David Tombs on the Ulster Covenant: Part I–How Have Churches Marked the Anniversary of the Covenant?

tombsOver the past few weeks, this blog has featured a series of posts on the centenary of the Ulster Covenant. To conclude that series, I’m delighted to introduce a three-part mini-series of guest posts by my colleague at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, theologian Dr David Tombs. His posts will reflect on the covenant, the churches, new covenants and new theologies.

Today’s post features an exciting example of a contemporary ‘alternative’ covenant, developed by a group within Gilnahirk Presbyterian church after conversations with members of the Catholic parish St Colmcille’s.

This example is set in the context of a wider discussion of:

How Have Churches Marked the Anniversary of the Covenant? by Dr David Tombs:

The covenant anniversary

How have the churches marked the anniversary of the covenant?

Last month I presented a paper at the Open University conference at Stranmillis on ’Religious Difference and Conflict’. It was a lively and thought-provoking event, which included a major report by the Institute for Conflict Research, and which Gladys has described elsewhere on her blog.

The timing of the conference 5-7 September, ahead of the hundred year anniversary of Ulster Day on 28 September 1912, had encouraged me to propose the topic ‘The Irish Churches and the Ulster Covenant: 1912-2012’. My plan was to use the conference as an opportunity to discuss how the churches were involved in 1912 and the different initiatives the churches had undertaken this year to mark the event. I was particularly interested in how the churches might use the centennial to signal a new direction for the future, the creative opportunity to move beyond the event and not just mark it.

As the conference drew closer, I realised that there was going to be less to say on what the churches are doing in the present than I had expected.

The only public discussion on events planned for 29 September 2012 seemed to be whether the churches were being sufficiently supportive of events led by the Orange Order. Hardly surprising, therefore, that when I arrived at the conference and mentioned to two distinguished academic colleagues from the Republic that I planned to speak on whether there might be something positive in a new covenant their faces showed some surprise, if not outright horror.

Fortunately, just before the conference I was given an example of the sort of document I thought would be much more common, an alternative version of the covenant for the present.

It is titled ‘An Inclusive Covenant’ and presents division as opposed to Home Rule as a danger to be overcome. This was written by a group within Gilnahirk Presbyterian church after conversations with members of the Catholic parish St Colmcilles with which they enjoyed a long-standing relationship. They had been encouraged in their reflections by the work done by Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins around ethical remembering for the decade of anniversaries, a project that began at the Irish School of Ecumenics and continues at the Junction in Derry. The result is a wonderful example of ‘process and product’ at a local level.


BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that God’s Rule would be advantageous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, supportive of our civil and religious freedom, constructive of our citizenship, and beneficial to the unity of God’s Kingdom we, whose names are underwritten, women and men of Ulster, humbly relying on the God of Love whom our forbearers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatening Division, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in God’s Kingdom, and in using all peaceful means which may be found necessary to show the Love of God as revealed in Jesus. And in the event of such Division being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.

This left me wondering if this sort of initiative was more common than I knew.

It would be interesting to know what else was done at local level and what encouraged people to do it.

Did other congregations take the chance to reflect on the covenant in a similar way? If so, what were the results?

Other posts on the Ulster Covenant:

Philip Orr’s New Perspectives: Book Review and Website Launch

Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins Book Review: Signing the Covenant – But Which One?

What Can We Learn from the Winning Entry in the Orange Order Song Contest?

Alternative Covenants, Alternative Perspectives: More Reflections on the Ulster Covenant

Fr Martin Magill – In Joyful Hope: Lamenting our Divisions and Striving Towards a New Covenant

What’s Shared Eucharist Got to Do with the Ulster Covenant?

David Trimble and Michael McDowell on the Ulster Covenant

How will the Churches Remember the Ulster Covenant?

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