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Music and Worship Help Heal Northern Ireland

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is using music and worship to overcome the legacy of "the Trouble" in Northern Ireland. You can apply their insights to political and other differences that divide Christians in your context. A feature story exploring the role of music and worship in healing.

The 2009 Easter service at First Islandmagee Presbyterian Church included a bodhran in the worship band. For minister Karen Campbell, that drum was a sign that the future for her young sons “is more hopeful than it has ever been before in my lifetime.”

When Campbell was growing up in Northern Ireland, barricades closed down her town each night to prevent street riots between Protestants and Catholics. Each town had a strong army presence. “It was common to have your belongings searched if you entered a shop on the main street,” she recalls.

“When growing up, we would have been taught strictly Christian songs, not Celtic ones. I did not see the bodhran [traditional Irish drum associated with Catholics] being played until I went to college,” she says.

Northern Ireland’s sectarian politics have greatly affected Campbell’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (a.k.a. the Irish Presbyterian Church and PCI). Now that “the Troubles” have ended, Irish Presbyterians people are walking the fragile road from truce to trust. Their growing openness to diverse music in worship reflects their commitment to peace and healing.

Legacy of “the Troubles”

The area now known as Northern Ireland has been fought over for centuries. The broad brush explanation is that native Irish Catholics want to be reunited with the rest of the island, while Protestants (most of whom have Scottish, English, or Welsh roots) want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Political, cultural, and economicdifferences within those groups have dug deep divisions.

Karen Campbell explains that she grew up in a “sectarian country: divided in politics, in education, and in religion.” During The Troubles(1966-1998), nearly 4,000 people died, though few were ever charged for those deaths, and ten times that many were injured.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, most Presbyterians would have found it difficult to attend a worship service in a Roman Catholic church. Even today, it is common in a mixed marriage setting between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant for some relatives to refuse to participate in services of joint worship.

“There has been a suspicion of bringing elements into the church that have seemed ‘papal,’ ” Campbell says. This has prevented Irish Presbyterians from embracing the lectionary, liturgical calendar, visual arts, and communion practices common to worship renewal elsewhere.

The Irish language is taught in Roman Catholic schools but not in Protestant schools. “Therefore, in the past, there has been a suspicion of bringing truly Irish music into the church. It is only in recent years, due to the vision of Keith Getty, amongst others, that hymns with a stronger Celtic flavor have been composed,” Campbell says.

Using the bodhran in worship is evidence for her of “a greater openness to embrace both sides of our culture. Slowly our culture is evolving to being more inclusive.”

Committing to peace

Publicly committing to peace helped foster cultural openness within the PCI.

In 1994, before the first ceasefires were brokered, the denomination adopted a vocation to peace. It ended with these words: “Our particular history in this land of divided communities and recurring violence, of mutual suspicion, fear and injury, makes it imperative that we reassert the Church's own proper calling to seek peace, and the things that make for peace in our day.”

The denomination has two full-time peacemaking officers who offer dozens of practical peacemaking suggestions at presbytery and congregational levels. The church asked each congregation to appoint a peace agent. By 2009, about a third of congregations had done so.

Irish Presbyterians now cooperate with Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland (Anglican) congregations in joint worship services and ministries, such as The Base, a drop-in and after-school youth center at Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church in Lisburn.

When two soldiers and a policeman were killed in March 2009, many people wondered whether violence would erupt. Instead thousands of Catholics and Protestants united in prayer and silent vigils against violence.

Karen Campbell’s letter from the manse encouraged First Islandmagee members to choose shalom, not hate. “When you come to realize the rich treasure of belonging to the God of resurrection, you have the confidence and courage to reach beyond cultural prejudices and theological boundaries,” she wrote.

Bringing pain to God

Praying, preaching, and practicing peace is pushing Irish Presbyterians to open up about pain.

“Our sectarian nature is something that most Irish Presbyterian Christians find difficult to acknowledge and name. The years between the first IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the signing of what became known as the Good Friday agreement in 1998 were marked with uncertainty and suspicion on both sides.

“The release of all paramilitary prisoners, regardless of the crime they were convicted of, was a particularly bitter pill to swallow. It reopened old wounds of the loss of loved ones while convicted killers walked free,” Campbell says.

Yet the PCI worship tradition wasn’t structured to deal with pain. Campbell explains that Irish Presbyterian theology, as well as its praise and worship music, tends to reflect God’s transcendence, sovereignty, power, and holiness.

“There are few songs that deal with the brokenness of our country and lament God’s power to help a broken world,” she says.

That’s why she and her husband, David Campbell, wrote the song “Rooted in Christ” for the annual women’s conference. Several congregations have since used the song “as a cry to become rooted in Christ as a response to the brokenness we see around us,” she says.

Healing through music

Writing songs helps people contextualize their thinking and start healing. “There are practically no songs in our culture that deal with prejudice. This is probably due to a sectarian mindset which tends to bracket off this kind of thinking as ‘not our own problem,’ ” Campbell says.

At one peacemaking and songwriting workshop, a “young mum” wrote a song called “Break Down the Barriers, Lord.” It asks, “Where do I fit in? How do others see me?.... Every Sunday morning I look at how I’m dressed, don’t know if I feel part of this church scene…. Do they see the person deep within? …. Do they see the prejudice in me?”

The song surprised Campbell, because it reminded her that even within a congregation, people can feel excluded by class or status.

“I came to realize that we are often scared as Christians to deal with issues that might seem to threaten the hope of the gospel. Therefore, our songs can reflect an unhealthy balance of joyful praise and not leave space for lament and grief,” she says.

Northern Ireland’s religiously-motivated conflicts have led to economic woesfamily breakdownrising suicide rates among young men, and people losing faith.

An elder at Harmony Hill Presbyterian wrote the song “Loss” for the funeral of a young mother who had committed suicide. Karen and David Campbell wrote “Weep No More” to help the many women struggling “with the silent shame of children no longer going to church.” Its chorus, based on Jeremiah 31:15-17, promises God’s hope for the future.

“It is my hope that God gives us the strength of faith and hope in the Christ-centered gospel to face tragedy as well as victory, death as well as life, and fear as well as confidence. The peace process will continue in our land for many years. Many prejudices lurk deep within our lives, but I am hopeful that our church has the openness and confidence through Christ to bring healing in the broken places,” Campbell says.

Protestants in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, people truly have marched to different drummers, depending on their religious affiliation. And for them, the Pauline concept of breaking down barriers is far more than a metaphor.

Identifying as a Protestant

Roman Catholics make up the largest single Christian group in Northern Ireland, yet are outnumbered by combined Protestant denominations. The three largest Protestant denominations—Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Church of Ireland, and Methodist Church in Ireland—all run their own schools.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), founded in the 17th century by Scottish migrants, has more than 560 congregations and around 300,000 members. In 1994, before the first ceasefires were brokered, the PCI adopted a vocation to peace.

Although the Church of Ireland is often called Northern Ireland’s second largest Protestant denomination, it officially describes itself as “Catholic and Reformed.” The Church of Ireland uses the lectionary, celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday, is part of the Anglican Communion, but is not under the authority of either the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Roman Catholic pope.

Despite the “Catholic and Reformed” description, when it comes to society and politics, Church of Ireland members identify more with Protestants than with Catholics. In 1997, the denomination’s general synod adopted a motion against sectarianism. In 2005, the denomination founded the Hard Gospel Project to help members overcome sectarianism and racism and to build peace.

In 2005, the Irish Methodists produced a “Healing the hurts” liturgy and Bible study series to promote peace and reconciliation.

Other Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland include Lutheran, Moravian, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Quaker, and various Presbyterian offshoots.

For many in Northern Ireland, “Protestant” is more an ethnic or political identity than a Christian faith identity. Much of the worst conflict in Northern Ireland has been among groups claiming to represent Protestants or Catholics.

Different drummers

Parades are important in Northern Ireland culture, especially among Protestants. The marching season begins before Easter and lasts through the summer.

Several marches commemorate or reenact military events, such as the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, when Protestant King William defeated Catholic King James, or civil rights protests, such as the 1916 Easter Rising, when Irish republicans tried to end British rule.

Protestant groups often march through Catholic areas, though it’s still surprising for people in some Belfast neighborhoods when Catholics march through Protestant areas. In 1996, two years before the Good Friday Agreement, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland began calling for compromise and sensitivity during marching season.

Protestant marching bands often play the fife and lambeg, a big bass drum hit with canes to produce adistinctive and very loud sound. Instruments such as the uilleann pipes, flutes, and the bodhran, a small Celtic frame drum played with one hand, are associated with Catholic parades.

Karen Campbell, minister of First Islandmagee Presbyterian Church, says she’d never even seen a bodhran being played until she went to college. Simply including Celtic music or a bodhran in Protestant worship symbolizes a desire for reconciliation in Ireland.

In the early 1990s, Roy Arbuckle founded Different Drums of Ireland, a musical group that brought together lambegs and bodhrans with African djembe drums to “create a new repertoire out of the two traditions.”

Breaking barriers

Many people in Northern Ireland grow up not knowing people from other traditions.

According to the Irish Council of Churches 2008 annual report: “Most teenagers grew up after the ceasefires, yet in a recent survey, two thirds of young people aged between 16-25 years revealed that they had never had a meaningful conversation with someone from the other community. Young people know where the ‘Protestant bus stops’ and the ‘Catholic bus stops’ are located to get them safely home.”

The BBC states that 90% of children in Northern Ireland go to separate faith schools. The “Churches and Christian Ethos in Integrated Schools” (2009) report concluded that parents, not churches, were instrumental in establishing integrated schools in Northern Ireland. The first integrated school began in 1981 in Belfast.

So-called peace lines are actually physical barriers that separate sectarian neighborhoods in Belfast andother cities in Northern Ireland. The Cupar peace line in Belfast is 40 feet high in some spots. It divides the Catholic Falls and Protestant Shankill neighborhoods.

After attending a PCI peace conference in November 2008, Sam Quinn reported, “One statistic which shook me was that, in North Belfast, there are 46 peace walls and 11 gates, with new additions in line. The main reasons appear to be insecurity and lack of trust.” Quinn is a member of the peace team at McQuiston Presbyterian Church in Belfast.

Murals and graffiti cover miles of peace line walls. Many older peace line murals symbolize sectarian hatred.

Signs of hope

To help create a more peaceful society, artists have painted newer peace line murals to advocate for peace or social messages for all.

Ecumenical groups such as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and Irish Inter Church Meeting promote dialogue among Catholics and various Protestant groups in Northern Ireland. During the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, joint worship services include Catholics, Protestants, and international participants.

Another sign of hope is that more people are describing themselves as “Northern Irish” or “Irish and British” than in previous years.

EmbraceNI (inter-church) and the Refugee and Migrant Project (Catholic) are examples of how Christians in Northern Ireland are cooperating to help strangers in their midst. The country has a growing population of refugees, migrant workers, and ethnic minorities.

Learn More

The copyright for these songs belongs to Harmony Hill Presbyterian Church in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. However, you may use them as long as you give credit to Harmony Hill and these musicians.

  • “Weep No More,” written by Jill and Karen Campbell, is sung here by David and Karen Campbell.
  • “Rooted in Christ” was written by David and Karen Campbell and is sung here by them.
  • “Break Down the Barriers” was written by Jane Martin and set to music by Karen Campbell. It’s sung here by Loma Humphries, and the drums in the background are bongos.
  • “Loss” was written by Joe Topping and set to music by Karen Campbell. It’s sung here by Joanne McAleer.

All these songs have been sung during worship. “Loss” has helped worshipers reflect on Christ’s death during the breaking of bread. The other songs have helped worshipers meditate and reflect. “Weep No More” has been sung on national television as part of a worship service.

Before she went to seminary, Karen Campbell taught music at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. There she met Sudanese refugees who used music to help themselves heal. Campbell contributed a chapter about that to the ethnodoxology book All the World Is Singing, by Frank Fortunato with Paul Neeley and Carol Brinneman.

Attend Engaging the Heart, a Presbyterian Church in Ireland worship conference, August 21-23, 2009, in Belfast. Karen Campbell is putting the musicians together for this conference.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has a major peacemaking effort. Listen to a recent question and answer session. Browse other PCI multimedia peace resources. Watch an online video about loving your neighbor in a divided society.

A PCI study of its missing generation found that many people ages 25 to 44 saw themselves as “not good enough” to be accepted at church. Doug and Elaine Baker, PCUSA mission workers in Belfast, give an interesting perspective on politics and theology within the PCI.

This interactive look at a Belfast neighborhood helps you understand the Catholic-Protestant divide. Listen to brief online interviews about the Troublesand their impact on ordinary people. Reading Pearl, a novel by Mary Gordon, will give you a taste of the complexity of Irish identities.

The Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland offers Bible studies, Lenten devotionals, books, and research on forgiveness and peacemaking. For comprehensive social and political information on Northern Ireland, check out ARK.

Browse related stories on biblical lamentKeith Getty and hymnwritingMiroslav Volf and reconciliation, and worship words.

Start a Discussion

Talk about addressing conflict and building peace in worship.

  • How do faith and culture collide in your congregation and community? How and when do you address these us-them divides in worship?
  • Karen Campbell explains that her denomination has so strongly emphasized God’s sovereign majesty that worshipers felt no space to bring lament and grief into worship. Which theological imbalances do you sense in your tradition?
  • Which worship elements in your congregation subtly promote one group over another? How might you change worship to better embody the reality of being one in Christ?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about what keeps you out of fellowship with other Christians and how to reconcile through God’s help?

  • Did you create a process and set of questions that really helped you learn with and from Christians whose economic, cultural, political, or theological choices are much different than yours? How did these insights change the way you worship and live out your faith?
  • Which resources—Bible studies, music, visuals, drama, video, online, whatever—have you found especially helpful in understanding the reconciliation God seeks or connecting biblical materials with simple, concrete, group actions?