For generations, the word ‘ecumenism’ was a dirty word among Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists – it smelt of the rotten stench of theological compromise, surrender and downright heresy.
But the comprehensive victory of the Yes campaign in the republic’s recent abortion referendum has created a situation where the Christian denominations and organisations in Northern Ireland will have to work together tactically and sing from the same hymn sheet if they are to prevent more liberal abortion laws landing in Ulster like legislative pigeon crap.
Ironically, I warned about the dangers of this situation as far back as October 2004 in a comment and analysis article I penned for The Irish Catholic under the headline: ‘The Orange Order’s need of Spiritual Unity with the Catholic Church.’
That article – viewed today in 2018 – might seem like heresy to suggest that the Protestants-only Orange Order would have to enter into some kind of working partnership with the Catholic Church, especially with the Orange marching season about to step into full swing with the so-called Mini Twelfth less than a month away on 1st July, when the Order commemorates the bloody opening day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
But before the head bangers within the Protestant community rush to have me burned at the stake as a heretic, just remember that it was King Billy’s elite Catholic troops from the Dutch Blues who clinched the Battle of the Boyne for the Orange champion in 1690.
We can discuss referendum post mortems until we are also blue in the face, but the Irish Catholic Church has got to face the bitter reality the Yes victory was also a two-fingered salute to the Catholic Church’s abysmal record in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse within its ranks over the generations.
It is not so much that Southern Ireland has come a more secular society – it’s that many younger people are turning their back on their traditional Catholic background as more and more abuse allegations surface on an almost daily basis.
Setting that aside, the Orange Order called for a No vote in the referendum, as did the Catholic bishops. The post-result placards – especially from Sinn Fein – and almost hysterical street party celebrations clearly emphasised that the pro-choice lobby wants major change to abortion laws in Northern Ireland.
Not even a papal visit to the republic will stem the secularist tide in the South. Rome has effectively lost control of the republic. But there is a chink of light. One of the most northern counties of the republic, Donegal, narrowly voted No in the referendum. Northern Ireland’s pro-life lobby is now facing its religious Alamo – and we all know how that battle ended!
In 2004, when I penned my original article in The Irish Catholic, I could see the pluralist and secular threats beginning to raise their heads. The key thrust of my advice to the Order and Catholic Church then was simple – “The Order’s religious re-motivation would force it to re-think its relations with the Church of Rome, especially with the growth of the evangelical Catholic movement.”
Just as the clerical abuse scandals had created a crisis for the Catholic Church, the Orange Order had also to recognise that over two decades of contentious parades had created an image problem for the Order among certain sections of the Protestant middle class. I warned in 2004:
For the Orange Order to have a meaningful role within Protestantism, it will have to abandon its political activity and re-structure itself as an entirely religious organisation dedicated to the defence of the Biblical teachings of Jesus Christ.
Preaching, not parades, should now be the main thrust of the Order in 2018. In this respect, the Orange chaplains – especially those who are Protestant clerics – will have a central role.
Granted, for many decades the Order enjoyed a key pivotal role in Unionist politics. But that link was erased with the formal split between the Ulster Unionist Council and the Orange delegates in the rows within Unionism over the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Who in Orangeism could forget the very public confrontations at some 1998 Twelfth demonstration fields between pro and anti-Agreement Orangemen, particularly the actions of the vehemently anti-Agreement Spirit of Drumcree pressure group within the Order.
In 2004, I challenged the Order to take note of the growing evangelical Catholic movement – these were Roman Catholics who had become ‘born again’ believers as defined by the New Testament text of St John Chapter 3 verse 16 (For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life – King James version), but who had chosen to remain within their denomination and evangelise from within.
As the pro-choice and pro-life lobbies prepare for the Battle of Northern Ireland, evangelicals within both Northern Catholicism and Irish Orangeism will have to set aside their differences over the Mass, purgatory, role of the pope and unite behind the common banner of protecting the unborn child. Evangelicals from both camps can at least agree on the concept that life begins at conception, not birth.
Publicly, the Catholic Jesuits may not hold joint press conferences with the staunchly fundamentalist Caleb Foundation or the Evangelical Protestant Society. But it should be noted that the late Rev Ian Paisley attracted a significant Catholic vote in North Antrim because of his strong pro-life stance.
Within evangelical Protestantism, the word ‘ecumenism’ was often seen as a theological surrender to the Church of Rome. As the debate over abortion laws in Northern Ireland hots up dramatically, perhaps the time has come for Irish Christians – especially evangelicals - to redefine the meaning and use of the term ‘ecumenism’.
Just as the LGBT community has laid claim to the term ‘pride’, Sinn Fein has claimed the Irish language, and a section of the loyalist community boasts about the Ulster Scots ‘language’, so too, could evangelical Christians use ‘ecumenism’ as a common platform to protect the unborn child against more draconian abortion laws?
Is it possible conservative and evangelical Catholics and diehard Orangemen as well as staunch fundamentalists and ‘born again’ believers from denominations such as the Baptists, Brethren, Free Presbyterians and Elim, could form a united Christian Front movement to win the battle to protect the unborn child in Northern Ireland?
If the pace of change in the republic over same-sex marriage and abortion reform is taken as a benchmark, time is not on the side of the new-look ‘ecumenist’ movement in Northern Ireland.
Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Northern Ireland since 1978. As well as being a former weekly newspaper editor, he has served as Religious Affairs Correspondent of the News Letter and is a past Director of Operations for Christian Communication Network television. He currently also writes political analysis articles for national newspaper titles.