Arguments about separation of church and state in contemporary Ireland are of limited value as long as they fail to address spirituality and society.
Repeal of the 8th amendment, the removal of the baptism requirements for primary schools, the removal of the provisions on blasphemy from the constitution and the removal of the Victorian Catholic phrases that stipulate that a woman’s place is in the home, rolling back the dominance of the church over schools through the archaic instrument of patronage are all important changes, but they fall well short of addressing the near monopoly which the Churches hold over spiritual practices and the celebration of major life events.
Everyone has a spiritual dimension to their lives; a need to express a connection to the beauty of the world around us, and a connection to the universal. Exactly how we express that varies widely, but as it currently stands, for the vast majority of the people, the church owns regular spiritual practices, lock stock and barrel.
While civil, humanist and pagan marriages, as well as naming and death services, are more easily available, they are still a tiny minority. Indeed, apart from registration and issuing a certificate, the state offers no civil ceremony for birth or death. For other key life events which mark growth and maturity, the Church owns them all through Communion and Confirmation. In practice, I’ve referred to these as ‘First Holy GameConsole’ because to be honest for many young people, these events centre around bragging enough cash off relatives to buy a lump of plastic and electronics. The other key transition on the road to adulthood is marked by the stress of the Leaving Cert, followed rapidly by the first legal drink – chased rapidly by the next dozen legal drinks, primed by a naggin of ‘prinking’, throwing up and a hangover. As a set of rituals to mark the pathway to adulthood, it’s a bit lacking.
If we are serious about the Church-State relationship, we need to look thoughtfully at the much bigger, harder issues of spirituality and society. Currently, the church “owns” spirituality through its near monopoly on religion, but there is a huge disconnect between what the church provides, and what we need.
Irish people have, in general, a deep connection to the land. We are by no means unique in this, but we have a strong local sense of the how the patterns of life flow around the cycle of the year. Even the most cynical city dweller feels some of the rhythms of the year in the ebb and flow of school traffic in the morning, or the football and hurling on big screen in the pub. For most of us, the seasons mean something: leaves shooting or falling, slightly less rain, fields cut white in spring, eggs and lamb at Easter, parties and gifts at midwinter: and of course the annual outside broadcast from Newgrange as the Sun turns back for the dawn of the real new year.
If the Church pays any heed to any of this, it’s a token nod to the local year before getting back to its main business: readings from a bunch of folks who lived, preached and wrote thousands of years ago in a far off desert: fine men (and the surviving texts are all by men ) who generally wrote about being decent to people in a very different land, and whose ideas have been copyrighted, packaged and marketed globally by a very ruthless and efficient bureaucracy, dedicated to preserving itself at any cost.
Obviously, there needs to be a balance between relevance and sacred space, but a set of religious rituals which are completely divorced from the world we live in are unfulfilling at best and at worst dishonest, promising but never delivering.
So we have a great deal of ‘MacMindfulness’ going on, but the connections to network it into resilient communities are weak. That public space is blocked by a hollow church.
This is not something we can replace quickly, nor, I think, are we looking for something new with big buildings, full time clergy, hefty tomes of set readings and dead ceremonies. As we struggle to survive on this little pale blue dot, we need a healthy sense of connection to the web of life and the wheel of the year.