Today, in the second of his three-part series on the Ulster Covenant, Dr David Tombs considers ‘The Protestant Churches and the 1912 Covenant.’In this post, Tombs demonstrates that support for the Ulster Covenant among clergy varied by denomination, and notes that some Protestants even signed an Alternative Covenant in favour of Home Rule in 1913.
He also discusses the reactions to the Belfast Synod of the Methodist church’s recent statement of regret around the political nationalism in the covenant and its endorsement of violence.
The Protestant churches and the 1912 covenant by Dr David Tombs
In readiness for 28 September 2012, the group Contemporary Christianity (previously ECONI) wrote a Contemporary Covenant Service of Worship which recognises the very different attitudes there might be the 1912 covenant. As the Preamble to the Service says:
For many Christians in today’s Protestant churches, within Northern Ireland and beyond, the Covenant of 1912 stands as a highly respected and heartstirring document which reflected the spiritual and political principles of an earlier generation and still speaks today of the resolve needed to preserve Ulster’s distinct heritage. For other Christians, there are several problems with the document, in particular its insistence that God is on the side of Unionism and its implication that physical force may be needed in order to prevent political defeat.
Even in 1912 Protestant churches had different reactions to the covenant.
Some dissenters went as far as to sign the Alternative Covenant in favour of Home Rule in 1913.
In an excellent presentation at the Open University conference on ‘Religious Difference and Conflict’, Nicola Morris (University of Chester) examined differences within the three largest Protestant denominations to the 1912 covenant.
Whilst there is no doubt that overall the Protestant churches were very much in favour of the covenant, they were by no means ‘a solid and untied phalanx’. Overall, 65% of eligible Protestant clergy resident in Ulster signed the covenant, but this figure hides a denominational variation between Church of Ireland (74%), Presbyterian (63%) and Methodism (42%).
The Protestant denomination to do the most in 2012 to publicly question the events of 1912 are also the Methodists.
On the anniversary of the covenant the Belfast Synod of the Methodist church published a statement expressing concerns around the political nationalism in the covenant and its endorsement of violence. It has been described as an ‘apology’ even though the word apology is not used. Leaving aside the questions on whether it is an apology or not, it is hard to disagree that it raises important questions which all the Protestant churches might usefully consider. Whether the relatively low figure for Methodism makes the statement issued by the Belfast synod more surprising or more understandable depends on your perspective.
Whichever view is taken, the statement is an important act of church leadership.
Sadly most of the reaction to it covered in the media has been dismissive, even hostile.In fact, a Google search for the statement is more likely to lead to this hostile reaction than to the statement itself.
Would reaction have been less hostile it if the statement had come from all the Protestant churches?
Is there a significant constituency in support of the statement but whose views are not being reported because hostile reaction grabs the attention?
Should the churches have used the anniversary more to critique their own actions in 1912?
Text of the Alternative Covenant of 1913
“Being convinced in our conscience that Home Rule will not be disastrous to the national well-being of Ulster, and that, moreover, the responsibility of self-government would strengthen the popular forces in other provinces, would pave the way to a civil and religious freedom, which we do not now possess, and would give scope for a spirit of citizenship, we, in whose names are underwritten, Irish citizens, Protestants, and loyal supporters of Irish Nationality, relying under God on the proven good feelings and democratic instincts in our fellow-countrymen of other creeds, hereby pledge ourselves to stand by one another and our country in the troubled days that are before us and more especially to help one another when our liberties are threatened by any non-statutory body that may be set up in Ulster or elsewhere. We intend to abide by the just laws of the lawful Parliament of Ireland until such time as it may prove itself hostile to democracy. In sure confidence that God will stand by those who stand by the people, irrespective of class or creed, we hereunto subscribe our names.”