Rev Ken Newell, former minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast, is well-known for both his evangelical and his ecumenical convictions. While some – mainly evangelical Christians – are convinced that a Christian can’t be both evangelical and ecumenical, Newell challenged that conviction over the course of his long ministry at Fitzroy, in part through his deep friendship with the late Fr Gerry Reynolds of Clonard Monastery.
Given Newell’s ecumenical convictions, it may be hard for some to imagine his 18-year-old self, marching with his Orange Lodge past St Patrick’s Church – the venue where on Monday evening he read from his soon-to-be-published memoirs, Captured by a Vision.
The event was part of the ongoing 4 Corners Festival, which includes events designed to entice people to experience new areas of their city, challenging and inspiring them to keep crossing boundaries in their everyday lives.
Reading from his memoirs, Newell described the profound solidarity he felt with other members of the Orange Order as he marched on the Twelfth. He was aware that Orangemen were stretched out over two miles in front of him and two miles behind him as they walked the streets of Belfast.
As he passed St Patrick’s with his Lodge, the bands ‘ratcheted up the music.’ He looked to his left, ‘and caught sight of a few quiet worshippers. … And I felt a twinge of conscience.’
Newell said that the twinge of conscience ‘didn’t bother me much at the time.’ But within a few years he had resigned from the Orange Order and begun the journey that made him one of Irish Presbyterianism’s most ardent advocates of ecumenism and peace activism. On Monday, Newell framed this journey in terms of serving as an Orange chaplain in 1965, to serving as a chaplain to Belfast’s first Catholic/nationalist Lord Mayor in 1997.
You can watch his entire talk here:
The St Patrick’s incident was just one of those Newell shared which, with the benefit of reflection, were to him precursors to his later openness to fellowship with Catholics. Such incidences are what Christians may interpret as ongoing promptings of the Holy Spirit as they change and grow in their journey of faith. Here’s another:
Newell’s mother’s family were a prosperous Church of Ireland family in Co. Mayo. So Newell grew up with his mother’s story of an evening during the unrest leading up to partition in 1921, when a mob came with torches to burn them out of their home. But the local Catholic priest intervened, telling the people ‘go home … these people are part of our community too.’ Newell concluded: ‘The parish priest saved my mother’s family.’
Newell also described how he slowly came to the conviction that if he were a Christian, it wouldn’t be enough to stand passively by as Northern Ireland descended into violence.
One of the earliest incidents in this process came on the day before Newell and his family were due to leave Northern Ireland to engage in overseas missions in Timor, Indonesia. That day was 21 July 1972: Bloody Friday. Newell had driven into Belfast to make some final purchases. His car was 300 metres from the Oxford Street Bus Station when the bomb there exploded, causing his car to shudder. He then observed the chaos and the trauma that ensued. He said:
‘I was consumed with guilt. The next day we were leaving Ulster. Up to this point I had done nothing. … Moral shrapnel ripped through my conscience.’
In Timor, Newell and his family were befriended by an Irish priest, who in the first instance drove 600 miles to visit them because he had heard there ‘were three Irish Presbyterians living here.’ Fr Noel Carroll became a faithful friend, engaging Newell in conversation on many evenings. Newell said:
‘He convinced me that the only way to understand another’s faith is direct contact. … He also instilled in my mind another idea: could I develop the same kind of friendship with a priest in Belfast?’
The Newells returned to Northern Ireland for the birth of their second child in 1975, and were not called back to Timor. Newell became minister at Fitzroy in 1976. In August 1976, the three Maguire children were killed when a car driven by a member of the IRA careened into them. The driver had been shot dead by pursuing British soldiers. This incident sparked the creation of the Peace People, and Newell joined their marches. He said:
‘I expected to see evangelical ministers among the marchers – but there were disappointingly few.’
One man who shared Newell’s vision for ecumenism and reconciliation was Fr Gerry Reynolds – the answer to Newell’s prayer for a Catholic priest he could share friendship with in Belfast.
Newell and Reynolds’ work in the Clonard-Fitzroy Fellowship has been chronicled in a book by Ronald Wells, Friendship Towards Peace.
The story of Clonard-Fitzroy could be considered one of the ‘disappointingly few’ of Christian peace activism on the island of Ireland.
Their activism included self-critical analyses of their own traditions (Newell provided this on Monday when he read sections titled ‘Growing up Orange’ and ‘The Sash my Father Wore’), love for their own traditions (Newell provided this in the respect he demonstrated for his evangelical and Presbyterian upbringing), and their sense that with God’s help they were contributing to something bigger than themselves.
In closing, when Newell reminded people to ‘keep the doors open’ it reflected the festival organisers’ view that the vision Newell has been captured by has not yet been fulfilled.
Keeping with the festival’s 2016 theme of ‘The Art of Listening,’ it was valuable to hear Newell’s story. Newell remains an inspiration to many, and his memoirs may inspire future Christian activists. But of course not all Christians – including those who share his evangelical faith – share his perspectives.
The festival will also include the perspectives of those with different analyses and experiences of ‘Orange’ culture, with an event Friday at 7.30pm in Stormont: A showing of the BBC True North Documentary about loyalist bandsmen from East Belfast. It will include input from playwright Dan Gordon and some of the bandsmen who feature in the programme. Like all festival events it is free, but participants MUST register for this event.
Disclaimer: I am on the committee of the 4 Corners Festival.