With Unionist politicians lining up to criticise the Parades Commission and defend the Royal Black Institution parade in Belfast this past weekend, the Presbyterian Moderator (Roy Patton) and Anglican Archbishop of Armagh (Alan Harper) have called the conduct of those who took part ‘un-Christian.’
In an interview last night on UTV, Patton said:
I think any right thinking person would consider that what we viewed is not in keeping with Christian profession.
When asked directly if he thought that the conduct of the Black in Belfast was un-Christian, Patton replied:
I think that it raises questions for the Order. I recognise that in many different contexts, local contexts, the order behaves in a very Christian way and … have helped to foster good relationships.
But later he said:
… In terms of what actually happened … I think that was not in keeping with Christian teaching. I think we certainly would say that they have every right to march and to parade but the way that they treat their neighbours is actually very important as well. And both sides need to be sensitive as far as matters are concerned.
Given the loyal orders often insist that they are ‘Christian’ organisations (see Gerry Lynch’s earlier comments on this), it might be expected that such criticism by leading clergy would give them pause for thought.
But I think it’s doubtful that such comments will be welcomed or seriously considered by the loyal orders, which seem to have taken a position that their right to parade is sacrosanct, even if it compromises their Christian witness.
Patton seems to admit as much when he says that the orders ‘have every right to march and to parade.’
I think he could go farther, though, and ask the loyal institutions to consider if parading really should be a ‘right’ for Christians, especially when it jeopardises relationships with their ‘neighbours’? Should Christians exercise their ‘rights,’ if they can foresee that it will lead to rioting and violence? (Remember that in the gospels, Jesus defines neighbours as those with whom you just might disagree.)
Back in 1997, in an Open Letter to the Orange Order, Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (now the Centre for Contemporary Christianity) asked a similar set of questions. Though 15 years old, their questions remain relevant (and depressingly contemporary):
- Is it not possible that the best way to follow in the example of Christ would be to choose to give up their liberty and entrust themselves to the justice of God?
- Is it not possible that doing the good that God requires might involve refusing to create or be involved in the kind of situations which common sense and experience tell us will almost certainly become occasions for evil?
- Is it not possible that giving up their Christian liberty would be a more potent testimony to the grace of God and a more effective witness to the gospel than any other? Is it not possible that any ‘loss’ sustained by giving up the right to march along sensitive routes would be as nothing compared with the gain to the furtherance of the gospel?
- Should Christians within the Institutions not consider voluntarily giving up that liberty for the sake of the consciences of others who – rightly or wrongly – take offence, both at the parades and, as a consequence, at the gospel?
- Is it not possible that choosing options that reject confrontation might be the most effective way of challenging the bitterness, sectarianism and triumphalism that exists among some elements on both sides of this dispute?
- Are not the Institutions under a clear biblical imperative to submit to the authorities by accepting the decisions of the police concerning parade routes?
These questions might be considered naive by those who think that it’s important that unionists take a stand on parades in general or, in light of the events on this year’s Twelfth, on parading by this particular location.
But for those who profess to be Christians within the loyal institutions, I think these questions should take them beyond the question of whether, in principle, the loyal orders should be granted permission to parade. These are ethical, even spiritual questions, which deserve further reflection.