Belfast, Northern Ireland, Feb 27, 2020 / 04:59 pm (CNA).- While Northern Ireland has long faced religious disputes, an ecumenical celebration of Ash Wednesday was held at a Catholic church in Belfast this year, in which Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist ministers participated.
Ken Newell, a former Presbyterian Moderator; Elizabeth Hanna, a retired Church of Ireland minister; and Robin Waugh, a Methodist minister, all received ashes at the Feb. 26 service at St. Mary’s Church.
Fr. Tim Bartlett led the service. Afterwards, he said it was a “deeply moving” experience.
Fr. Martin Magill, pastor of St. John’s parish, helped to organize the event.
Ahead of time, he said that “In this inclusive service, people from all backgrounds will be offered the ashes, but no one will be pressured to take them.”
“In other parts of the world Christians come together every year to mark Ash Wednesday in this way, so in many other places what we are marking together tomorrow would be a common practice.”
Hanna commented, “I thoroughly enjoyed being here, and history has been made. It was great being a part of it.”
Newell noted his joy in participating “in this special service” and emphasized the value of Lent.
He stressed the symbolic value of this event in bringing people together. He said it is also an opportunity to make “space for God,” according to the Belfast Telegraph.
“This will be a symbolic service of healing and reconciliation, of togetherness and not of division,” he said. “It is another opportunity for the churches to walk side by side, and to move on towards a better future for everyone.”
Religious disputes have long been part of the history of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and has been predominantly Protestant, while the majority-Catholic Republic of Ireland declared its independence in 1916.
The region has had ongoing religiously and politically based conflicts, most notably “the Troubles”, which included violent clashes that lasted from the late 1960s until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was struck.
Since 1998, there has been only sporadic sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, though there have been several incidents in recent years.