I was asked at the slugger awards ceremony in October to do a blog on the differences between the different Protestant denominations and the idea stuck in my head. This is my rather belated attempt at it. I will not try to explain the theological differences in any great detail since this is not a religious web site (and I am not a theologian) but instead will concentrate on the social and cultural differences.
It is of course important to point out that church observance is a minority activity amongst Ulster Protestants and as such these observations cannot be generalised to the non church attending population. Many non attenders are nominally members of the CoI or Presbyterian Churches (or to a lesser extent Methodists) and may share some cultural and social religious views with them. They might be more liberal but equally some views such as those on say homosexuality can be very hard line even in nominal or non church members.
The mainstream churches still have the largest (though falling) membership. The position of their members and clergy on social matters is very variable: as a very general rule within Belfast and the greater Belfast area they tend to be more socially liberal. Outside that area both ministers and laity tend to be more socially conservative. Again as a very general rule the Church of Ireland is a bit more liberal whereas Presbyterians are more conservative. Methodists are sometimes seen as socially (and indeed politically) liberal but again that is a variable issue and in my experience anyway Fermanagh Methodists are similar in social outlook to South Londonderry Presbyterians. In terms of social outlook and position on alcohol, sexual issues, smoking, Sabbath observance, gambling (even sometimes the lottery and raffles) etc. many of the more conservative within the mainstream denominations would be at one with the more fundamentalist groups.
Some of the newer small denominations are more liberal. Many of the small House Churches, groups such as the Vineyard and similar are frequently more socially liberal than the mainstream denominations despite being at times more evangelical. This position allows them to attract some people in positions that the mainstream churches can have problems with: divorced and cohabiting couples being a classic example. These groups also often have relaxed views on matters such as Sunday observance: this liberal position on some issues combined with enthusiasm, more modern worship (sometimes involving speaking in tongues etc.) and individual charismatic pastors has led to a significant increase in these groups in terms of churches and members.
Turning to the more hard line smaller churches there is the concept of standards. This essentially relates to social conservatism, typically involving no alcohol, no going to pubs and night clubs, some groups are opposed to the cinema and at the strictest end of the spectrum even refusing to have televisions in the house. Women are often disproportionally affected with some groups opposing women wearing trousers, make-up, dying or even cutting their hair, and insisting on women wearing hats in church.
It is often assumed by outsiders that the Free Presbyterian Church would be the most hard line on such issues: actually that is far from correct. Almost all the Free Presbyterians I know have televisions, they rarely have concerns with women wearing make up or trousers and most will happily attend the cinema. A more strict form of Presbyterianism is actually the Reformed Presbyterian Church, they would be very similar on most social issues to the Independent Methodists and the Brethren. With the smaller denominations the views of a given church may be different to others: some Brethren Assemblies are notably more liberal than others and within Independent Methodism there are differences in emphasis on standards.
The final and possibly least understood group are the Exclusive Brethren who have very little mixing with others: I must admit to only ever seeing them at the airport. They tend, as far as I can gather, to be the same as the other conservative groups but the women wear a head covering when in public (usually just a mini headscarf) and as far as I can establish will not eat with non members.
Many of these more extreme positions are based on a specific interpretation of sometimes rather obscure biblical texts. The women not wearing trousers comes from a specific passage in Leviticus which most fundamentalists regard as a prohibition on being a transvestite. Many could also be criticised as really being about trying to keep the members in a sort of rose tinted manufactured late 19th or early 20th century world view and certainly more and more of the fundamentalist churches and even the harder line mainstream churches are slowly liberalising. No one would think anything of women wearing trousers in the country Presbyterian church I was brought up in yet once in the 1970s an organist resigned because the women in the choir were not wearing hats.
It must be stressed, however, that the liberalisation in standards has almost universally not been associated with a liberalisation in the basic theological position of the churches. Whilst women wear trousers in my old church and all the young people wear jeans, the minister will still preach the standard Ye must be born again. As I have been to multiple different churches over the years the theology has remained almost completely unchanged just as the denim has increased, the milliners gone out of business and the hymns become more modern: sorry I was about to start my Modern Hymns are rubbish rant.