Christians and “Orangemen’s Day” (the 12th of July) – Contributions to the Debate

heather morrisOn my desk I have a calendar from Holy Cross Monastery in Rostrevor, Co. Down, which features photographs of the monks and the monastery throughout the year. In the month of July, the 12th is designated “Orangemen’s Day.” Given that most of the monks in Holy Cross are French, I assumed this was simply a quaint expression that reflected their background.

I had only ever heard the day referred to as the “12th of July” or the “Glorious 12th”, so I was surprised last week when I read in Newton Emerson’s Irish News column that the official name of the holiday is “Orangemen’s Day.” The monks had it right after all.

The monks in Holy Cross get a lot of things right, including their dedication to their vocation of ecumenism and reconciliation. (For those of you missing Fr Martin Magill’s regular Monday post detailing his “ecumenical tithing,” it was absent this week because he is on retreat at the monastery.)

Given Northern Ireland’s violent and divided past, and continuing sectarian present, I think all Christians living on this island should have a vocation of ecumenism and reconciliation. The lack of widespread or meaningful recognition of such a vocation has been apparent in some Christian responses to the rioting that once again erupted in the wake of the Belfast parade this past Orangemen’s Day.

You can read my “Christian Musings on the 12th of July” to get a sense of my disappointment in the way that a self-proclaimed Christian organisation like the Orange Order allows (or, arguably, encourages) violence around the most sacred day in its parading calendar.

Having said that, over the last couple of weeks there have been a number of constructive Christian contributions to discussions about the violence, the future of the Orange Order, and the role of Christians and churches in our current (supposedly) “post violence” transition. At the end of this blog, I’ll provide links to some of the examples I have found helpful.

Drawing on my reading of a range of these responses, and my ongoing reflections as an academic researching the churches and reconciliation, I want to highlight what I think are some of the most important points:

The “Institutional” Churches (especially the four largest denominations – Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist) have not been visible and active promoters of reconciliation since the Good Friday Agreement. They therefore lack credibility when they try and “speak out”, even when they try and speak out together, over events like the rioting.

The prayer for peace in Belfast instigated by the Methodist Church and prayed in churches of various denominations throughout the land this past Sunday is in some ways admirable. But as a public performance or event it lacked “oomph” because of the steady erosion of the institutional churches’ credibility as peacemakers.

We need to ask whether the Churches, as “Institutions”, even have the Capacity to act as Agents of Reconciliation.

Most of the examples of positive Christian engagement in the wake of the rioting have been taken from small grassroots initiatives, operating under the radar of the institutional churches. For example, Fr Magill’s “Ecumenical Tithing” at West Kirk Presbyterian was discussed at least twice on the BBC, and this is a personal initiative on his part.

The greater effectiveness of small groups and individuals was also apparent during the Troubles, and in some ways it is a product of sociological processes: small organizations or groups of individuals working together have more freedom and flexibility than clumsy, divided institutions like denominations to “get things done.” In a discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence on 21 July, Prof John Brewer from Queen’s intimated that the institutional churches could and should be doing more.

But I think Christians who are interested in reconciliation should be asking themselves if working through the institutional churches is in some ways a lost cause?

I’ve been disappointed during this time not to hear anything from the Irish Churches Peace Project, which got underway this year with substantial funding from the European Union. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t even have a website, meaning Christians who are interested can’t even check out what is going on, much less find out how they might get involved. Perhaps this project is operating quietly “behind the scenes”, but in the context of the past two weeks, that seems to me a bit like hiding your light under a bushel basket.

Parading, and other so-called “symbolic” issues like flags, Need to be set in a Wider Discussion about Dealing with the Past.

I made this point more extensively in a post on the Slugger O’Toole blog. I think our politicians have let us down in refusing to press forward more urgently with mechanisms for dealing with the past, especially in a context in which the Eames-Bradley Report sits gathering dust, its many creative suggestions unread or forgotten.

Christians, as people who (theoretically) believe in redemption, should be among those who are most aware of the importance of “dealing with the past,” whether that is in one’s personal life or as communities.

Christians have at their disposal a vast vocabulary for providing examples of forgiveness, hope and reconciliation. The future on this island is inevitably shared, whether we like it or not. The only decision, really, is how we choose to share it. Reluctantly and in our separate enclaves, or together as fellow citizens.

Christians Must Avoid Scapegoating. Given what’s happened around the Belfast parade, it’s easy to blame the Orange Order and/or “loyalists.” There certainly has been much condemnation of the violence, and when this happens it’s easy to find scapegoats who take the blame and help us avoid addressing the structural nature of sectarianism on this island.

That’s not to say there’s not a time and a place for criticism. For example, I was disappointed by the failure of representatives of the Presbyterian Church (Rev. Norman Hamilton and the current Moderator Rev. Rob Craig on successive weekends on Sunday Sequence) to criticize Rev. Mervyn Gibson, the prominent Orange Order spokesman in Belfast, for what have been at best unhelpful and at worst incendiary comments. In fairness to Hamilton and Craig a radio programme may not be the best place for this. But the end result is that representatives of Presbyterianism come off as wishy-washy about the role of one of their clergy, and by extension their church, in these particular events.

To me, it is almost always unhelpful to criticize your opponent or the “Other”, demanding that THEY repent. Self-criticism, of your tradition or your institutions, is the most constructive type of criticism in these situations. And there have been some missed opportunities for this by various church leaders over the past couple of weeks.

“Orangemen’s Day” is not the Problem.

In some ways the official name of the holiday, “Orangemen’s Day,” implies exclusion and even triumphalism. The connotations of defeat and subjugation associated with “the 12th” perhaps are not much better. But again, those of us living on this island can choose how we remember historical events and we can discuss with each other different interpretations of the past. There are a lot of Orangemen who say they want others to feel welcome to share in their day. As a first step, can we figure out how to have the discussions that could make that happen?  

Christians and “Orangemen’s Day” (the 12th of July) – Contributions to the Debate

Conversations on Sunday Sequence:

14 July: Rev Norman Hamilton, Fr Tim Bartlett and Brian Rowan

21 July: Rev Rob Craig, Prof John Brewer and Fr Martin Magill

Gladys Ganiel on Slugger O’Toole: And the Past Continues to Walk Our Streets …

Fr Martin Magill’s Ecumenical Tithing – West Kirk Presbyterian: Can we go the extra mile in a Troubled Belfast?

Jon Hatch: Orange Crush, or Developing Praxis in North Belfast

Gladys Ganiel: Some ‘Christian’ Musings on the 12th of July

Peace-Building Prayer for Belfast

Rev Steve Stockman: Loyalist Violence – Condemnation or Grace?

Harriet Long: Patriotism and Swagger

Prof John Brewer: What is the Future of the Orange Order?

Rev Heather Morris’ Facebook Page

(Image of Rev Heather Morris sourced on http://irishmethodist.org/news/19-july-2013/peace-building-prayer-belfast)

One Response to Christians and “Orangemen’s Day” (the 12th of July) – Contributions to the Debate

  1. Ron Elsdon July 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    I’ve tried to make a small +ve suggestion in my piece to appear under the heading ‘Lifelines’ in next week’s Church of Ireland Gazette.

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