Preparing the sermon for Sunday, a nasty thought arose. The ‘s’ word is not popular in church circles. We try to avoid it as much as possible. We think it is the sort of word that should only be used in other contexts, and we would certainly not use it in church, but Ireland is a sectarian state.
Sunday’s Gospel reading is one that is very familiar to Christians, the reading is the first seventeen verses of the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. Verse sixteen will be known to most churchgoers:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.â?
At the heart of Jesus’ words in that verse is the word “whoever”. Jesus espouses a principle of voluntarism, faith is a matter of individual choice, it is not a matter of compulsion.
The church abandoned the voluntary principle in medieval times, compulsion became the order of the day. If being burned at the stake was the alternative, then most people accepted the authority of the church. By the 21st Century, one might have thought that the last vestiges of compulsion had disappeared, but they remain in subtle forms.
Because the Irish state began in 1922 with very limited resources (one of the first acts of the finance minister was to cut the old age pension from ten shillings a week to nine), the ideals that had motivated its founders soon faded as they grappled with grim realities. There was no option but to allow the churches to continue the roles they had played in the fields such as education and health care. Perhaps, given the nature of Irish society, this would have happened anyway.
Ireland in 2008 allows voluntarism, no-one is compelled to be anything, except choosing to be nothing can bring unanticipated consequences, like finding it almost impossible to find a primary school place for your child.
The Catholic Church has a perfect right to run its own schools, the overwhelming majority of our taxpayers are Catholic and this is their choice. Catholic primary schools have a strong Catholic ethos, religious devotions and preparation for the sacraments form an integral part of church life. The much smaller number of Protestant schools, which are heavily oversubscribed, tend towards a much broader understanding of what being a ‘church school’ means, the ethos would be ‘Christian’ rather than that of a particular church; none I know of would expect whole classes, or even the whole school, to attend overtly denominational occasions, such as Holy Communion. Outside of those schools, the Educate Together movement seeks to provide a third stream, but options to attend one of its schools are limited, particularly in rural areas.
Where is the ‘voluntary’ principle? I suspect that not a few of the baptisms I conduct are more concerned with getting the right denominational alignment than with deep rooted faith. What happened to “whoever”?