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Stabroek News

Economic success and religious affiliation
published: Sunday | September 3, 2006


Livingstone Thompson, Guest Columnist

Recently, a Jamaican delegation went to get first-hand information on the Irish economy, which is probably the best performing economy in Europe - if not the world - to date, this year.

The presence and success in Jamaica of Irish-led businesses, like Digicel, have helped to fan the flame of interest in what is happening in Ireland. From this point of view, it is probably not surprising that the Guardian Group also has an Irish at its helm.

Another aspect of the Irish reality that may be of interest to us here in Jamaica is the shifts in its population. I have taken particular interest in how the shift has been affecting the life of the churches and wonder about the connection between economic success and church growth.

In the last decade and a half, the population of the Republic of Ireland has moved from 3.5 million in 199I to 4.2 million in 2006. Judging by any standard, at a rate of 20 per cent between the two censuses, this is an unusually high rate of increase.

Two kinds of migrants, who have been pulled to the state by the very ever-strengthening Irish economy, have been largely responsible for the increase. The first is the return of many Irish citizens, whose families or who themselves went abroad, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, in 1971 the population was marginally higher that what the population of Jamaica is today. The second set of migrants is a rapid influx of non-Irish immigrants, especially from America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Multiculturism

Many commentators have focussed on what the increase in the population will mean for the social and cultural mix. The rapid adjustment that had to be made to multicultural Ireland is probably the most critical challenge that the nation has had to face since the Great Famine.

However, whether there will be a willingness to view the new cultural mix as 'one people', in a way similar to how Jamaica has tried to define its cultural reality is left to be seen. The recent suggestion that residents who are not citizens should carry ID cards around with them has not gone down well. At worst, it is being seen as a form of xenophobia (fear of strangers) and at best, it is been seen as an attempt to create a two-tier society between the citizens and the others.

There is, however, a set of changes in the area of religious affiliation, which is not getting much attention. It has remained off the radar screen of many observers because they are blinded by the fact that 88.4 per cent of the population still regard themselves as Roman Catholic.

The thing to note, though, is that real excitement is happening in the historic and newer Protestant Churches. Take the Anglican (Church of Ireland) for example. When the affiliation moved from 89,000 in 1991 to nearly 116,000 in 2002, it was the first time in 100 years that the census was recording growth in that communion.

A little over 90 years ago, the Anglican Communion in the republic was twice the size it is today. The church had been in a continuous state of decline between 1881 and 1991. I am not sure, though, that these figures will comfort the Anglican and Moravian Churches in Jamaica, who themselves, except for the last few years, have been in decline.

The cases of the Methodist Church and Orthodox Church are even more fascinating. Like the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, the Methodists had been declining continuously between 1891 and 1991. However, its affiliation moved from 5,037 in 1991 to 10,033 in 2002. That is an actual change of 99 per cent, which is a much more outstanding way to show the figures than the average change of 6.5 per cent over the period. The increase in Methodism is interesting because it does not appear that that communion is benefiting significantly from the increased migration.

In the case of the Orthodox Church, their numbers, due mainly to migration from Eastern Europe, have increased from less than 500 in 1991 to over 10,000 ten years later. The Presbyterians have seen an average increase of about four per cent but their total has, in fact, moved from 13,000 to 20,000 during the 10-year period.

Increasing pace

By far the most significant changes in terms of religious affiliation among Christians have taken place in the newer Pentecostal and African Instituted Churches.

While the numbers in these churches are relatively small, the pace at which they are increasing means that the religious scene in Ireland seems to be moving towards becoming truly plural. In this regard, mention should also be made of the Muslim population, which in a little over 10 years has become the fourth-largest religious body, after the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans and the Presbyterians.

One must then ask about the relationship between economic success and religious affiliation. The question is important because we have traditionally associated rapid increase in religious affiliation with places like Africa and Latin America, where poverty is rife.

While there is a marginal increase of those in the state that say they have no religious affiliation, it is amazing that 92.4 per cent of the Irish population still refer to themselves in religious terms. It may be that we have to revise our perception of the role of religion in affluent societies.

Dr. Livingstone Thompson is a Jamaican theologian living and working in the Republic of Ireland. He may be reached at livingstone.thompson@oceanfree.net.

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