Last Friday’s Belfast Telegraph gave a precious few column inches to an
article announcing the launch of an online teaching resource for young
people, on the subject of addressing sectarianism. I still react with
surprise that such statements are accorded so little promotion by our
mainstream media, which only confirms to me the ever present deep
divisions prevalent in our society.
The new online resource is called Stepping Out,
and is written for children aged between 5 and 9. It’s published by the
Irish School of Ecumenics. By going to the resource online, I
discovered its related materials, Moving Beyond Sectarianism, as well as Who We Are.
I perused Moving Beyond Sectarianism, and found the explanation of the root causes of sectarianism very interesting:
Theological Roots of Sectarianism
The churches (around and after 1500s and 1600s), in a struggle for
ascendancy and survival, shared a combination of three doctrines:
This is the simple, basic teaching that God is at work in the world and
that the faithful Christian can discern God’s will and purpose by
reading the signs of the times.
2. One true church, outside of which is no salvation
3. Error has no right
This doctrine was developed in the fourth and fifth centuries by St.
Augustine to justify the use of state coercion to suppress heretical
opponents: because they are radically in error, they have no right to
express or hold their beliefs.
This doctrine has been the principle behind every use of coercion, especially state coercion, for religious purposes.
The first two could be problematic but need not be; they are more
problematic when combined. The third, error has no right, is inherently
sectarian, however, and combines disastrously with the others.
One true church + providence
Easily reduced to ‘God is on our side.’
One true church + providence + error has no right
Add ‘God is on our side’ to ‘error has no right’ and the implication is ‘God wants us to suppress others.’
One true church + error has no right
If your church is the one true church and error has no right, then it
is your duty to see that error is suppressed by whatever means
necessary. From this viewpoint tolerance is no virtue—tolerance is a
These doctrines did not emerge on the fringe, they were shared by
the three main churches (Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian).
Thus sectarianism is rooted in the Irish mainstream, not the fringe.
They represent principles that would cause oppression regardless of who
was in power.
These elements are best placed in the European context of
reformation/counter-reformation conflict and in the violence and
catastrophe which marred the 16th and 17th centuries in Ireland (see