How will the Churches Remember the Ulster Covenant?

As the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant (28 September – Ulster Day) approaches, numerous events are planned to mark the event. Indeed, throughout the year the Ulster Covenant has been a hot topic of discussion at conferences, lectures, community events, and in the media.

Given that the Ulster Covenant links the cause of Protestantism and Unionism with the will of God, it will be interesting to see how Northern Ireland’s Protestant churches remember the covenant.

In 1912, many Protestant churches opened their doors for special services on Ulster Day and to encourage people to sign the covenant. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland website includes the following description of Ulster Day:

The signing of the Covenant was conducted in an atmosphere of near religious fervour, appearing to many like a crusade, with comparisons being drawn between the Ulster Covenant and the Old Testament Covenant of the Israelites.

Religious services to invoke divine aid and to encourage signatures were held throughout in Protestant churches with the favoured hymn being ‘O God, our help in ages past’. Charles Frederick D’Arcy, later Archbishop of Armagh, stated his Church’s reason for supporting the Covenant: “We hold that no power, not even the British Parliament, has the right to deprive us of our heritage of British citizenship”.

In contrast, today’s churches have maintained a low profile in the present-day commemorations, seemingly leaving the business of remembrance to the loyal institutions. The highest profile event is the Orange Order’s Ulster Covenant Centenary Parade, planned for Saturday 29 September in Belfast.

The parade is set to pass by St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street, which has become a site of controversy due to the playing of the ‘famine song’ by a loyalist band, the Young Conway Volunteers, in front of the church on the 12th of July. In August, bands in a Royal Black Institution parade defied the Parades Commission by again playing music outside St Patrick’s.

The reasons for the churches’ relatively low public profile are doubtless varied and complex, ranging from questioning the relevance of the Ulster Covenant to contemporary religious and political life, to mixed feelings about how Christians in 1912 linked their religion and their politics.  

I don’t know how many churches in Northern Ireland will mark the centenary of the covenant in special services. And there is of course a range of perspectives on whether Christians should celebrate the Ulster Covenant unreservedly, or remember it regretfully for too eagerly claiming God’s blessing while at the same time threatening violence by resorting to ‘all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland.’

A celebratory perspective is evident in the Orange Order’s Centenary Concert in the Ulster Hall, set for 26 September. It is titled ‘Soul of a Nation – The Story of the Ulster Covenant in 1912,’ and accompanied by the following description:

“At a time of crisis, almost half a million answered the cry from the Soul of a Nation. They preserved British identity and heritage. They laid the foundations of Northern Ireland.”

It also can be seen in an article titled ‘Ulster 1912: We Perish if we Yield,’ in the Ulster Bulwark, the Magazine of the Evangelical Protestant Society (EPS). (The full text of the July-Sept. edition is not yet fully available online.) It reads:

‘It is impossible for us to predict with any accuracy or authority just how the history of Ulster or Ireland might have unfolded if our forefathers had not taken the stand that they did from 1912 on, or if they had been defeated. But it is fairly safe to presume that the Gospel light, which shone brightly in Ulster in the years following the defeat of Home Rule and the introduction of partition, would not have shone nearly so brightly under an independent all-Ireland state.

…. Our fathers, quite correctly as the subsequent history of the Free State/Irish Republic readily confirms, identified Home Rule as Rome Rule and felt that they were duty bound to resist it to the death. There was Biblical and historical precedence for their robust and brave stand …’

A perspective of more regretful remembering can be seen in the work of theologians like Johnston McMaster and Cathy Higgins, both adjunct professors at the Irish School of Ecumenics (also my employer) and senior researchers with the Ethical Remembering project at the Junction in Derry/Londonderry.

McMaster’s book Overcoming Violence critiques the religious nationalism and cultures of violence that developed on this island, and which were subsequently reflected in religio-political documents like the Ulster Covenant and the Easter Proclamation.

McMaster and Higgins’ book Signing the Covenant – But Which One? deconstructs the theology behind the Ulster Covenant -specifically the identification of God’s will with a political cause and the religious justification of violence – and offers an alternative understanding of covenant based a non-violent reading of the Hebrew prophets.

Similarly, the organisation Contemporary Christianity (formerly Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland – ECONI) has produced ‘An Order of Service for a Contemporary Covenant Service of Worship’, which includes ‘A Contemporary Act of Covenant’ and a ‘Prayer of Confession.’

Contemporary Christianity has made the Order of Service available on its website for local congregations to adapt.

The Contemporary Act of Covenant is based on

‘the Methodist Covenant which John Wesley adapted from that of the Puritan Richard Alleine’ and confesses that loyalty to the ‘kingdom of God’ may require ‘rejecting previous loyalties and defying earthly authority.’

The Prayer of Confession includes requests for mercy for, amongst other items:

For the sin that has made us elevate earthly loyalties and personal ambition over the purposes of your kingdom

For the sin that made us dress personal prejudices and worldly agendas in pious language and self-righteous indignation

… For the sin that has caused us to be quick to divide people into us and them, and seek the welfare of us and ours above them and theirs

For the sin that has led us to seek the elevation of our rights over the rights of others, and to ignore our responsibilities to others and to you

And – in marked contrast to the Ulster Bulwark claim that the Ulster Covenant furthered the cause of the Gospel:

For the sin that has divided your church, brought shame on your name, and hampered the proclamation of your good news

Celebration and Confession are of course not the only options for how Northern Ireland’s Protestant churches remember the Ulster Covenant – if they choose to remember it at all. But these starkly contrasting perspectives on the Ulster Covenant demonstrate that Christians continue to struggle to come to grips with the role their churches have played throughout our troubled past. And this makes it all the more challenging for them to develop visions for a better future.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mainstream protestant churches as a whole don’t get involved in overtly political events, which made the 1912 events all the more remarkable, but the circumstances are much different today and it obviously will not be repeated on the same scale.

    However over the next few Sundays many, if not that majority of congregations will probably acknowledge the events of 100 years ago in some way, few will follow the agendas of either the EPS or ECONI, who are very much on the fringes, but adopt a sensible measure of the historic nature of those events.

    One of the most significat events will be this Sunday in St Annes Cathedral, the “national church” so to speak and burial place of Lord Carson, The Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral have agreed that the 3.30pm Evensong service on Sunday 23rd September will mark and celebrate the Centenary of the Signing of the Ulster Covenant. This service has been arranged in association with the Ulster Unionist Party. At the same time here in Dungannon, services will be held in both the Presbyterian & Church of Ireland churches similtaneouly, as well as in Omagh, Newry and I’m sure many other places. So I would hardly say the church are ignoring the occasion!

  • Rory Carr

    The signing of the Covenant was conducted in an atmosphere of near religious fervour, appearing to many like a crusade, with comparisons being drawn between the Ulster Covenant and the Old Testament Covenant of the Israelites.

    Such presumption seems like a case of grandiosity run riot, not to say possibly blasphemous. but then religion has ever found it necessary to place the material before the spiritual.

    Paeans of thanksgiving may be sung to the Creator for the gift of life, but it is a full collection-box that keeps the roof intact.

  • Literally speaking the Covenant did not link the cause of Unionism with Protestantism, although the Big Man upstairs was mentioned:

    BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V., humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.

    And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant

  • The Watchman

    Ah yes ECONI, or “ECOLI” or “The-Alliance-Party-at-Prayer” as we critics used to call it.

    When I was growing up I know an awful lot of people who were either close to ECONI or had very similar opinions. Many of them were Guilty Prod types who despised unionism and Orangeism. They were prone to wag a collective finger at those who didn’t measure up to their own self-righteousness. I experienced plenty of this, usually (but not always) delivered with good humour and I reacted quite strongly against it.

    That sense of finger-wagging is evident from its interventions in the parading controversies of the 1990s, to which Gladys referred in a previous post. In 1996 ECONI directed a series of loaded questions at the Orange Order based upon a misapplication of the words of Christ in Luke 9. Of course, it never similarly wrote any open letters to the nationalist protesters, suggesting it was only ever interested in taking cheap shots at Orangeism.

    Back in the 1990s, Fitzroy Presbyterian held a public debate on Orangeism. A representative from ECONI was invited and he launched into an extraordinary attack on the Institution. He said that he had once been in the Belfast Field, alleged that he had seen teenagers “shagging in the bushes” (the phrase he used) and accused the Orange Order of somehow aiding and abetting this sort of behaviour. I remember David McNarry, who was also on the panel, exploding with fury and accusing the ECONI rep of trying to scapegoat Orangeism for society’s ills. For me that summed up ECONI: rationalising Christian teaching to reflect its own prejudices, which ironically it accused Orangeism of doing.

    It’s rather amusing to see that ECONI’s successor Contemporary Christianity has issued its own “liturgy”, full of liberal self-loathing guilt and finger-wagging, to “commemorate” a Covenant imbued with quite different values.

  • Greenflag

    From the Beeb

    a somewhat relevant piece .

    ‘Did a controversial Belfast novelist predict the political fallout from the Ulster Covenant and the loyalist gun running of 1914?

    That is the question being asked of Canon James Owen Hannay who was a Church of Ireland minister and a best selling writer.

  • I attended a series of lectures at the Ecumenical Studies School on Antrim Road in early 2011. Possibly the Ulster Covenant was the most problematic in the series of centenaries discussed.
    The attendees were in many cases “ecumenical church” people and there was a kinda tip of the hat to long dead relatives who had signed the Covenant while a relectance to fully throw themselves into full hearted commemoration or celebration.
    The dilemna is the same for Churches. Any church with aspirations to divorce themselves from Politics cant really “commeomorate”……leaving the field to “fringe” churches as the main Protestant denominations have spent 40 years in progressive (as they would have it to where they are).
    I find it slightly surprising that St Annes Cathedral would be hosting effectively a UUP event.

  • It would be hard to imagine mainstream Protestant churches not commemorating the Covenant in some form or other.

    Looking on this event through an exclusively political prism is missing the huge social impact on both Ulster’s unionists and indeed Ireland more generally. The churches played a big role in this, it’s only right they play at least some kind of role in the commemorations.

  • Trevor Boyd

    Churches have marked the Centenary of the signing of The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in different ways as is obvious from the comments posted. There are many churches where ministers have sought to use the Ulster Covenant to remind people of the New Covenant in Christ. In August we had a “Covenant” sermon series which I am currently blogging at