As people in Northern Ireland embark on a new year there is good reason to do so in good heart and with real hope for the whole community.
Despite the many challenges that remain after last month’s Stormont House Agreement, Northern Ireland is a very privileged place, for in so many other parts of the world there is untold suffering, brutality and widespread, abject poverty.
However, within Northern Ireland there needs to be a recognition that continuing disputes over parades and flags cast a dark shadow over the opportunities arising from the Stormont House Agreement.
That Agreement not only makes considerable financial resources available to the whole community but also places a strong emphasis on mutual respect on the part of all concerned in such issues.
Just as religion is part of the historic problem in Northern Ireland, so the churches have a role and responsibility in making things better.
The Loyal Orders are self-proclaimed Christian organisations, yet there is an unfortunate and growing ‘disconnect’ between them and the institutional churches that needs to be remedied.
That is not the fault of either side but simply is a situation which has developed over time.
The Protestant churches and the Loyal Orders are not institutionally or structurally linked, but they are linked through frequent common membership, in many cases going back over generations in particular families.
However, the divergence that has developed between the Loyal Orders and the institutional church, of whatever denomination, is not good for any of those concerned and it is time for that reality to be acknowledged, recognised and acted upon.
While the churches in recent times have had occasional meetings with the Loyal Orders, a more sustained and in-depth dialogue is now required.
A Churches and Loyal Orders Forum for such a dialogue should be established as soon as possible to promote mutual understanding between the Loyal Orders and the churches.
Such a body would be able to consider the whole issue of Christian responsibility in the current circumstances in Northern Ireland as well as wider developments in theology and church policy.
For example, the clear divergence between the churches and the Loyal Orders over the subject of ecumenism needs to be openly and frankly addressed and a new Churches and Loyal Orders Forum would be an ideal body for such a discussion.
Moreover, such a voluntary body, entirely separate from state institutions, could play a significant role in assisting towards the resolution of contentious parades and flags issues at local level – the level at which such matters are best addressed.
The churches and the Loyal Orders now have a responsibility to come together in a free, structured and ongoing dialogue to contribute to a less dispute-ridden society in Northern Ireland in 2015 and, beyond that, for the benefit of the coming generations.
Canon Ian Ellis
Editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette