I did an interview for the Church of Ireland Journal “Search” with Earl Storey, the Director of the Church of Ireland’s Hard Gospel Project.
How would you evaluate the progress of the hard Gospel Project?
The first year has very much been one of laying foundations. There would have been a great temptation to come into the Project and to have run around the country trying to look as busy as possible. Whilst this may have projected a good image and made us feel good, the danger would have been that we would have come to the end of the three year duration of the project and that very little of lasting quality would have been achieved because we had failed to think strategically. The first year has been about the laying of strong foundations.
What sorts of things have been included in those foundations?
There is a commitment on the part of the Project to work at various levels within the Church of Ireland.
One of the areas where there has been a strong emphasis is work at parish level. We have produced a course for use in parishes that has been piloted and put into use in a number of places. The course is intended to enable people to think about what it means to love their neighbour and what steps they might take to put that love into practice.
At a different level, we are looking at the issue of leadership, particularly the leadership skills of the clergy. We have been running a facilitative leadership course which aims to help clergy in skills that are appropriate to situations where people are learning to live with difference.
I think there is a tendency within the Church of Ireland to think that prejudice is, of course to do with someone else, that it’s not a matter of concern for ourselves, and that the Hard Gospel Project is therefore intended for someone other than ourselves. Have you encountered such thinking?
I think there are strong elements of such thinking!
Jesus preaches about the easiness of taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, to identify their shortcomings, whilst not seeing the log in our own eye. I think there are people saying, ‘There may be sectarianism and there may be division, but these have nothing to do with us’.
We can be guilty of a form of ‘nimbyism’. Not nimbyism in the sense of not wanting something in our backyard, but nimbyism in the sense that we say other people are guilty of such shortcomings, but that we have no problems in our backyard.
A role of the Hard Gospel Project is to hold a mirror to the life of the Church of Ireland at all levels, whether at a most local parish level, or at a central committee level, and to ask ourselves what we see.
Can I ask you about the theological basis of the Project? There is the straightforward idea of love for God and love for our neighbour, how have you expanded upon this idea?
One of the things we stress is that discipleship, following Jesus Christ, is not rocket science. One of the difficulties of following Jesus is not that it’s too complicated, but that in some ways it’s too simple. Discipleship is about loving God more than anything else, which throws up the question as to what has our passion. The question as to what rouse the greatest passion in our lives is a challenge for members of the Church of Ireland (as it is for members of any other church).
Is our greatest passion our denomination? Is our greatest passion our politics? Is our greatest passion some concept of Anglican ethos? If something arouses greater passion in our lives or in our hearts, than our passion for Jesus Christ himself, then that is spiritual idolatry. One of the questions we must ask ourselves, at all levels in the Church of Ireland, is ‘where is our passion?’
The other question that we must ask concerns our love for our neighbour. Jesus spelt out in stark terms, in the story of the Good Samaritan, that love for our neighbour meant not just love for our friend but also love for our enemy. The quest for the Hard Gospel Project is to put flesh on that teaching of Jesus, to get the Church at all levels to reflect upon what such love really means in 2007, whether it be in Co Tyrone or Co Kerry, whether it be in Dublin diocese or in Derry and Raphoe.
Archbishop Eames said that the Hard Gospel is about asking hard questions and expecting hard answers.
If you had to sum up the ethos of the Project, what sort of terms would you use?
The ethos is to be radical. Radical can be a trendy term, but if you look at the literal meaning of the word, it means returning to the roots. The whole concept of the Hard Gospel is based on going back to the roots of what it means to have love for God and to have love for one’s neighbour.
The Project is to question relentlessly the Church of Ireland at all levels and to do so as a critical friend. What do these things mean in reality? What do they mean in the flesh? The questioning must be relentless.
There is a temptation in the Church to have an ethos of blandness. There is a temptation for the church to use a lot of words, particularly in relation to issues of division and sectarianism, and when one analyses what has been said, a lot of words have been used to say very little, or to state the obvious. It is not the aim of the Hard Gospel Project to be bland, or to use unnecessary words, or to state what everyone knows.
As you look forward to the coming year, have you particular plans in mind?
We have a number of plans; they will mean working at various levels. Our obvious first task will be to expand the work that is being done at parish level around the country. We are also developing projects to help particular Church of Ireland parishes to engage with marginalised Loyalist communities.
We are developing a project that will span right across the whole of the Church of Ireland, south and north, addressing the issues of immigration and the challenges that are being presented to the Church. The response to immigration will include a process of diocesan consultations; we hope to encourage dioceses to think about how they can meaningfully respond to the challenges.
We are going to ask what the Hard Gospel means in each situation.