A Tale of Two Cities...

"It was the best of times it was the worst of times…" Those words could be a description of Rory McIlroy's first who days at the British Open in St. Andrews, but as every English literature student and trivia buff knows they are the opening words from Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” and are also a good description of Northern Ireland's two cities this past week (OK I know that Armagh, Lisburn and Newry are theoretically cities too... but the first of them is an ecclesiastical anomaly and the other two are best ignored).
As I said earlier in the week, Northern Ireland is back in the headlines again, but while I've looked at the bad news from Belfast, I should also offer my tuppence worth on the good news from Derry/Londonderry.
And for once the double-barrelled appellation isn't an embarrassment, as it was under this awkward moniker that they were told on Thursday that they had been designated the UK City of Culture for 2013, after a great campaign including this short film:

Of course the cynics weren’t long in starting to snipe about them having 3 years to find some culture and how ironic it was for Free Derry to be awarded such status within the United Kingdom... Especially in the wake of the Saville Report into Bloody Sunday and david Cameron's unqualified apology for the events of that day. Was this the cherry on the cake? Further encouragement for the families of the fallen to drop their legal procedings against the soldiers in question?
But it is a sign of how far Derry/Londonderry has come, especially when contrasted with the riots in Belfast earlier in the week, with dissident republicans and young people using the Orange celebrations as an excuse to have a go at the police. I suppose it is also a sign of how far policing has come too when you consider that it was young hotheads using the civil rights march as an excuse to have a go at the police and the army that formed the context for Bloody Sunday. In Belfast this week the police simply contained the disturbances, sucking up the aggression against themselves (at great cost to their own personel and the budget of the PSNI). As one former policeman said on radio, in any measurable sense it was a successful piece of public order policing, simply because no members of the wider public were harmed, and the trouble didn't spread. Those public mouthpieces and politicians who argue for a tougher approach by the police could so well to remember that... and the lessons of Londonderry and Belfast 40 years ago...
But back to the Derry of today, or rather 3 years from now. I suppose my only real concern for the whole City of Culture jamboree is much the same as my concerns re economic investment in Belfast that I expressed a few days ago, that is that it will bring benefits to all levels and sectors of the second city's society... both sides of the river, inside the walls and out... and that all "cultures" will be reflected and supported in the endeavour. It must be inclusive... If anyone feels themselves shut out because they don't live in the right area, or vote in the right way, then this will be a disaster for Derry... They have come far, and could teach Belfast a thing or two regarding the resolution of contentious parades and other issues, but they are not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination.
And in the whole endeavour I hope that the church will be included and seek to be included... to contribute creatively to the cultural life of the city. Indeed I would argue that we need to do that in all cities. For too long now the church has fled the inner city, leading the exodus to the suburbs... and the escape to the country, forgetting that the momentum in scripture is actually towards the heavenly city!
We need to think about our role in the city, not just Derry and Belfast, but in the words of the hymnwriter Hugh Sherlock,
In the streets of every city,
where the bruised and lonely dwell...

If we are to have more good news headlines rather than bad news about our cities, then we as Churches and Christians need to live up our calling to share and be good news where it is needed…
This is based in part on the Review of the Week which I recorded for Downtown Radio's Dawn Reflections this morning.


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