Local Church of Ireland Minister Earl Storey has served as Rector in parishes both in Northern Ireland and the Republic and is committed to working for two things – renewal within the context of a local church and reconciliation in our community. Here he talks to Eamonn Baker of the Diverse-City project about his life as a Minister, why he stepped out of parish ministry in 2005 to stand for election for the Ulster Unionist Party, his involvement in the Church of Ireland’s “Hard Gospel” project and the path his life is now taking.
I was born in 1958 and reared in the mainly Nationalist village of Derrygonnelly in rural Fermanagh though my father hailed from across the border, a place called Killeshandra in county Cavan. My father ran a grocery shop in Derrygonnelly and was a member of the local Orange Lodge so as a youngster I joined the Lodge as well. It was neither about triumphalism nor politics. It was just what Protestants kids from around did. It was part and parcel of my social life as a youngster. The 12th was a day’s outing. I got pocket money. As a youngster and teenager I had, as yet, little awareness of who held political control in Northern Ireland or of the inter- relationship between the Unionist party and the Orange Order.
I went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. From there, in 1976, after A-levels, I moved to Canterbury and the University of Kent. From childhood I had wanted to be a lawyer so I went to Kent to study law. Though I had been touched by the conflict here and knew several people, members of the RUC and the UDR, who had been killed by the Provisional IRA, my ambitions at this time were more to do with getting away to England, maybe even farther afield and establishing myself in the legal profession.
That is until I had a direct experience of Christ in my life. I was at a party, I had been drinking and something very simple happened. I suddenly realised that I was studying for the career I had always wanted and had a marvellous social life, but that none of this was enough to make life worth living. That night I ran and ran and ran through the streets - a way of filling myself with activity and distraction to shake off this encounter with a God that until that time I knew about in theory but had never committed myself to. This encounter with a living Christ, albeit in unexpected circumstances, changed my life forever, leading both to a growing commitment to Christian faith and to my return to Northern Ireland. By September 1979, with almost indecent haste, I found myself in the Church of Ireland Theological College in Dublin embarking on a programme to become a minister in that church. Already married to Pat, from 1982 to 1986, I served as a Church of Ireland curate in Dungannon. Here I experienced the impact of the conflict up close when one of my parishioners was shot dead by the Provisional IRA. I saw and felt the devastation that this killing wreaked in the life of those left behind. My abiding memory of that time was simple. If only the perpetrators could have seen what I could see. I knew too that if the Christian message exhorts us to “Love God and love our neighbour as ourselves”. Around that time I began to realise that Christian faith in a divided society didn’t make any sense without a commitment to reconciliation. In practice, this would mean loving my neighbour and Jesus defines our neighbour as everyone, including our enemy. This would mean learning to love the very person who would pull a trigger, the person who would harbour the person who would pull the trigger as well as those with whom I might simply disagree. If the Cross and reconciliation is at the core of the Christian message, I felt challenged to find meaningful ways to support and work for reconciliation within and between our divided communities.
Between 1994 and 1997 I completed an M Phil in Peace Studies at the Irish School of Ecumenics mostly while Rector in Crinken, near Bray in County Wicklow where I spent nearly ten years. By the mid-90s myself and my wife Pat were back in the North and our lives had taken on, in some ways, a dramatic new shape for Pat had also entered the ministry and, like me, had became a Church of Ireland curate. She served initially in a parish in Ballymena. I worked for a number of years with ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland) promoting peace-building and reconciliation from within a Christian framework. Pat and I then led a joint ministry in Glenavy before we moved here where Pat became Rector of St Augustine’s
I dislike the mixing of religion and politics. However I had also begun to wonder if the best way I could make a contribution to reconciliation was to become involved in politics. That led me to eventually step out of parish ministry and join a political party. When I stood locally for election in 2005, on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party at both Westminister and Council elections, I was clear that I was standing as Earl Storey - an individual- and not as a Church of Ireland minister. I believe that Christians should be involved in all aspects of local community life including politics but that Church needs to be party politically neutral. My involvement did not lead to election and was short-lived. At its root was a desire to contribute to reconciliation with the thought that it is better to do something rather than just shout at the TV. By then too I had published my book ”Traditional Roots- Towards an appropriate relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Orange Order” (Columba Press 2002) which examined in some detail that relationship after the successive years of crisis at Drumcree in the late 90s. “Traditional Roots” reflects my own Christian vision, where Christ should be the greatest passion and deepest identity of the Church and any individual Christian. It is also a vision of loving neighbourliness and asks what it might mean to “speak and live God’s word into a particular situation”. The challenge for the Christian Church in Ireland, including the Church of Ireland, is to seek to enable its members to find God’s presence in the middle of a historically and culturally complex situation. The great cause and manifestation of division with our communities is sectarianism. In my view ‘normal Christian life’ includes finding ways to combat the roots and manifestations of sectarianism.
For this reason I started work with the Church of Ireland’s “Hard Gospel” project. This was a three year project set up by the Church of Ireland in 2005 to address sectarianism and to find ways of constructively living with difference. Upon taking up the post of director of this new project, I stepped out of any political affiliation or involvement – given my desire to keep religion and politics separate. The vision underpinning that project was in some ways simple –what does loving God more than anything else and loving our neighbour as ourselves look like in a divided and wounded community? For me, reconciliation can only arise when we have the “necessary conversations”, the “difficult conversations” which at times may feel awkward, even messy and painful. If we don’t have these “ necessary conversations”, we risk leaving ourselves in a vacuum after forty years of conflict, where, as Duncan Morrow, former chief executive of Community Relations Council has put it, “Nearly 4,000 people have died, nearly 40,000 were injured, and maimed and nobody did anything wrong”. We have an opportunity now to break a historic cycle of violence rather than just achieve a breathing space. For such “necessary conversations” to succeed , there has to be effectively maintained ground-rules which promote a sense that it’s safe enough to take the risk and go ahead. During the three years of the Hard Gospel project we developed constructive engagement with organisations like the Orange Order and the GAA.
Over the past few years while Pat continues as Rector of St Augustine’s, I have created Topstorey Communications and continue to work on Good Relations, Community development and PR. I am the Diocesan Communications Officer for the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe
A number of years ago I asked a French Monk what he saw when he looked at Northern Ireland? His answer was starkly simple as he said :“When I look at Northern Ireland I see a deeply wounded society”. Reconciliation is a way to heal old and new wounds – that is the message and hope of the Cross. And that is why I am hopeful for the future here.