for Equality, Immigration, and Integration, while Mr. Eogan Murphy, Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government acknowledged the difficulties for religious communities and organisations to secure property; he responded to Pr. Serb’s observations by promising to commission his team to compile a guideline in this respect and also to assess possibilities within local Councils. Of special interest was his remark regarding Cusile Centre: “I know the church in Ranelagh, and it’s true, the place is always buzzing!”
I know the church in Ranelagh, and it’s true, the place is always buzzing! (Minister Eogan Murphy)
Education was the last item on the agenda and it generated the most passionate contributions. The main issues discussed were: religious education in schools; pluralism vs. secularism; disproportionate time given to faith education, especially from within one specific Christian tradition; Church ownership of schools; the introduction of alternative subjects to religious education. Pastor Keough addressed the matter of facilitating and respecting Sabbath observance to those scheduled to sit examinations on a Saturday as an intrinsic right for religious expression. Mr. Joe McHugh, Minister for Education and Skills, addressed most of the issues raised and iterated the Government’s efforts in establishing an education system based on equal opportunity, integration, and fair distribution of assets and skills.
The meeting concluded with the Taoiseach thanking all participants for their contributions and participation, and committing themselves, as Government, to address the concerns raised during the meeting. Both Pastor Serb and Pastor Keough found the meeting beneficial and ground-breaking as it allowed them to voice the Church’s position on various issues of general interest. This was not an ecumenical meeting; it was a consultative meeting between State institutions and religious (and non-religious) organisations seeking to inform adequate public policy actions, and provide networking opportunities as stipulated in Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. As a Church which exists within the realm of law and order, it is our responsibility to be positive contributors to such initiatives and promote our role as guardians of religious liberty within an increasingly secular society.