Gail Walker’s column in the Belfast Telegraph she edits gives a heavily nuanced welcome to the prospect of the Pope’s visit to Northern Ireland. For the millennial generation, it also marks a new division between all the Churches and “the so-called progressives,” she stigmatises.
What is really surprising is just how much common ground over recent years the Christian Churches in Ireland have found with each other….
Force of circumstance has forged strange alliances in the Christian community in Northern Ireland over recent years. There was much solidarity in display over the Ashers bakery court case and cross-denominational positions on abortion in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality seem to have aligned in response to what many there see as a hostile and increasingly aggressive secular agenda being played out in the media and in Stormont.
The fact is that the old sectarian opposition of the traditional Churches has long given way to a sense of solidarity on the ground. In practically every town and village, there are strong links between the pastors of various denominations.
For Boomers like me, the division was between on the one hand, religious bigots like Paisley who railed and shouted about Protestant freedoms and the more sleekit style of Catholic church imperialists, and the decent people who had a bit of come and go about them on the other. Whether they realised it or not, the decent people were children of the Enlightenment, the rational world that is suspicious of any ideology or religion that is too complete.
The divide was over the second Vatican Council which introduced the Mass in the spoken language of the people. Opinion was split over whether this reform showed that the religious differences were less than people thought, or were part of a cunning plan to deceive gullible Prods that the Catholic leopard had changed its spots when it hadn’t.
Suspecting he might be on to a good thing, Paisley bracketed his anti-ecumenical campaign with attacks on nationalist displays.
For the silent majority, decency seemed more important than theology which could be left to the clerics. In the days up to the late 1960s, lip service was paid to Christian observance of one kind or another and the decent people more often than not preferred to let sleeping dogs lie. It wasn’t a perfect position but it was better than what followed when the dogs woke up and started to tear at each other. That was when we discovered that the decent people had been out manoeuvred if not actually outnumbered by the militants on the Protestant side. Should we have fought harder? Perhaps we should have before the violence started. But how do you fight when you stand for tolerance?
I caricature, you understand. There were decent people on all sides. But it was often difficult to find out who they were when the chips of controversy were laid down. Hypocrisy was rife and “whatever you say, you say nothing.”
The bigots divided and ruled for decades – or rather they prevented anybody ruling at all. They were the furious accessories to the chaos of the people of violence.
It is taking a long time to reassert the decency which was what the Belfast Telegraph of Jack Sayers stood for. To be sure today’s Belfast Telegraph is firmly even polemically anti-sectarian. But it has become Northern Ireland’s Ms Angry, a local Daily Mail looking for a market position that tries to solidify socially conservative opinion across the divide, laced on the other hand with prominence given to “ordinary ” crime, scandal and gossip.
Inter-denominational food banks, volunteer kitchens, prayer groups, choral sharing – yes, even parish buses to the Waterfront to support the Ashers campaign … These initiatives are widespread and, this time, aren’t prompted by a need to disarm ruthless paramilitary gangs at their business under the cover of religious faith, but rather by an acknowledgement that Christian groups per se are under siege from a non-believing, non-sympathetic wider culture.
Gail’s ideas I suspect are still a work in progress. But she might acknowledge that food banks are not entirely the work of churches although animated by Christian ethics and that opinion on the Ashers case can be divided on human rights as well as Christian v secular grounds. There is diversity of opinion in what she thinks of as the secular world. It also includes the liberal Christians she appears to think of as the enemy.
In Northern Ireland professing Christians may be becoming a minority but they are far from beleaguered. On the contrary, Conservative Christian views as well as Christian sexism wield huge institutional power. Above all Gail, it is wrong to confuse humanity with belief and vital not to sharpen up divisions in order to defend a particular version of the Christian religion. It was tried before with disastrous results.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London