Cleric defends Maze ‘forgiveness’ prayer vigil plan

Rev David Jardine speaking to the News Letter at Townsend Presbyterian Church in west Belfast
Rev David Jardine speaking to the News Letter at Townsend Presbyterian Church in west Belfast

The cleric organising a day of prayer and forgiveness at the former Maze prison site has defended his plans from those who say terrorists must stop justifying their murders before they can be forgiven.

Since the News Letter revealed Rev David Jardine’s plans for the event this week, a number of victims’ groups have spoken out against it.

Rev David Jardine was a chaplain at Crumlin Road prison for 10 years during the Troubles

Rev David Jardine was a chaplain at Crumlin Road prison for 10 years during the Troubles

But Rev Jardine – a former chaplain at Crumlin Road prison for 10 years during the Troubles – has told the News Letter that there is no pressure on anyone to attend, but that in his view “forgiveness” is the key to peace for those lives have been shattered by terrorism.

He has also invited paramilitaries to attend in contrition before God for their crimes – and even those that may just wish to seek forgiveness for sectarian attitudes.

Rev Jardine - a member of the Anglican Society of St Francis - sees the event as the latest phase of a divinely inspired process of prayer that began in support of political talks which lead to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

He was at pains yesterday to assure victims that he was not blind to their suffering.

The cleric addressed concerns of some victims that events like this feed into feelings that the future of society depends on them making concessions to those that murdered their loved ones.

“No,” he replied. “Victims are not being singled out as the problem. Everybody has a part to play in this day. Everybody can come to say sorry for any part that they played in helping to create the situation which we went through, which was a nightmare.”

He cited the story of a woman who told her pastor she could not forgive her husband for ruining 15 years of her life.

“Her pastor replied: ‘He will ruin the next 15 if you don’t forgive him’.”

For paramilitaries of all hues who may not be able to live with their past actions, he invites them on an equal basis.

“We hope there will be people that will come that day that have done things that they need to say sorry to God for – to find his forgiveness to be set free from guilt and find God’s peace.”

Asked if divine justice does not require any restitution for murder, he replied: “If God guides them on that day or afterwards that there is some course of action that they need to take that will be between them and God.”

He declined to be drawn on whether forgiving perpetrators requires victims to also forgo the chance of state justice.

“We are trying to help people to find God’s peace,” he said. “All these issues are very valid issues but it is not our remit on this occasion.”

He has had to forgive people that hurt him on many occasions in order to maintain a clear conscience – and his ministry – before God, he said.

He learned how to forgive from American Agnes Sandford 20 years ago.

“As soon as someone upsets you, start to bless them in the name of Jesus and keep it up for as long as it takes,” he said.

He repeats it as long and as often as necessary – and insists that he has seen it create dramatic changes in those who hurt him, though they knew nothing of his prayers.

“You are not saying when you bless people they haven’t done something bad. A lot of the people I bless have been very, very, very unpleasant to me. But I am saying Jesus taught us to forgive and practised it in the most difficult circumstances himself. When he was on the cross he said ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’.

“When St Stephen was being stoned to death he asked God not to hold this sin against them – even while he was being stoned to death.”

The cleric cites Christ’s instruction: ‘Love your enemies. Do good to those who treat you badly. Bless those who curse you’ and also the Apostle Paul who urged: ‘Bless those who persecute you’.

He further quoted the Apostle Peter for authority: “Do not return evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing. For to this you were called so that you yourselves may inherit a blessing.”

The planned event is focused on personal relationships – not institutions or court processes.

“There is a clear division between forgiveness and justice. We are not going for anything structural. This is for the individual to find God’s peace.”

He understands the choice of the Maze site – which housed terrorist offenders during the Troubles – may feel insensitive to some but said it appeared to be the only politically neutral venue available.

He has many colleagues who served in the Prison Service who may share concern at the choice, he conceded, but believes in faith it will work.

“It is essential if we are going to find a lasting peace to talk about God and the peace that he can bring – and to practise forgiveness.”

The key to a peaceful future, he believes, is a renewal and revival of Christian faith across Northern Ireland,

“This is a day of prayer to help people to find God’s peace. This is open to everyone not just paramilitaries or security forces. We hope everyone will feel free to come to this day.”

But Aileen Quinton, whose mother Alberta was killed in the IRA Enniskillen bomb in 1987, said that “a repentance vigil” should come before the forgiveness event.

She added: “This is yet more of this morally and intellectually vacuous pressure on victims to shift and give unrepentant terrorists yet more messages saying that they don’t need to – their attitude to terrorism is ok. It’s those damn victims who are the problem and must move.”

Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United, took a similar view. “To propose holding a forgiveness prayer vigil of this nature at the former Maze prison site – which housed some of the most psychotic serial killers this country has ever produced – is deeply insensitive and potentially damaging to many innocent victims and survivors of terrorism,” he said.

“Several church leaders over the years have approached the matter of ‘forgiveness’ in the context of ‘the Troubles’ in a deeply misguided way.

“Forgiveness in the absence of remorse and repentance being demonstrated is futile and is surely against Christian teaching. Each and every one of us commits sin and wrong in various aspects of our lives which inevitably causes hurt to others. When we do wrong we must firstly express remorse, repent and then engage in restitutive acts in a way which seeks to restore rather than to further harm. That is not alone Christian teaching but also consistent with basic principles of human existence.”

He asked Rev Jardine to meet with his members.

The vision for Rev Jardine’s event is “a day of prayer to help people to find God’s peace”.

The event is open to everyone – paramilitaries, victims or security forces, he said. He is billing it as a chance for people to:

l Lay down their hurts and fears from the past – and maybe from the present

l To forgive those that have hurt them

l To say sorry where they may have hurt others

l To pray for the future of the country

It is planned for the show jumping arena at Balmoral Park on the former Maze site – with a large wooden cross in the centre. There will be no music or preaching as the event is intended to run in silence.

It will run from 9am to 6pm on Saturday September 17.