In August last year, I wrote a post on the Slugger O’Toole blog about Rev Roy Patton, then Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, who called the Royal Black’s actions during a parade ‘un-Christian.’
A similar question has been asked over the last few days, after a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on a bonfire in advance of last night’s 11th Night celebrations. Although the statue has since been returned to Holy Cross Church in the Ardoyne, the intention in placing it on the soon-to-be-lit pyre remains clear enough. As Rev Steve Stockman from Fitzroy Presbyterian wrote yesterday on his blog:
Both the statue and the flag highlight for me very “unProtestant” traits. A flag is a symbol of a country and a country is a political grouping of people. When John The Baptist saw Jesus heading out across the wilderness towards him he said, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The word ‘world’ in New Testament usage could be translated ‘all nations’. Jesus died for all nations and the eschatology of the Book Of Revelation envisions people from every nation gathering around the Throne of the Lamb. It would seem to me that the flag on the top of Eleventh Night bonfires are the symbols of people Jesus died for. To burn them seems to go against the teaching of the Bible held so precious to Protestants and supposedly the Loyal Orange Lodges that will march on the Twelfth.
Patton’s comments at the time should be seen in the context of a relatively tense parading summer, in which the Young Conway Volunteers Flute Band played the ‘Famine Song’ outside St Patrick’s Church on the 12th of July. And we all know what happened to those tensions in December when Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the British flag on City Hall.
But his comments highlighted a concern that arises (or perhaps should arise) almost every year among Christians (especially from the Protestant tradition) who see the Orange Order claim to be a Christian organization even as the 12th descends into chaos.
In that post, I went back to a 1997 ‘Open Letter to the Orange Order,’ in which Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI, now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity) asked a set of questions around whether Christians should sacrifice their ‘rights’ if they could reasonably foresee that not doing so would contribute to rioting and violence. (You can re-read the questions on the Slugger post.) I added that:
‘Though 15 years old, their (ECONI’s) questions remain relevant (and depressingly contemporary).’
And that has not changed, almost a year later. If anything, after the flag protests, the questions take on greater urgency.
After writing the post on Slugger, I came into my office at the Irish School of Ecumenics the next morning to find a message on my answer phone. It was an angry Orangeman, who among other things, said:
‘I am just as good a Christian as you are – and I doubt that you are one.’
This highlighted for me that the very few (Protestant), non-Orange Christians who try and raise questions about the Order’s claims to Christianity – even around the 12th – tread a fine line, and are likely to be held in about as high regard as the statue of the Virgin Mary. In the year that it penned its Open Letter, ECONI was denounced in the proclamations read out at the ‘field’ after the main parade in Belfast.
Orange Order chaplain Mervyn Gibson said the Grand Lodge would not consider the Twelfth commemorations to be completed until members impacted by the commission’s decision were allowed to return home via the Crumlin Road.
Mr Gibson denied that the Orange Order stance was provocative.
He told the Press Association: “We don’t want to up the ante here, we don’t want to raise tensions.
“What we are trying to do is give vent to people’s anger in a peaceful and controlled way, but there are people out there who are angry, very angry.
“What we are saying is, ‘control that anger and channel it against the Parades Commission’.”
As a Christian, I have to disagree with Gibson – another Christian – when he says that the Order’s stance is not provocative.
On the one hand, I recognize that many loyalists – many of those who will be on parade today – feel they have genuine grievances with the way the peace process is working out and believe that they do not matter to the political class that is supposed to represent them. I can agree with them about that! Parading on the 12th (and having the flag fly over City Hall) may seem like all they have left.
On the other hand, choosing to take a ‘stand’ over issues likes parading and flags allows those neglectful political classes to avoid tackling the social problems in working class areas that could make lives better. It is easier for politicians to gain kudos by waving flags (proverbial and actual flags) than to address complex problems around education, jobs and health.
In a recent event at Clonard Monastery, John Kyle from the Progressive Unionist Party fielded some questions in these areas. The meeting was conducted in the spirit of the Chatham House Rule and we were asked not to publically share a few specific points that were raised, with or without attribution. But one question that came from the floor seemed to me poignant, and illustrated the difficulties Christians who are concerned with improving community relations in our society face.
The questioner confessed that as a middle class Protestant, he felt absolutely bewildered when seeing the flag protests and the provocative behaviour at parades. As a Christian, he wanted to engage and ask questions about how to change this. He wanted to listen, but not to become an apologist for the Orange Order or simply to recycle loyalist grievances. But, he concluded with a sigh:
I have no idea what to say or do.
Sadly, today his (our?) options seem to remain as they have been for years: try and ignore the spectacle, or look on helplessly.
(Image of Orangeman sourced on flickr, by Miss Copenhagen)