Why has the liberal Protestant tradition all but disappeared with the onset of “peace”?

Living in London, I miss a lot of stuff from the substrata; that’s only to be expected . But today I read something from the superstructure  that left me gobsmacked. You might find it unremarkable when you’ve  far more exciting things to attract your attention like the doings of Emma Little Pengelly.

It’s been too long since I had a browse in the Church Notes in the Bel Tel, now in the hands of the estimable Alf McCreary.  Whereas in England,  the churches are just one more pressure group and usually in trouble  (see Justin Welby  who I saw recently described as “Mr Welby”) Alf is respectful in the old sense of my youth when clerics  were accorded  their full titles.  Only in Northern Ireland in my experience do Protestant clergy exude a confident sense of status  as they walk about the place. The fall from grace of the Catholic clergy has been far steeper.

The little item that really grabbed me may seem trivial to you. It came in Alf’’s round up of the clerical season  of conferences and appointments

This year the Presbyterians made headlines by moving yet further to the right by increasing their vote to ban Moderator the Very Rev Dr Noble McNeely, from going to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland next year, because of the Scots’ more liberal attitude to same-sex marriage.

There were also worrying headlines about the lack of candidates, including women, for the Presbyterian ministry.

I wonder how many press  button Bs will make the link between  pars 1 and 2? Just imagine, actually banned from visiting the Mother Church up at the Mound in Edinburgh, the very model for Assembly Buildings in Fisherwick Place in the centre of Belfast.

As Alf himself  laments, it’s a far cry from the days of  Jack Weir, John Dunlop, Billy Arlow and Arthur Butler who tried to make an impact for peace in encounters with terrorists  like the Feakle Talks. Now that “peace” has been achieved, the liberal  ecumenical tradition has declined and the churches slip  further into irrelevance and muddled conservatism. So sad, after all those years of struggle against the influence of militant Paisleyism from the 1960s. Remember the wretched moderator who attended the  Westminster Abbey service for Pope Benedict but refused to shake his hand? What sort of principle was at work there?

There will always be honourable exceptions like Ken Newell and my late lamented  fellow Derryman, David Lapsley an outstanding figure who I see was too liberal to make it to  moderator. Shame on them.

What does this say about society? Catholics  in transition to somewhere as yet unknown,  while the  dwindling Protestant establishment circles the wagons  in bewilderment against change, having  made a mass  transfer from Ulster Unionist to  become the clerical backbone of the DUP?  Or a quickening shift to a secular society, searching for an ethical framework to share?

 

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

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