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?


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  • SeaanUiNeill

    File, Chris interestingly says “Libertarianism” above. Back in the 1980s a number of individualist anarchists began to support Thatcher free market policies. Some had been leftists before, but its always fascinating to see just how close some leftist thinking could find itself to Thatcher at times. But Liberalism ( seeking a free and equal society governed by popular democracy) and Libertarianism (or the removal of regulations, laws and restraints, the removal of any state or government control whatsoever) are quite different things:



  • the Moor

    Thanks for sharing citation of the late great Christopher Hitchens in typically ravening, anti–christian form. To be truthful I always felt his exchanges with theists were terribly one-sided affairs – cruel but compulsive viewing. A more even match was with goregeous George Galloway, on the subject of Iraq. (In that one I was for Galloway.)

  • SeaanUiNeill

    But david, even at their most Liberal, our own people retain a very particular “Thran-ness”….

    I think of that perfect Boyle Roche injunction to “answer boldly in the affirmative with an emphatic No!”

  • ted hagan

    It used to be, not that long ago in the Presbyterian Church, that there was an unwritten rule of alternating yearly between liberal and hardline moderators.

  • Gopher

    It depends on the circumstances I am sure that many voted for Hermon and Im sure thats why she is still an MP.

    As for Alliance I think your underestimating their GE result, they have cut the SDLP lead to 30,000 votes which could not be done without Catholic and Protestants voting for them.

  • Smithborough

    You almost answer your first question in one of your other posts. An organised religion or church needs people to turn up and to donate money to keep it going unless it is some sort of state church. A vague “God is love” faith doesn’t have enough content to inspire the inconvenience of regular church attendance or donation to support the church. It can only survive if society at large values church attendance or membership. When society in NI regarded church attendance as a good thing, those with a “God is love” type faith went to church regularly & donated money, so churches of this type were common and kept going. Now that society is more secular and places little importance on church attendance these churches tend to collapse because people stop going and stop donating. Your own irregular attendance is an example of this.

    In response to your second & third questions. In general conservative churches have been more successful in keeping people. The trend in the 60s and 70s was that conservative churches increased numbers, while liberal ones declined. In more recent years the conservative churches also experienced decline, but at a slower rate than the near-catastrophic collapse of their liberal counterparts. This creates the unusual situation that those churches which do most to accommodate modern ternds tend to be destroyed by them.

  • the Moor

    ‘The equation is quite simple, no threat to the union and you get liberal unionist politics.’ Elegantly, succinctly said: for the cause of partition was indeed at the heart of the not so ‘strange death’ of liberal Ireland. As well as underlining the poisonous effect of partition in Irish politics and society, then and since, your point serves to highlight the last, lost opportunity for the development of an embryonically modern, civic, secular and proto–socialist politics, represented by the United Irishmen movement (planter, gael & dissenter), sadly snuffed out on the cusp of the same century.

  • chrisjones2

    I understand where you are but for me ….and all these things are personal ,,,,,the underpinning reality is that there is no god. If there were there might be some reason for an organised religion – but there isnt

  • chrisjones2

    Is all religion not a abrogation of critical intellect where you outsource moral thinking to an invisible deity that tells you what to do?

  • the Moor

    I’m loath to extend this topic, for mine is a thoroughly non–religious life. But no (in answer to your question, is ‘atheism’ a form of religion, if religion is a thought or belief system?), it seems to me a rather basic methodological error of binarism to suppose anti-theism or non–theism should be compulsorily collapsed to the twinned staus of counter belief systems, any more than anti-waste, anti-sexism, anti–globalisation, anti–poverty, or anti–sectarianism, each in themselves, constitute what you call a belief system. Opposition to things-as-they-are isn’t neccessarily undertaken on basis of equal and opposite or totalising relationships. Oppositions may be tangential, minor, ancillary, substantive, primary, secondary or tertiary in relation to the thing(s) they are opposing, in part or in whole. Rather, I’d say, the oppositions listed, in rejection of prevailing interests and beliefs, among others, may contribute to a corpus of values that comprise or compose a critically humanist or secular worldview (outlook on life) informed by learning and by lived experience. Taken together, the values I speak of, in flux all the while, not fixed, do not in any simple sense add-up to a doctrine or dogma or credo. In matters intellectual and sociological, I prefer to resist the false claims of either/or reduction.

  • Neil

    Nice thread Brian. That made for good reading, comments and all.

  • johnerskine

    A good point, although from the point of view of how my admittedly middle-class family look at things, the break point was 1916… My Granny (Queens graduate, 1913; active Suffragette and supporter of Redmond’s Irish volunteers) was like many other Liberal Presbyterians placed in a difficult position, with a brother on the Western Front and another with Locker-Lampson in Russia, by Pearse’s Catholic putsch in Dublin. However liberal Protestant contrarianism continues, and I’m proud that neither of my parents ever voted for a winning candidate in a Westminster Election in Comber where we lived. So were they. I had to move to Heathen England to be on the winning side.

  • the Moor

    Says much for the zeitgeist that we seem to share quite a few books in common. Your collection is clearly much grander and more extensive than mine. I envy the antiquarian titles, especially the Irish historiography. Though cruel to say of one who has suffered pesonal tragedy, Geldolf, seems to me, someone not ennobled by pain of suffering loss. On the contrary, what comes across is a preening self-regard, west brit superiority complex (the apogee of which was his messiah moment in 1985).

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Not all “religion”, Chris:

  • Peter Doran

    Brian we do well to remember that – in a sea of secular doubt – issues such as Marriage Equality and gender politics – come to define religiosity in territories such as Northern Ireland, where anti-intellectualism also thrives. Secularization and conservative religious ideologies are inter-related in very complex ways, but both feed into a narrowing of what it means to practice ‘faith’ while servicing the continuing need to mobilize around cultural fault lines.

  • David Crookes

    Indeed, Seaan, we can all be quare an thran.

    There are two camps here.

    In the evangelical camp, which is my own, are those who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

    In the liberal camp are those who believe that it is not.

    Members of both camps should take care to express themselves urbanely. (Evangelical advocates in the CoE used to be well represented by men like the Rev. John Stott.)

    Only the matter and not the manner of what we say should cause offence. I happen to believe that a made-up whate’er-ye-wish pick-and-mix gospel is altogether detestable, but I must never give my liberal interlocutors the impression that I personally detest them. No one at the same time can love God and detest his fellow-human (I John 4. 20-21).

    Maybe I shouldn’t have alluded to a particular fragrance yesterday.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I liked and respected Paula Yates when I met and talked to her a few times in the 1980s. She’d been on the inside of the elite (like myself) and had no silly illusions about just what they were willing or who they were willing to work over for profit or pleasure. I have to agree about Geldolf, though, “and still it goes on” going by what I hear from those who still know him. I was around in the Live Aid era of Messianic fervour, and still remember that moment when, faced with some refusals by the Ethiopian Government over his requirements, he told them “If you don’t come up to the mark, we’ll take our charity elsewhere.” Where? The famine was in Ethiopia, was it not? That did the rounds in media world Soho for year!

    A lot of books I’ve inherited, or my wife has from very literary and academic families. But there are still a large number I bought when “earning” in the film business. As a poor scholar counting crusts today, I look for bargains all the time, although I try and keep my subscriptions for journals not held in Irish Universities up to date, along with the occasional spot purchase such as Brendan Bradshaw’s most pertinent “And So Began the Irish Nation…” at all of its swinging £70.00. All part of my own little ongoing version of “the Liberal Protestant Tradition” of the Volunteer years in eighteenth century Belfast. An ancestor then was a member of the Second Volunteer Company, and one of the eleven signatories for the Society for Promoting Knowledge, his father a Dublin Publisher who went to the American colonies in the mid 1770s. Books and their uses appear to run in the family.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “Maybe I shouldn’t have alluded to a particular fragrance yesterday.”

    I for one would not have missed it! But then Swift and Pope both were castigated for a hatred of humanity which could be genuinely attributed to nether in practice. I am always slightly embarrassed when someone is hurt by one of my caricatures which are never intended to cause personal affront.

  • Korhomme

    That’s all fair enough, though I might object to secularism being a sort of synonym for humanist. Although secularism certainly includes the freedom from religion in government and state, it also includes the freedom of religion.

    And as you said elsewhere, Pax!

  • the Moor

    Am tempted by ‘So Began the Nation’. I like Bradshaw’s writing and his importance in countering the revisionist trend in Irish historiography merits high praise, not sure though about parting with £70 for a text that overlaps with others. Am likewise constantly on the look out (in second hand bookshops) for UI related reading, if you’ve any particular recommendations?

  • the Moor

    Another great. Gone but not forgotten. Penultimate album was even better in my view.

  • the Moor

    am not into secular-ism, if there is such a thing, or organised humanism (of the BHM variety – much too schismatic). The failings of pedantry yes, I will admit to, but that’s not an ism either. More of a pleasure principle!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I have been editing some unpublished “lives” for some years now. By far the most interesting part is not so much the biographies, as the research material the author assembled, much of which is first or second generation recollections which have not been used by historians to date. One block of correspondence has convinced me that the “discovered” bones of Harry McCracken are genuine. There are a few good essays in recent years in Eighteenth Century Ireland, for one thing, but I expect you’ve encountered those already?

    One of the gems of the Bradshaw collection is a most provocative and impressive response to Richard English’s conventional location of Irish national identity no earlier than the late eighteenth century. Bradshaw locates it (of course, as ever) with Alice Stopford Green (unmentioned) in the late medieval period, as a cultural unity which was just at that time developing a political expression. With Ó Buachalla he provocatively shows how Henry VIII’s “Kingdom” of Ireland (oh so ironically) set the tone of political separatism over succeeding centuries. The book has quite a few new essays I’ve not encountered elsewhere. At that price I’d carefully checked if I really needed it. But at least Brill of Leiden were not the imprint, or we’d have been looking at double even the current price.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Agreed, but still working with this one in the car almost every trip. I bought “The Favorite Game” the day it came out to sit with a few books of his early poetry (showing my age, that).

  • lizmcneill

    Nothing wrong with blue hair, lesbians, cats or wine…

  • the Moor

    You’ll know this one, among my favourites. (There are too many to pick one). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D97OxHZzBeQ

    The Future

    Give me back my broken night
    my mirrored room, my secret life
    it’s lonely here,
    there’s no one left to torture
    Give me absolute control
    over every living soul
    And lie beside me, baby,
    that’s an order!
    Give me crack and anal sex
    Take the only tree that’s left
    and stuff it up the hole
    in your culture
    Give me back the Berlin wall
    give me Stalin and St Paul
    I’ve seen the future, brother:
    it is murder.

    Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
    Won’t be nothing
    Nothing you can measure anymore
    The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
    has crossed the threshold
    and it has overturned
    the order of the soul
    When they said REPENT REPENT
    I wonder what they meant
    When they said REPENT REPENT
    I wonder what they meant
    When they said REPENT REPENT
    I wonder what they meant
    You don’t know me from the wind
    you never will, you never did
    I’m the little jew
    who wrote the Bible
    I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
    I’ve heard their stories, heard them all
    but love’s the only engine of survival
    Your servant here, he has been told
    to say it clear, to say it cold:
    It’s over, it ain’t going
    any further
    And now the wheels of heaven stop
    you feel the devil’s riding crop
    Get ready for the future:
    it is murder

    Things are going to slide …
    There’ll be the breaking of the ancient
    western code
    Your private life will suddenly explode
    There’ll be phantoms
    There’ll be fires on the road
    and the white man dancing
    You’ll see a woman
    hanging upside down
    her features covered by her fallen gown
    and all the lousy little poets
    coming round
    tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson
    and the white man dancin’
    Give me back the Berlin wall
    Give me Stalin and St Paul
    Give me Christ
    or give me Hiroshima
    Destroy another fetus now
    We don’t like children anyhow
    I’ve seen the future, baby:
    it is murder

    Things are going to slide …
    When they said REPENT REPENT …

  • Roger

    What does RBL stand for ?

  • lizmcneill

    Would you apply the same reasoning to the democratic government?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Indeed, another regular companion on motorway driving.

  • lizmcneill

    Birth rates have been falling since the mid-19th century and appear to be correlated with increasing industrialisation and income.


  • file

    But that is only your underpinning reality, and it is a belief of yours, not a fact. Can you be liberal enough to allow others to have other beliefs on the question of Gad’s existence?

  • file

    Yeah Seaan, but it gave me the opportunity to ask the question I wanted to ask.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    RBL stands for the Royal British Legion. The Rev. Kingsley Sutton burnt the British Legion flags at St Patrick’s and St Mary’s Churches in 2015, replacing them with a white banner featuring a red heart. He had also debarred the Orange Order from holding their usual parade services in the churches. Rev. Sutton informed his congregations that he burnt the flags because he wanted to “make a break” from the past. He was persuaded to rep ale the flags about nine months ago.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    My abject apologies for confusing the issue, but this strange business of the “total freedom” demand of some of our fellow citizens for an entire de-regulation of everything to facilitate the removal of further freedoms from others, it utterly fascinates me (rather horribly) with its utterly altruism-free world view! But…. those who espouse such ideas can even have families and friends sometimes I find. Extraordinary! I simply cannot imagine that Chris actually means “Libertarianism” in that sense, but if I’m wrong I’m sure he will quite properly correct me.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I never said there was, but Francis Hutcheson they ain’t…

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    That’s my phone ring tone as it happens…

  • Roger

    Many thanks.
    Burning flags does seem OTT. Leave that to the bonfire brigade.

  • grumpy oul man

    It certainly seems a strange thing to do.
    Was there a reason given for burning the RBL flags?

  • grumpy oul man

    Birth rates fall as infant mortality rates fall.
    Add to this the effect that giving women control of thier own bodies and we have a natural fall in the birth rate.
    With the effect that familys with less children can focus resources better means better living standards and a improved chance of them escaping or avoiding the poverty trap.
    Since your argument is based on a misinterpretation of what cause a lowering of the birth rate i think we can safely ignore the liberal/Muslim conspiracy theory bit.

  • Deplorable Ulsterman

    I don’t disagree, merely pointing out that a lot of the focus on religion actually comes from lazy political commentators and media, rather than religion actually being an issue.

  • the Moor

    How revealing …

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m delighted to agree with you on this one Roger. The RBL appears to receive more “old world courtesy” in parts of the south where a few of my friends are currently members.

  • npbinni

    Christopher, like everyone else, was entitled to his opinion. He was certainly ruthless when confronting and debating religious representatives, but was sometimes not particularly persuasive. Just as his brother, Peter.

  • the Moor

    The brother is a quite different sort of a fish …

  • npbinni

    Very few Christians in America would call themselves ‘fundamentalists’. Liberals have used it in such a derogatory way over the past few decades that some churches there have even dropped the word from their name. The word ‘Christian’, of course, was first used in a derogatory way as well

    The ‘God of love’ element in faith is still a key component of the modern-day ‘fundamentalist’ and evangelical Christian faith. Following the Ten Commandments, or any other laws or good works in order to gain salvation, is for fools.

    God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son to die for sinners, and whosoever believes in Him (Jesus) will not perish but will receive everlasting life. Eternal life is for those who trust in Christ, not those who think they can earn it by their own strength.

    The Reformation’s five Solas: the Word of God alone (2 Tim 3.15), God’s grace alone (Eph 2.8-9), faith in Christ alone (John 3.16,17), Christ alone (John 14.6, Acts 4.12), and everything for God’s glory alone are still the basic tenets and motivations of orthodox, fundamentalist, evangelical, Protestant Christianity. Liberal Christianity abandoned these standards a long time ago, to its detriment.

    One very interesting thing that I have noticed in travelling around Africa over the past 30 years is the fact that the vast majority of hospitals, orphanages, schools, community radio stations, well drilling and other community development programmes and projects which are run by religious organisations, are most often run by either the Catholic church or expat evangelical Christians. Matthew Parris once said: … [as] a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

    Vacuous liberal Christianity, or, indeed, atheism, has nothing to offer those most in need in Africa, or, for that matter, the people of Ireland.

    Evangelical Christianity is not about numbers, it’s about standing for the truth that God has shown us in His word, and relaying that truth to others. What they do with it is entirely up to them, but it can certainly make a huge difference in a person’s life if they recognise their lost condition before a holy God, and they put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

  • Alan N/Ards

    He gave a reason for removing them but not for burning them (as far as I’m aware).

  • grumpy oul man

    Thanks, a funny thing to do.
    It would be interesting to know the reasoning behind it.
    I can understand not allowing the Orange or Black to use a church but burning standards seems a bit extreme.

  • Backbencher

    Brian, thank you for the reply.

    You make my point well. The liberal wing don’t really believe when it comes down to the ‘crunch’, hence now when it is not socially expedient they have departed from the visible church.

    Your reasons listed above for attending church (I am not sure if you regard yourself as a Christian) seem more to do with feeling and emotion than any belief.

    With regard to the Bible, could you please outline what ‘plain teaching of scripture’ began in the C16?

    You say self confidence has gone. I agree if you are considering the liberal churches which take their direction from the prevailing world views. However if you consider what would be regarded as the evangelical or fundamentalist wing of the church you will find the same confidence as ever.

    Not quite sure what your last paragraph is getting at, but with regard to God talking to his servants, this is done through accepting scripture (God’s Word) for what it says.

  • Backbencher

    Some sweeping generalisation there.

    Given your logical, can you explain why many university lectures, lawyers, teachers, doctors, surgeons, scientists etc (the list goes on) are still Christians?

  • You say: “There are two camps here. In the evangelical camp… are those who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. In the liberal camp are those who believe that it is not.”

    It’s not quite as simple as that. While there is no single liberal camp, and old-school “liberals” who don’t believe in God (except in “a very real sense” that somehow excludes actual existence) are less common than they used to be, you may slightly be fighting a straw man.

    Many liberals do believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. They just have a different understanding of what inspiration is, and how God “breathed” his word into the mouths of the prophets.

    What’s more, there are plenty of evangelicals who would be considered liberal by other groups.

    On your other point: “Members of both camps should take care to express themselves urbanely”… I couldn’t agree more!

  • grumpy oul man

    And could you show where i mentioned people not being believers, let alone claimed that most of anybody are atheist.
    there are more than a few steps between believing the world is in danger from a liberal/leftie/Muslim plot to overthrow western civilization and being a atheist!
    I know a awful lot of believers who would regard Johns argument as conspiracy theory.
    Here is a link you might find interesting,

    and about the athiest thing hers some data on scientists,


    you can find out what the rates are for professors,doctors and surgeons via google,
    Have fun.

  • grumpy oul man

    And the variety of belief inside Christianity and the difference in interpretation of scripture among both Church’s (some times inside churches) and cultures show that belief in scripture is a mix and match phenomenon.
    If scripture is so clear and god speaks to us through it, why is their so much difference among believers as to what it says.

  • The problem here may be with wishy-washy Christianity, rather than liberal Christianity. Both “camps” often take their ethics from the surrounding culture, perhaps with the exception of a couple of “hot issues”.

    How else can you explain, to pick but one issue, many evangelicals’ studious ignoring of all that the OT prophets taught about Justice, and the judgements these prophets proclaimed on God’s people for their treatment of the poor and weak? Could this avoidance of a real issue in today’s society contribute to the perceived irrelevance of the church today?

    (Liberal failings are also available)

  • grumpy oul man

    I’m sure your not lazy, please describe Ulster Patriots accurately?

  • David Crookes

    Of course you’re right, NMO. I was using a distemper-brush when I should have been using something a bit finer.