franciscan - September 2003
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003
Is God an Ulster Protestant?
by Henry Keys
In Northern Ireland where 90% of the Catholic population consistently vote Nationalist/Republican and 90% of the Protestant population vote Unionist/Loyalist, it is easy to conclude that religion and politics are very closely related. However in this case it should be pointed out that we are talking about denominations and not religion. The reasons for these alliances are not simple and have to do more with history than theology, but inevitably they become intertwined. Any brief history of Ireland will outline the historical reasons for the present impasse.
What does fundamentalism have to do with the current Northern Ireland situation? It has to do with political ideology and theology. In politics there is a fundamentalism of the left, Sinn Fein; and a fundamentalism of the right, the Democratic Unionist Party (founded and still led by Rev. Ian Paisley). The former is committed to achieving a United Ireland and the latter is determined to defend the Union. In the centre ground there are also two main parties: the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a constitutional Nationalist organisation led formerly by John Hume; and the Ulster Unionist Party led by David Trimble. The former aims to bring about a United Ireland and the latter to maintain the Union, both by democratic means.
The fundamentalism of the left is purely political. Sinn Fein rhetoric reminds us of the continued oppression by the British and the ideal of a free United Ireland. On the other hand the fundamentalism of the right does explicitly relate theology to politics. This relation goes back to the foundation of the Orange Order in 1795. Its members were unashamedly loyal to the crown and anti catholic. Their watchword became 'For God and Ulster'. The Rev. Ian Paisley has, for the past forty years, taken up this tradition and identified his brand of fundamentalist theology with Ulster unionism. He founded his own Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and became a leader in the Independent Orange Order. He preaches a literal biblical fundamentalism, which identifies the Pope as the Antichrist and the British Monarch as the true defender of the faith (although these days this has become an embarrassment for him). He identifies a United Ireland with Popery and will have nothing to do with Sinn Fein. So with these linkages it is easy to conclude that God is really an Ulster Protestant.
This kind of fundamentalism has had a profound political impact not just on the large numbers who vote for the DUP, but on people in the pews of the main protestant churches. Many who are evangelical in their theology make the Paisley linkages to local politics and end up believing that God is a Protestant, if not an Ulster Protestant. The evidence for this comes from the attitude of the main churches to the ecumenical movement. The main protestant churches have been members of the Irish Council of Churches from its foundation. The Catholic Church has not been a member but has had good relations with the I.C.C. This was enough for Paisley to condemn the latter and all who associated with it. When the Irish churches were asked in 1990 to join the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland (which included the Catholic Church) the Presbyterian Church in Ireland declined the invitation, and many members of the other main Protestant Churches felt uneasy with any association with Catholicism.
The belief that God is a Protestant has, over the last 15 years, been challenged by ECONI (Evangelical Contribution On Northern Ireland). This is a group of evangelical Christians, clergy and lay, drawn from the main protestant churches. Their first publication in 1987 was entitled 'For God and his glory alone'. It challenged the notion that God was on either side in the conflict in Northern Ireland and encouraged Christians to return to the Bible to recognise that God is the God of all nations. It has continued to publish on topics like forgiveness and is active in community reconciliation. There is no polemic against the Catholic Church. It has had a significant influence in alerting protestant evangelicals to the dangers of Paisley type political linkages.
These linkages have been challenged by many other Church groups and individuals in Northern Ireland. This has been documented recently by Dr. Henri Fischer in a doctoral thesis, 'Theology of Reconciliation as Taught and Practised by Reconciliation Groups in Northern Ireland'. Among many others, he pays tribute to the contribution of the Reverend Cecil Kerr and Brother David Jardine SSF. Brother David founded the group, Divine Healing Ministries, some ten years ago. It is completely interdenominational and focuses on the ministry of prayer and healing not just for the individual but for the community. Brother David has the confidence of the people right across the sectarian divide and the support of the Church leaders. It is impossible to assess the significance of this group and the many others which are active in the churches. All we can say is that they are beacons of light in the sectarian gloom.
However, I still think it is fair to say that in Northern Ireland there is, for the two church communities, Protestant and Catholic, an emphasis on what divides rather than what unites. As I have indicated there are many good relationships both at local and official levels but the general impression in the pew is that what divides us theologically is more significant than what unites us. Each is often referred to as 'the other religion' and seen to be quite separate and different. What will change this is either a defensive action because of the advance of secularism or a massive change coming from the leadership and/or the grass roots of the main churches. I hope that it will be the latter and thank God for those who have started, and are engaged in, the process of change from within.
In a six year study of the role of sectarianism in Northern Ireland (Moving Beyond Sectarianism, Columba Press, 2001) Liechty and Clegg conclude that the Churches have a choice. ‘They can choose to play a role in the public and ongoing healing process in Northern Ireland or they can choose to be consigned to oblivion through denial, through privatisation or through scapegoating. If they are to play a role then it is crucial that they lead the process of 'necessary judgement', starting with themselves. This will require not only courage and honesty, but also a process of sustained reflection around a number of issues, including sectarianism’. f
Henry Keys is a Methodist Chaplain of Queen's University, Belfast. He is currently studying reconciliation issues.
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