Breaking the bread on a shared campus

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Playgrounds where all faiths mix challenge the churches to face up to the legacy of sectarianism, says Ewan Aitken

The post-festivity bulge reminds me of when I used to be fit. Sport was the one thing that kept me at school when everything else was going seriously pear-shaped in my life. And when I was at New College, studying for the ministry, I was a member of the New College Lions, winners of the Scottish Divinity Students Championship.

In that team were two trainee Catholic priests. One of them, Mark, started the same day as I did. We studied the same courses. We ate at the same lunch table. We shared the same political theology. We drank in the same pubs. We played in the same football team. We shared everything - except when it came to the most important, central expression of faith: the communion table. We could eat bread together at lunch on a Friday, but we were prevented from breaking it together on a Sunday. Both of us found it very painful. But it was the reality of our time.

I thought of Mark last month when I went to one of our two new denominationalnon-denominational campuses, St Joseph's and Broomhouse in Edinburgh, built under Edinburgh's public private partnership (PPP) programme.

The view was expressed often that the children would not mix and the model would produce more conflict, not less. That was the adult view. The children took a very different perspective. From day one they have mixed at every opportunity. They may wear different uniforms and study in different wings of the building, but for them it's the same at home. They play together in the same streets, but live in different houses, beside each other but in different places. And now they play in the same playground, learn in the same building, but not the same classrooms, beside each other but in different places.

There have been many debates about whether the existence of Roman Catholic schools is one of the reasons we suffer as a nation from the debilitating disease of sectarianism. Catholic schools are the result of the sectarianism of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, not the reason for today's sectarianism. And now that they exist, removing them would be more destructive than constructive in finding a cure for sectarianism. Especially because of the excellent education experiences they provide, rooted in an ethos of care, nurture and engagement with learning.

The roots of sectarianism lie in the world of ecclesiastical history and the political intrigue that surrounds that murky story. Even before the Reformation, there were many battles between opposing forces within the church who used supposedly theological differences to obtain and sustain power.

Once the Roman Catholic-Protestant divide began evolving, the same model gained even more usage. Fundamental was the role of the mass, the Lord's Supper, Communion, the Eucharist, call it what you will. While not denying the clear doctrinal divisions over what actually happens in the breaking of bread in worship, those differences were used by many to justify actions which have little or nothing to do with the memorial that bread broken and wine shared is supposed to be for.

Until the churches have worked out how to break bread together in worship, then the root causes of sectarianism will prevail. Until Christians have become like children and learnt to eat together at the same table, we cannot expect those who misuse our faith to change our ways. And until that happens, we cannot be surprised that those who suffered most for their brand of faith will want to have a place that feels theirs.

But there is hope. At the closure of the old building of a Catholic primary in Edinburgh in preparation for another joint campus, mass was celebrated. I was there as executive member for education, but my status as a Church of Scotland minister is well known. Not only did I receive mass, but it was clear that my place at that table was simply accepted.

Joint campuses have rightly been seen as a significant contributor to ending sectarianism. But the role they play will not only be to bring different communities together. They are a challenge to the churches to take the risk of inviting each other to their respective tables to break bread together in God's name. Once that memorial meal is shared, the bigots will have no excuses. Then we shall see the roots of sectarianism and all its consequences begin to disappear.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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