The Churches are backing themselves into a corner of Northern Ireland’s narrow ground. The laity should take over

Following on from the testimony of  Gerry Lynch and Elizabeth Nelson, it’s  hardly a surprise that the continuing revolution in faith and morals over abortion and  LGBT rights won elsewhere but not here,  is splitting the churches. True to ancient form, the leaderships of the Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches are treating what is actually a clash of moralities as challenges to authority.  The Catholics appeal to canon law, the Presbyterians to the Bible. And that is still that. For all the blows incurred to the very idea of authority over endless abuse  scandals and  the treatment of children born out of wedlock,  the authority of the ministry remains the essential  core of these unique iinstitutions.

In a nuanced piece that pleads for more understanding of the Catholic Church’s position, William Scholes in the Irish News, quotes

 Armagh priest Fr John McKeever, who works in canon law, saying in this newspaper yesterday, anyone who obstinately persists in advocating views contrary to Christian teaching, has “in effect excommunicated themselves from the life and faith of the Church”.

A priest would have to say that such a person “would be unable to receive or celebrate any sacraments, including marriage”.

“The Church, like any other society, needs to be able to use its laws in order to protect its identity and the rights of its members, especially the most vulnerable.”

Scholes sees the limitations of McKeever’s argument but goes on to ask:

But if the Church’s reality has changes, is it also fair that the à la carte Catholic also encounters a new reality when they come calling on the local priest for a rite they regard as their right, despite such casual disdain for broad swathes of Christian belief?

In reply one can ask why  did the Church decline to excommunicate those who had such  “a casual disdain” for human life so as the commit murder in a political cause?  As it happens it  had a  quite a good answer in its own terms, that it is its prime duty to save souls, proclaim the superiority of love over evil and allow for the possibility of repentance. Surely the same answer should be applied to what are becoming recognised in our societies as social rights?

Another answer is to ask who nowadays rules on what Christian belief is?  Whose church is it anyway? To be sure, the dwindling ranks of  full timers who are the clergy are bound to take a lead but they no longer have a monopoly. Scholes concedes supremacy to them too easily.  The whole great edifice system of centralised power of the Catholic Church, even though never as monolithic as the Irish experience suggested, is creaking at the seams. The long counterrevolution against the trend of Vatican 2 so charismatically championed by John Paul 11 now seems backed into a corner. Even the present Pope’s gentle appeals to love and toleration are being challenged by some as  heresy.  And that is the worse characteristic of a particular type of conservatism. Rather than debate morality openly, it turns ugly, claiming supernatural sanction.  Even papal authority is not immune.

The BBC’s William Crawley has been observing how the Irish Presbyterian Church with its very different governance has reached a similar point, the main difference being that its democratic structure drives it to  schism (or a formal breach),  quicker and more openly than the Catholic Church. The issue before the General Assembly was a  break in relations with the increasingly liberal Church of Scotland, thus reviving ancient quarrels which seemed healed over a century ago.

The Church of Scotland already permits the ordination of lesbian and gay ministers, including ministers in same-sex relationships

Last month its General Assembly, meeting in Edinburgh, authorised officials to review any changes in church law necessary to allow ministers to preside at same-sex-marriage weddings.

Meanwhile, this week in Belfast, the Irish General Assembly asserted, in a report from its Doctrine Committee, that being in a same-sex relationship is incompatible with full membership of the church, and that the children of same-sex couples should be denied baptism.

It seems very odd to say the least, that priests and ministers should baptise children whose heterosexual parents and godparents have no intention of bringing them up as faithful Christians, yet deny baptism to those eager to do so because they happen to be gay.

The conservatives will say that going liberal on these issues has done the Anglicans no good at all in terms of numbers or even cohesion. But at least the doors for Anglican services must be kept open for all. That seems more in tune with an increasingly sceptical but not yet unreachable audience and dare I say it, with Christ’s mission.

What is there about Northern Ireland that its institutions are the last to change or even function fully effectively? We perch on narrow ground divided by a chasm and so cannot move for fear of falling into it.  Perhaps a better trend is emerging. Although clergy  are fully aware they operate in an changing society, many of them, already demoralised by diminishing numbers supporting their lonely witness, take refuge in former certainties rather than try to work out a new relationship with it, like ancient monks shinning up the round tower in fear of the approaching vikings. Many of the laity are content to leave them there and think independently, quitting the churches entirely, or becoming in effect the churches themselves in the absence of a regular priest.

Clerical authority in the general public realm which still survives vestigingly in education in Northern Ireland  now seems increasingly anomalous and is being challenged by observing Catholic politicians in the Republic.

Beyond reciting the catechism,  doctrine was always the technical area for specialists. For many perhaps even most people still, religion at best means a personal spirituality, belief in ethics introduced  but no longer exclusively developed through Christian teaching, inspiration and appreciation of the language, ritual and music, and even yet, a sense of community mixed up with filial and other family piety, and nostalgia. Behind the mockery, it is strongly present in Father Ted and Dave Allen. The professionals of the Church reject all that at their peril.

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