Just as Unionism has had to come to terms with addressing the possibility of a border poll in the aftermath of a ‘no deal’ Brexit (if Brexit does go ahead on 31 October!), so too, are the Christian Churches having to reassess how they can still be a relevant force in 21st century Ireland.
If there’s a couple of negative attributes which we Christians are notorious for, its gossiping and back-stabbing.
When I began my journalistic career in 1978, the Christian Churches held the balance of power in terms of influence in society.
I probably would have been burned at the stake as a heretic (metaphorically speaking I hope!) in 1978 if I had suggested that within half a century, Southern Ireland - one of the great bastions of Catholicism outside of the Vatican - would vote in referenda for same-sex marriage, and more liberal abortion and divorce laws, as well as elect an openly-gay Taoiseach.
Likewise, that same stake would have been prepared for me if I had suggested that within that same timeframe, around 60,000 people would march through Belfast as part of the Pride parade.
Bring the situation forward to 2019 and the key theological question must be posed - and answered - who are the modern-day heretics in Irish Christianity?
Just as Unionism has to cope with the liberal surge of the Alliance Party in recent elections, so too, is evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity in Ireland facing a new liberal theological thrust not seen since the late 1950s and early 1960s when the late Rev Ian Paisley’s fledgling fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster protested against the supposed liberal drift in the mainstream Irish Presbyterian Church, then Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant denomination.
Are we in a situation whereby individual clerics and even denominations are denying or refusing to recognise portions of the Bible, or is it a case that evangelicals and fundamentalists are failing to keep up with the times in terms of the communication of the Gospel?
Has Irish Christianity reached a point on the island where we are witnessing a repeat of the warning issued by Jesus Christ Himself as outlined in John’s Gospel, Chapter 13, where He predicted Peter’s denial.
Quoting from the latest New International Version translation, in verse 37, we read:
Peter asked, ‘Lord why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Then Jesus answered, ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will disown me three times!”
Perhaps of the most visible sign of the debate within Irish Christianity came during the 2019 Belfast Pride parade when Church of Ireland rector, the Rev Andrew Rawding, of St Patrick’s Church, in the parish of Donaghendry in the Tyrone village of Stewartstown, wore his clerical collar and carried a placard bearing the slogan: “We are sorry for how the church has mistreated LGBTQI+ people.”
Rev Rawding’s participation and placard were of particular personal interest to me as I lived for a short time in Stewartstown’s North Street in the early 1960s before moving to Clough, Co Antrim, where my dad had become the Presbyterian minister.
At least an entire generation of my family circle are buried in the Donaghendry church cemetery, including my late grandfather, John Coulter, after whom I am named.
Rev Rawding’s participation in Pride has certainly sparked a huge debate - especially on social media - about the role of the Christian Church in such issues.
Then again, who was Rev Rawding representing when he carried that placard apologising - who are the ‘we’ and the ‘church’ his placard was referring to? Was it himself, his specific church in Stewartstown, his parish, his denomination, or all of Christianity, or just a section of Christendom?
While many on the evangelical and fundamentalist spectrum of the Christian faith would be Biblically opposed to Rev Rawding’s views, setting aside the LGBTQI+ issue, his apology placard raises an important point which the Christian Church needs to radically address.
Many churches have as part of their Sunday worship or mid week Bible study a time for intercessory prayers in which Christians pray for the plight of the persecuted Church across the globe. These prayers are a necessary part of personal and public Christian devotions given the increasing challenges which Christianity is facing.
But what about the plight of those who have been persecuted by the Church? In my own case as a Presbyterian minister’s son growing up in the heart of the north Antrim Bible Belt in the 1970s, I well remember how a Presbyterian elder made an example of me in front of my peers by punching me in the face during Sunday school.
I recall how a thug left me rolling in agony in my dad’s minister’s room after he gave me a kicking in the church hall one Sunday morning simply because I was the preacher’s kid.
I recall how during the intercessory prayers for the persecuted Church in the 1970s, I would think - I don’t have to go to communist China or Soviet Russia to find persecution; all I personally have to do as a minister’s son is walk a few yards into my Presbyterian church hall and I’ll get all the verbal and physical abuse I want!
Perhaps as a Church, the apologising process needs to begin with healing ourselves as Christians as outlined in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 7 verses 3 to 5.
This states (NIV):
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘let me take the speck out of your eye’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Maybe when we, as a body of Christian believers, eradicate the scourge of the judgemental church gossips from within our midst, we can then properly turn to addressing the issues of society.
Taking the sterling advice in Matthew’s Gospel into consideration, I wonder how Rev Rawding’s placard would, or should, then read? Answers on a postcard please.
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com