I recently blogged about a colloquium at the Centre for the Study of Irish Protestantism and the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Resolution at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. The colloquium helped to mark the visit of Rev Dr Roy Patton, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, to the University. It was the first official visit of a Presbyterian Moderator to the University, which also provided an opportunity to recognize the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Presbyterianism in Ireland.
I spoke on ‘The Churches and Reconciliation in Ireland: Challenges and Opportunities,’ while Rev Dr Trevor Morrow spoke on ‘The Ulster Covenant, the Reformed Churches and Irish Identity.’ I’ve already written about my own talk, and today I fulfil my promise to blog about Morrow’s presentation.
Morrow has been minister of Lucan Presbyterian Church, Co Dublin, for the last 28 years and is a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Originally from Northern Ireland, he is also a theologian and historian.
Having attended a number of events marking the centenary of the Ulster Covenant (1912-2012) during the last year, I was beginning to wonder what else could be said about it. But Morrow’s talk was remarkably fresh– not least because of the perspective he brings from ‘south of the border.’
Trevor Morrow on ‘The Ulster Covenant, the Reformed Churches and Irish Identity’
Morrow began his talk with a brief outline of the ‘Presbyterian underpinnings’ of the Ulster Covenant. He argued that it was rooted in a Presbyterian confidence in ‘Providence’ – that God would provide for and protect his people, as well as a notion of ‘attainment’ based on Philippians 3:16, where Christians are exhorted to live up to what they have already attained.
I had never heard the Ulster Covenant linked to ‘attainment,’ and thought that in doing this Morrow was very insightful in emphasizing the sense of responsibility that signatories of the Covenant must have felt.
As many others have pointed out in the last year, the very term ‘covenant’ resonates with Presbyterian theology, but Morrow was more inclined to emphasise the ‘secular’ nature of the Ulster Covenant. He said that the Ulster Covenant was more like a contract between people rather than a covenant with God, as the men and women of Ulster were pledging to stand by each other at “a horizontal level” so as not to lose their “economic blessing” and “civil and religious freedom.”
Morrow then turned the discussion to “identity,” arguing that many signatories would have thought of themselves as both Irish and British.
In an argument similar to that made in Part 3 of the BBC Northern Ireland documentary ‘An Independent People: The Story of Ulster’s Presbyterians,’ Morrow said that the partition of the island and the creation of Northern Ireland as a political entity ‘changed Presbyterian identity.’
Presbyterians went from being radical ‘dissenters,’ preaching in Irish and seen to give leadership in a common struggle against English landlords, to being ‘corporately committed to the British establishment.’
Morrow concluded by reflecting on how Presbyterian identity might change again (and indeed has changed in the Republic of Ireland and in parts of Northern Ireland). He said that identity change does not mean that we cease to be who we are, but rather that (as Christians) we should willingly ‘set aside the benefits of our identity.’
And in language that some might consider controversial, Morrow urged Presbyterians to ‘rebuild our image as Irish men and women,’ and to do so out of four core convictions:
- As citizens of the ‘kingdom of God,’ seeing the church as a sign of the kingdom of God, not equivalent to it
- As part of a movement of reform in one church of Christ, willing to discover what it means to be both catholic and reformed
- As people able to affirm that they are Irish – or both Irish and British
- As people whose diverse cultures and political aspirations can be celebrated, not just tolerated
As Morrow quipped:
‘If Rugby Union can do it, surely we can do it for the sake of the gospel.’
In the question and response session after our talks, Morrow seemed much more optimistic about the possibilities for the reshaping of an ‘Irish’ Presbyterian identity than I did.
Again, this may reflect our positions living on different sides of the border. (There is already an ‘Irish’ Presbyterian identity in the Republic, but this is rare indeed in the North.)
But for me, the prospects for any sort of identity change along the lines that Morrow suggests are at least helped by the fact that the Presbyterian Church,and other Protestant churches, no longer have the same privileged relationships with political power that they once did.
In Northern Ireland, such entanglement with power meant that it was harder for Protestants to see themselves first as citizens of the kingdom of God, rather than citizens of the United Kingdom.
Or to paraphrase what David Porter, former director of Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland, once said to me: “When it came to ‘For God and Ulster’, God got the raw deal.”