Presbyterian Moderator ignites debate on bonfires

dr-frank-sellar-uu-chaplaincy-lectureThe Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Frank Sellar, delivered the 2016 Ulster University Chaplaincy lecture last night. An audience of around fifty guests listened to the twenty five minute address delivered in the Belfast campus as part of the cleric’s week long tour of the North Belfast Presbytery.

Speaking under the title of ‘A City of Hope, Leadership and Compassion’, Dr Sellar acknowledged that “with the continuing dismal story of war, refugees and economic uncertainty, for many around the globe and in this city, it’s not unreasonable to question whether there is any real hope to be had in the world.

He contrasted hope with optimism, referring to German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.

“Both have to do with positive expectation, and yet the two are very different.

“Optimism has to do with good things in the future that are latent in the past and the present. The Future associated with optimism is an unfolding of what is already there. We Survey the past and the present, then extrapolate about what is likely to happen in the future and if the prospects are good, become optimistic.

“Hope on the other hand, has to do with good things in the future that come to us from ‘outside’, from God. The future associated with hope is a gift of something new.”

Dr Sellar listed some of the “increasing reasons” Belfast has to be optimistic: a lessening of interface violence, movement at Twaddell Avenue, three relatively peaceful summers, evidence of urban renewal, and the ONS poll that suggest Northern Ireland is the happiest region to live in all of the UK. And he used the familiar Presbyterian symbol of the burning bush to explain about the “hope that comes from outside [from God]”.

“A flourishing bush, burning yet alive, pointing forward to a vibrant and flourishing people released from the shackles of the past and liberated for the freedom of a future in the promised land.”

He developed three points from Augustine’s convictions, based on Miroslav Volf’s book A Public Faith.

1. God is not an impersonal force in the world, but a person who loves and can be loved in return.

2. To be human is to love; we can choose what to love but not whether to love.

He mentioned the decision at June’s General Assembly to embark on “an 18 month project to uncover a wider story about our responses to the Troubles … to recognise what was good and to identify and reflect upon the times when the church failed to be faithful peacemakers.”

[Ed – reading John Brewer and Gareth Higgins’ book Religion, Civil Society, and Peace in Northern Ireland would be a good start.]

“Every society has its idols that obscure the glory of God and the Children of Israel likewise had their own golden calf, which needed to be named and shattered and the Christian church is no different. But through our Vision for Society https://www.presbyterianireland.org/Utility/About-Us/Statements/Vision-for-Society-Statement.aspx statement which acknowledges past failures to live countercultural lives, yet also affirms that Christian peace building is seminal to Christian discipleship, we determine to live in a way that points to Jesus who loved God perfectly and perfectly loved people made in his image and challenges us to face our own and contemporary society’s modern idolatry and self-centredness.”

But it was the third point that garnered a front page headline in this morning’s Belfast Telegraph.

3. Human beings will flourish and be truly happy when they discover joy in loving the infinite God and our neighbours in God.

“I started off by referring to the bush where the unsuspecting Moses encountered the divine and his priorities were holy transformed. Here in North Belfast we also have many fires.

“Dotted over this city at certain times of year in both communities are bonfires, which give off the toxic fumes of heat rather than light.

“Given our history and fortress mind-sets, while celebrating and commemorating the past divisively, they are also a danger to the environment, property and human wellbeing. They are not bonfires fuelled by inclusiveness, respect and healing, but a means by which we pass on to succeeding generations the sins of our fathers.

“Human flourishing and true happiness is when, like Moses, the heart is captured by an affection beyond self to loving God and our neighbours more than anything else. Is it too much to hope that at least as much effort might go into creating an environment of inclusivity about bonfires as into cake making?”

Dr Sellar then gave examples of “light in the darkness” across the city of Belfast, including the new worshipping community of Carnmoney Presbyterian in the MAC, foodbanks, the Wave Trauma Centre, and the Nightline service.

beltel-frank-sellar-bonfire-headlineNorth Belfast MLA Nelson McCausland described the moderator’s comments as “ill-considered and inaccurate”. Reminding readers that the traditional Eleventh Night bonfires “celebrate King William of Orange’s arrival in Ireland and the subsequent Glorious Revolution”.

“Is he suggesting that these historic events were ‘the sins of our fathers’ and that they were somehow sinful?”

TUV councillor Jolene Bunting said:

“Many of the original fires were lit by Presbyterians to welcome William III, as they feared for their future on the island of Ireland had he not arrived to fight James II. Bonfires don’t commemorate the sins of our fathers – rather they commemorate the sacrifices they were called upon to make for their faith.”

But name one bonfire in North Belfast – or anywhere in Belfast – that doesn’t have any tricolours, election posters or sectarian graffiti burnt on it? The beacons tend to be well managed and intentionally free of sectarian and hateful displays. But most bonfires burn political and cultural emblems. That does sound sinful.

Oddly no quotes from republicans about their impression of Dr Sellar’s comments which were aimed at “both communities”.

Given the coverage on this morning’s Nolan phone-in and continued news reports throughout the day, the Presbyterian Moderator has certainly ignited a discussion about bonfires.

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  • Declan Doyle

    He is correct to point out that the pyres of hate exist in both communities even though they are far more prevalent in Unionist heartlands. The difference is that Mainstream Republicanism and Nationalism are absolutely opposed and openly critical of them. The same cannot be said of mainstream unionism who hold a sneaking regard for their firemasters who frolic alongside the burning sectarian monstrosities. Whilst we hysterically condemn Trump for his xenophobic racist and discriminatory rants four thousand miles away; we have similarly ugly manifestations belching out of the DUP and the worst underbelly of Loyalism, yet nothing can be done for fear we upset their sensitivities and try to interfere with their birthright to hate.

  • ted hagan

    Well I heard Dr Sellar on the radio this morning, (in which Stephen Nolan seemed unable to differentiate between Presbyterian and Free Presbyterian by the way) and while his heart is in the right place he came across ss wishy-washy, using opaque language, and didn’t seem to have the courage of his convictions.

  • ted hagan

    The usual ‘they’re worse than us’ in other words?
    Two sides of the same coin as far I can see.

  • Declan Doyle

    When it comes to sectarianism, bigotry, homophobia and racism; you can bet your ass they’re worse, in fact far far worse.

  • ted hagan

    Yea, sort of baddies and goodies type thing?

  • Declan Doyle

    Not really, most people are on the goodie side

  • billypilgrim1

    The old cliche that neither community has a monopoly on sectarianism is true.

    But one community certainly has dominant market share, on a Google / Yahoo sort of ratio.

    Alan says it’s odd that there has been no quotes from republicans since Dr Sellar’s comments “were aimed at both communities.”

    It’s not odd, really, and Dr Sellar’s comments weren’t really aimed at both sides. This intervention really only applies to one community, and everyone knows it.

    (Of course he was careful to observe the strictly-enforced ‘both sides’ formula, in order to avoid enraging the letsgetalongerist mob.)

  • billypilgrim1

    He’s right though that these bonfires are sinful. Fair play to him, it takes real courage to speak out like this against your own people.

  • ted hagan

    Too many people in this state, on both sides, can’t live without sectarianism. It’s a a drug. They feed off it. Trot out the same tired old narratives. It gives them a purpose, a meaning. Other places, post conflict, get on with their lives, we go round in the same tight little circle waiting for the finger of god to point and say ‘they were wrong and you were right’..

  • AntrimGael

    Dr Stellar has displayed something that mainstream Unionism NEVER has; honesty, integrity and leadership. While no one has a monopoly on sectarianism it is fair to say that it is very much ingrained within the cultural DNA of the PUL community and the Moderator has asked people within that community to look within and reflect; he should be lauded and praised for that.
    Of course the usual Naysayers, Deniers and fundamental bigots within PUL were wheeled out to respond and in their drooling ‘Earth is Flat mindset’ turned on the Moderator. The Belfast Telegraph displayed their Groundhog Day screaming ‘Unionist outrage’ headlines, it has become their monologue mantra these days and the moon-howlers were given columns and pages to vent their bitterness against the Moderator. The DUP and Telegraph now seem to two sides of the same right wing, fundamental coin now.
    Dr Stellar spoke only words of truth and as usual Unionism cannot handle it; they berate the messenger and ignore the message as they always do. Unionism is a medieval, colonial, supremacist, bigoted, intolerant ideology; it will NEVER change.

  • hgreen

    Putting aside the sectarianism of many of these fires, they are an environmental disaster and for that alone they should either be banned or at least heavily restricted.

  • Roger

    Northern Ireland is a region; not a state.

  • billypilgrim1

    One of the hoariest and most pernicous narratives we have is the ‘both sides’ one. It’s a barrier to progress, even though those who trot it out are absolutely convinced of their own progressiveness.

    “Northern Ireland” as a political construct is a (failed) attempt to solve the problem of Ireland’s Protestant minority, which happens to be geographically concentrated in the northeast.

    It’s in the hearts of those people that change must take place, in order that peace might break out. They made a mistake in declaring for unionism, and in their hearts they know it. Peddling the ‘both sides’ narrative delays the moment when they face up to this, and thereby allow everyone else in these islands to move on.

  • Glenn

    A bonfire of the bonfires, from the burning bush Presbyterian Moderator.

  • GEF

    How can a bonfire be sinful?

  • Actually, other places post-conflict are often worse. Last week I went to a talk on “Bosnia’s paralysed peace” by Christopher Bennett, the former director of the International Crisis Group. Their assemblies don’t work at all. The state is split up into separate sectarian enclaves. They don’t even have a petition of concern.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Is he suggesting that these historic events were ‘the sins of our fathers’ and that they were somehow sinful?”

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/24413853

    Is is really 1988 since Howard Nenner’s “Traces of Shame in England’s Glorious Revolution” systematically unpacked all those lies and ugly little self-interested betrayals by which James II’s attempt to create a general toleration (see Scott Sowerby’s excellent “Making Toleration”) for all his subjects was mendaciously destroyed? Even William’s friend and supporter the Whig Lord Delamere “was vastly troubled by the dissections of those who had been befriended by James and who in the end went slinking away without ‘any sort of gratitude or honour'”. Delamere was incidentally William’s link with the local plotters in the north of Ireland

    No, these commemorations celebrate the “sinful” suppression of religious equality and, interestingly, those penal laws which affected Presbyterians alongside Catholics, and quite directly led to those alliances of 1798 a century later, the significance of which McCausland and Bunting seem to have entirely forgotten .

  • ted hagan

    I couldn’t care less what it is to be truthful. I can only agree that it is a failed entity.

  • grumpy oul man

    very simple really,
    1/ burning the symbols and images of those you dislike, is a display of hate and intolerance.
    which i believe is a sin in the Christian theology,
    2/ the wilful damage to other people or the states property is also a sin in the Christian theology as is the lack of consideration for the safety and well being of those who live beside these brutes and do not support their construction.
    3/ the deliberate release of poisons into the atmosphere which harms not only the environment but those who live nearby, since many of these toxins are accumulative (they are absorbed into the developing organs and bone structure of developing fetus’s and the organs and bone of growing children children) causing a increase in long term health problems,
    I believe harming children is a sin in Christian theology.

  • ted hagan

    I think if the clergyman had said in straightforward and useful terms:
    ‘Look, let’s rethink bonfires, let’s not burn Tricolours and SF posters. Let’s not let get them out of hand; Control the alcohol. Let’s be dignified and not sully the reputation of Protestants by intimidating people on the Eleventh night;’
    That might have meant something substantial.
    But ‘bonfires are sinful’, Come on…..

  • grumpy oul man

    Of course bonfires are not sinful being neither sentient nor having a soul, but the action of building a bonfire while knowing it will cause offense or harm to others is sinful.
    this is what is meant by “bonfires are sinful” are you not being just a tad pedantic!

  • ted hagan

    I don’t think most people, from whatever side of the fence, would consider bonfires to be that offensive or ‘sinful’ as long as they were confined to loyalist areas and conducted under strict controls with less of the loutishness associated with them and certainly no burning of Tricolours or posters. They are a long way from that. But describing them as sinful is going over the top. The Twelfth in general with its sectarian message is not the world’s most edifying spectacle but surely we can strive for something that both ‘tribes’ can tolerate.

  • grumpy oul man

    Hows is defining something that is sinful under Christian teaching as sinful under Christian teaching over the top?
    Certainly if the builders lost the trappings of hate and showed respect for those around them and the environment then they would not be sinful, that is the point of the post.
    I have heard no one call for a complete ban on bonfires instead they call for regulation and a reasonable attitude/restraint from the builders.
    Most reasonable people would like to see the whole 12th thing as “something that both ‘tribes’ can tolerate” however i fail to see how that means that as regards to bonfires we cannot call a spade a spade,

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m not disputing that the pyres of hate exist in both communities. However given that Republicans did murder a lot of innocent people from the other community over an exceedingly long period, how do you come to the conclusion that unionism is somehow worse than republicanism when it come to hate? If you had said to me that the pyre of hate within nationalism is much less than unionism I would agree with you 100%. Indeed I rarely see any evidence of hate within mainstream nationalism. But republicanism? I think it’s grossly unfair on mainstream nationalism to lump it in with republicanism when discussing hate.

  • GEF

    But its the loyalists or republicans (IE human beings) who are carrying out these so called sinful acts, not the bonfire. I repeat my question ” How can a bonfire be sinful”?

  • GEF

    “Of course bonfires are not sinful”

    Then why call them sinful? The Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Frank Sellar, needs to study the written word better before he starts judging bonfires as sinful.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    It may not change, but it will certainly inevitably die.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Not a useful question.

  • babyface finlayson

    From the clip above he actually said that bonfires are a means by which we pass on the sins of our fathers.
    Maybe he called bonfires sinful in a subsequent interview but the context makes it quite clear.
    Clearly he is saying the makers of the bonfires are acting sinfully when they use them to display hatred.
    I am not a believer but I cannot see how anyone who professes any brand of christianity could disagree.
    But all that must be obvious to you.

  • billypilgrim1

    That’s world-class pedantry, in fairness.

    And a very original way of acting as an apologist for these paganistic rituals. Fair play!

  • billypilgrim1

    Basically, you’d prefer if he’d said it in a way you could ignore.

    These bonfires ARE sinful. I wish he’d gone further and pointed out just how Pagan they are, but maybe next time.

    He’s right in what he says, he was right to say it, and he was right to say it the way he did.

  • billypilgrim1

    Perhaps you have never thought of these bonfires in such terms, and are shocked to hear them described as such. If so, the minister’s sermon has hit the mark.

  • billypilgrim1

    A deliberately mendacious question. Obviously we’re talking about the ritual of the bonfire, not the pallets and tyres themselves.

  • ted hagan

    He speaks in cryptic terms. Why doesn’t he just say what he means? I don’t feel he is.

  • billypilgrim1

    I think his meaning came across loud and clear. There’s nothing cryptic about: these bonfires are sinful.

    So loud and clear in fact that it discomfited you, to the extent that you felt the need to give it a Blairesque makeover.

  • nagantino

    He has to adopt the wish-washy because he has to live here. He did a courageous thing but to stand and fight the zealots is too much to ask. Easier if he had been backed vocally by his fellow churchmen and a few unionist politicians but that will not happen.

  • Declan Doyle

    The conflict ended twenty years ago. Try to stay in the present.

  • Declan Doyle

    I’m not disputing that the pyres of hate exist in both communities. However given that Uniinists/Loyalists/British state did murder a lot of innocent people from the other community over an exceedingly long period, how do you come to the conclusion that Republicanism is somehow worse than Unionism when it come to hate?

  • NotNowJohnny

    If I had come to that conclusion then I would understand your question. But I didn’t. You simply made that up to deflect from the uncomfortable point I made to you.

  • ted hagan

    I’m hardly ‘discomfited’ since I have little regard for Twelfth bonfires or Orange triumphalism. But what I am seeking is a realistic solution to the problem of bonfires and proclaiming ‘sinful’ will do no nothing to solve that problem, as surely you must understand after the years of similar proclamations on different issues down the years of the Troubles by well-meaning but naive clerics?
    And if the moderator wants bonfires banned, why doesn’t he just say so?

  • ted hagan

    What is a ‘mendacious’ question, might I ask?

  • grumpy oul man

    As i pointed out before, the good reverent was not saying the wood and tyres had committed a sin or where inherently evil. Nor is the action of building a bonfire sinful in itself ( i am a athiest and like most athiests before i became one i was brought up in a christain faith and my decision to become a athiest was made after a lot of thought and study of christain theology) it is the intent behind the action which makes it sinful under Christain rules.
    As the moderator of the Presbyterian church the man has a duty to guide his church in the dogmas of his faith, it is to be assumed that he has read the bible and akso at least a degree in theology.
    Where do you think he is in error, is a action carried out because of a sinful intent ( inciting secterian hatred, damage to property, poullation) not sinful according to the bible!
    You seem to be trying to change the depth of the moderators argument by implying that he was refering to the burning of wood and tyres and not the intent behind it nor to the knowledge of the bonfire builders that their actions would cause damage to property and create dangerous pollutants.
    But perhaps i err, if you could point out to me where it says hating , destruction of property and poisoning people is not sinful as i say the moderator is the leader of a church surely he has a duty to point out things which he considers sinful.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    A “lying, untruthful, dishonest, deceitful, false, dissembling, insincere, disingenuous, hypocritical, fraudulent, double-dealing, two-faced, Janus-faced, two-timing, duplicitous, perjured, perfidious” question might the the usual interpretation………

    As in “the mendacious and misleading use of ‘Glorious’ in regard to the Revolution of 1688”.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ted, as I have said above, the inceptive events which the bonfires commemorate were both mendacious and in their outcome, the abuse and sectarian oppression of a major part of our community in Ireland, any commemoration must of necessity be representations of a “sinful” impulse in those whose “gloat” over others they symbolise.

  • grumpy oul man

    Maybe he doesn’t want bobfires banned and that is why he didnt say he wanted them banned.
    Interesting that you seem to think the moderator of the largest protestant relegion should not make comments on wither something is sinful or not.
    Surely that would be a intergal part of the mans job.
    Your objections to his spelling out the Christain line on this is very interesting, you seem offended that a christain minister should explain his oppisition to something in christain terms.
    Still i suppose its better than actally dealing with the point.
    But be you not mealy mouthed and tell us do you accept that the intentions behind the bonfires is sinful in christain terms.

  • billypilgrim1

    A question intended to obscure, distract and deceive.

  • billypilgrim1

    A realistic solution to the problem of bonfires is the dying out of these sinful, Paganistic practises.

    There is no shortcut to this solution. Ask any good Marxist who has read his Gramsci and he’ll tell you it can only be achieved though long-term, incremental cultural change.

    Such change will take place when enough Protestants of good conscience say ‘Enough’. Rev. Sellar deserves credit for being among the first to step up and do his Christian duty.

  • grumpy oul man

    You know the sort of thing,
    When someone deliberately misinterprets a point to attempt to mislead or confuse.
    For instance it should be obvious to anybody with a basic understanding of the english language and having read what the moderator said that he was not calling the bonfire itself sinful but the intention and actions of those involved in them.
    I do hope that answers your question!

  • ted hagan

    How can a question be mendacious? I repeat.
    A question is a question. Only the answer can be mendacious.

  • ted hagan

    As I said previously, the moderator seems a good a decent man, but he went around the block attempting to deliver a message that could have been expressed in much simpler and more straightforward terms, ie it is wrong to light bonfires on the Twelfth.
    Plain and simple.

  • AntrimGael

    This is a bit like Galileo, Da Vinci etc stating that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun and not the other way around AND being castigated as a heretic for it. ANY moderate and truthful voice from within the PUL community will ALWAYS be drowned out and denied by the headbangers and rabid mouth-foamers.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ted, how disingenious! A question can be ” dishonest, deceitful, false, dissembling, insincere, disingenuous, hypocritical, fraudulent, double-dealing, two-faced, Janus-faced, two-timing, duplicitous, perfidious” if it has been framed to compel the answerer to give a particular answer which does not accord with his actual feelings and may be used against his beleifs, such as opinion polls regularly do.

  • nagantino

    I don’t think he wants them banned and neither do I. But at least he might be speaking to a certain constituency, as we say here. The solution lies with Unionist politicians who would have the vision and leadership to speak and guide the conversation. See? I used a sentence with the words Vision, Leadership and Unionist Politition in it.

  • grumpy oul man

    He is a moderator of a church, and you seem surprised that he brought his relegious beliefs up ehen addressing his congregation.
    He seemed straightforward to me.
    And he did not say it was wrong to light bonfires on the twelth ( why are you trying to put these words into his mouth) he said thst the secterian intent behind them was wrong.
    Why do you not want to understand this.