An Open Letter from Baroness May Blood – the Churches and Integration.

Churches continue to fail on reconciliation

Less than a month ago our main Church leaders came together to deliver a message of reconciliation at a cross-community service to mark the centenary of the formation of Northern Ireland.

The service also heard readings from local schoolchildren who urged political leaders to work together for a better future.

Eamon Martin, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland, said:

“I have to face the difficult truth that perhaps we in the churches could have done more to deepen our understanding of each other and to bring healing and peace to our divided and wounded communities.”

David Bruce, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said:  “I grieve the times when fear has held us back from building relationships with those with whom we differ.”

All fine words, well spoken.

But if there was one area that our Churches can exert significance influence over society then it would surely be education.

So I ask – what better way to encourage deeper understanding and build relationships with those we differ than to educate our children our children together in the same schools?”

Just a few weeks later representatives of the very same Churches addressed the Education Committee at Stormont as part of the consultative process for the Integrated Education Bill. Away from the world’s press at Armagh Cathedral, clergy united again, this time to oppose legislation aimed at increasing support for the development of more integrated education. Opposing more schools where Catholic, Protestant and those of all faiths, or none at all, are educated together and opposing a core commitment of the Good Friday Agreement.

The message delivered last week from the Churches was one of how our schools are already integrated, diverse and inclusive. In short, they feel precious little needs to change. Yet according to the Department of Education, Protestant children make up less than 2% of pupils in Catholic schools and Catholic children account for less than 8% of pupils attending Controlled schools. And when it comes to teachers, unlike the rest of employees who can rely on legislation to protect them from discrimination on the grounds of their faith, that same protection is denied.

In 2009, the Eames Bradley Report concluded: “… the arguments about the ethos or quality of education provided in the faith based sectors have to be balanced against the reality that reconciliation may never be achieved if our children continue to attend separated schools.”

The continued absence of support from Churches and the lip service, and in some cases outright hostility, of some local political leaders means the drive for integration in our schools will still be left to courageous parents, schools and local communities. And together they are bringing about positive change. This September four more schools started their integrated journey and many more schools are currently actively exploring transformation to integrated status.

This is not because they will get more money from government, as some Church representatives wrongly advised the Education Committee, but because their parents actually voted for it a democratic ballot. And because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Those fine words in Armagh are already starting to ring somewhat hollow.

Despite the opposition of some clergy, the Integrated Movement will continue to work towards a future where more children from different traditions learn and play together at the same schools, and will work to build a society where there is respect and celebration, not fear, of religious and cultural diversity.