1. Pope Benedict visits the UK - and dominates the year's headlines.
It was, by any reckoning, the Pope's year. In March, Pope Benedict published a Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, the clearest statement to date of the Vatican's thinking on the causes and possible responses to the international clerical abuse crisis.
The Pope's supporters saw it as evidence that he had engaged his officials in a serious effort to deal with clerical abuse, while many victims and survivors saw it as more of the same: the Pope pointed to secularisation and an abandonment of traditional spiritual practices as part-explanations for the abuse crisis and failed to accept any personal responsibility for mismanaging the crisis. Soon, the Vatican's "Apostolic Visitors" began their still ongoing investigation of the Irish Catholic Church. But the Pope's refusal, in August, to accept the resignations of two bishops named in the Murphy Report into abuse in the Dublin archdiocese outraged many commentators and was interpreted widely as a criticism of the leadership in Dublin of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the man seen by many victims of abuse as the only member of the Irish hierarchy with a mind to change the status quo.
Pope Benedict's state visit to the United Kingdom was preceded by calls for his arrest by leading human rights experts, though the UK government emphasised that, as a head of state, the Pope enjoys immunity from prosecution. Then came a leaked Foreign Office memo summarizing some "blue sky thinking" amongst the papal visit planning team--including the suggestion that the Holy Father might launch new Benedict-branded condoms while in the UK. The British Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, was forced to make a grovelling apology on behalf of the government, and Lord Patten was brought out of diplomatic retirement to knock the British end of the visit into shape. It all pointed to a papal tour that would be mired in controversy.
In the end, it was an unexpectedly successful visit, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets and celebratory large-scale public events, including the Beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most famous Anglican convert to Catholicism. On more than one occasion, the Pope returned to his key message: a call for the restoration of Christian spiritual and moral values in British public life and an assault on secular humanism. Later in the year, Benedict XVI became the first pope to give a book-length interview, during which he appeared to change his mind on whether condoms can be used in the fight against HIV and Aids. Then came clarification after clarification from the Vatican, leaving Catholics increasingly confused about their church's teaching. The Pope's decision to create "a Personal Ordinariate for Anglicans who wish to enter full communion with the Catholic Church" was seen by some Anglicans as the ecclesiastical equivalent of parking tanks on the Archbishop of Canterbury's lawn. A US embassy cable later published by WikiLeaks reported Ambassador Francis Campbell suggesting that the Pope's intervention in Anglican affairs could trigger anti-Catholic "violence" in the UK.
2. When Ian and Martin prayed.
Ian Paisley reveals that he prayed with Martin McGuiness while they served together as First and deputy First Ministers. Dr Paisley, who later joined the House of Lords as Baron Bannside, told an audience at Queen's University: "We got on well together because we had a good foundation, and as long as we kept to that foundation all was well. There were some individual matters that he had, home matters of people being ill and his mother being ill, and we prayed together. Well, I did the praying and he did the listening, but he wanted me to do it. I offered prayer for him, and I think that was the right thing to do, and I don't care what people say. I hope that I have the same heart that Christ had, a love for others who needed help at times of need."
3. Creationism row at the Ulster Museum.
The newly-renovated Ulster Museum found itself in a stand-off with culture minister Nelson McCausland, who wrote to the trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland suggesting that alternative views on the origins of the universe should be displayed. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sparred with Mr McCausland on Radio Ulster, asking if there would be a section of the museum dedicated to "stork theory" or the "flat Earth theory". McCausland, an Oxford University physics graduate, told Dawkins he was "intolerant".
4. Christopher Hitchens reports from "Tumorland".
The new atheist author and journalist took ill during a speaking tour for his recently-published memoirs and was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. He began chemotherapy immediately, but was soon writing again--front-line reports from "Tumorland"--and speaking in public events, including an internationally televised debate with Tony Blair. He told his readers: "The alien had colonised a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located--had been located for quite some time--in my oesophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the oesophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist." Hitchens reports that he received letters from well-intentioned Christians offering to pray for him, and from some less well-intentioned believers who wrote told him his cancer was judgment from God.
5. The First Minister takes on faith schools.
In October, Peter Robinson called for a public debate about Northern Ireland's segregated education system, which he described as a "benign form of apartheid". Some questioned his motives. Others asked why he hadn't questioned the role of Protestant church ministers on school boards. Cardinal Sean Brady accused the First Minister of breeding "distrust and suspicion", and said "the Catholic people are not going to lie down on this issue." Mr Robinson defended his intervention as "a simple and heartfelt plea that young Protestant and Catholic children could be educated together, and that we could end the divisions in our society."
6. The past catches up with the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Sean Brady came closer to resigning than ever before in his tenure as Irish primate after it was revealed in March that he was at meetings when two teenage victims of the notorious sex offender Fr Brendan Smyth were asked to sign an oath of silence. The cardinal said he would only resign if asked to do so by the Pope, though he had previously told RTE news that he would resign "if I found myself in a situation where I was aware that my failure to act had allowed or meant that other children were abused." In May he announced that he had decided to remain as leader of the Irish Catholic Church. While the primate was considering his position, the Bishop of Cloyne, Dr John Magee, who served as private secretary to three popes, resigned after the Church child protection watchdog reported that he took minimal action on accusations against two of his priests. In August, the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman reported that the Catholic Church co-operated with the British government and the police to cover-up a priest's alleged involvement in the 1972 Claudy bombing which killed nine people including an 8 year-old girl, Kathryn Eakin. Intelligence from August 1972 identified Fr James Chesney as the Quarter Master and Director of Operations of the South Derry brigade of the Provisional IRA and subsequent intelligence implicated the priest in the Claudy atrocity and other terrorist incidents.
7. Church leaders take on the banks - and stand together in Derry.
"There is a culture of aggression and threat where the only priorities are the banks' priorities," said Archbishop Alan Harper (pictured), and he joined the Presbyterian Moderator, the Catholic Primate and the Methodist President in slamming the banks, which, they said, were forcing decent Northern Ireland businesses to close. That united moral leadership was also on display after the Bloody Sunday Inquiry published its findings, when Protestant church leaders - Bishop Ken Good, Presbyterian moderator Dr Norman Hamilton and Methodist president Rev Paul Kingston - met victims' families at the Bogside memorial to the atrocity in an expression of solidarity that grabbed headliens around the world.
8. Anglicans get a second gay bishop.
The Anglican Communion's first gay bishop was Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who was elected in 2003. Gene Robinson's appointment proved to be so controversial that he was advised to wear body armour under his ecclesiastical vestments during his consecration, and resulted in a culture war over homosexuality within the worldwide Anglican Communion that still continues. In May, the Anglican Communion got its second gay prelate: Canon Mary Glasspool was consecrated a bishop in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Six months later, Gene Robinson announced that he planned to retire early, saying the last seven years have "taken their toll". Meanwhile the Anglican Communion continued to debate its future. The Anglican Covenant, which was designed to hold the Communion together, was rejected by traditionalists while it was still being debated by the Church of England's General Synod, leaving many commentators concluding that the Anglican family was now a Communion in name only.
9. The Presbyterian bail-out and the Moderator's walk-out.
It's the local religion story that won't go away. Presbyterian leaders have been calling on HM Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive to throw a financial life-line to the Presbyterian Mutual Society's savers since the mutual went into Administration more than two years ago. When the electorate removed the Presbyterian incumbent of Downing Street in May, the arrival of a new Prime minister raised hopes that a rescue package could be agreed. In December, the church's spokesman, Dr Stafford Carson, said he expected the government to ask the church to increase its contribution to the bailout package from £1m to £5m. In September, the Presbyterian Moderator Dr Norman Hamilton, pictured, made headlines when he declined an invitation to meet Pope Benedict during the papal state visit to the UK. He explained that a ceremonial encounter with the Pope would not give him an opportunity to raise some serious matters of concern, including the church's handling of the child abuse crisis and the role of the Irish Catholic hierarchy in a conspiracy to cover-up the alleged involvement of a priest in the 1972 Claudy Bombing. The Presbyterian Church's general secretary, Dr Donald Watts, was subsequently pictured on TV shaking hands with Pope Benedict at a welcoming reception in Edinburgh on the first day of the papal visit.
10. Scientists debate God.
Stephen Hawking's argument that science has priced God out of a job created a journalistic big bang. The world's most famous scientist was, of course, launching his new book, The Grand Design, which may explain his colourful claim. But he was soon battling counter-arguments from philosophers, theologians and other scientists, united in their judgment that the great scientist was guilty of over-statement. It's one thing to argue that science offers an alternative, God-free explanation of the universe; it's quite another thing to claim that science has left no space for any religious explanations. Meanwhile, a Queen's University psychology professor joined the global debate about why human beings are religious with an intriguing new theory. In The God Instinct Jesse Bering argues that that religious thinking evolved as an answer to the very human problem of gossip. The idea of God, he says, is an extremely useful illusion, a moral limitation on speech and behaviour which helps human beings to live together and flourish in communities.