I’m sure when many read the headline, you could be forgiven for thinking this column would be a review of one of my favourite AC/DC albums, Back In Black!
But fear not; I will not subject you to more tales of my teenage heavy metal days with The Clergy and Budj Recordings.
Rather, this is an examination of where the most senior of the Protestant Loyal Orders - the Royal Black Institution - now goes given that its traditional ‘big day out’ has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Historically, while the Black also dates from the late 18th century, the Institution has often been dubbed as ‘the poor man’s Masonic Order’. Indeed, many of the symbols on Black collarettes (those who wear them are known as Sir Knights as the Black, unlike the Orange Order, is a male-only movement) have a striking similarity to the symbols of Irish Freemasonry.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon to find that many Sir Knights are also Freemasons. Ironically, this link between the Black and Freemasonry has brought the Institution at times into sharp conflict with militant Christian fundamentalists - and even some Christian evangelicals - who view all types of secret societies as being ‘off the devil’.
A Protestant male has to hold the Arch Purple degree in the Orange Order for that person to progress to the Black and the various degrees in the Black which culminate in the Institution’s highest degree, the Red Cross, which symbolises the blood which Jesus Christ shed on the Cross at Calvary so that mankind could enjoy Salvation.
My late father, a staunchly evangelical Presbyterian minister, was a senior chaplain in the Black and both of us were members of the same Preceptory - Clough 1176 - in the Ballymena District. As well as serving as a County Antrim deputy chaplain, dad also was both a Deputy Imperial Grand Chaplain and served a three-year term as Assistant Sovereign Grand Master to former UUP boss Jim Molyneaux in the 1980s.
Given that each working preceptory also hosted an annual divine service, dad always viewed this as an opportunity to preach the Gospel. At times, my support for the Black has brought me into sharp confrontation with the fundamentalists - dubbed the ‘Fundies’ - opposed to the Black as a secret society.
During my time at the Irish Daily Star, a book on the Black was produced and I gave it a scathing review. Here’s the link to the website which sent the Fundies into a spin!
Traditionally with the exception of annual divine services, the Black’s marching season usually began on 13 July with the annual Sham Fight and parade in Scarva.
Given that Black events usually always happened during the summer time, the traditional meal at such gatherings was either ham or chicken salads. I’m a huge salad fan, so I really looked forward to travelling to Black events with my dad where the delights of delicious salads could be enjoyed.
Although on one occasion, Jim Molyneaux as Sovereign Grand Master once quipped to me that he had had to eat 35 salads in one month! With a few exceptions, my annual ‘beat’ as a working journalist was the County Antrim annual demonstration. I’ll leave the ethical debate about journalists in secret societies for another column!
On the Black Saturday morning, I would usually accompany dad for a small parade around Clough village by RBP 1176. That would be the extent of my Black parade for the season!
Then it was off to towns such as Ballymena, Ballymoney, Ballyclare, Ballycastle, Lisburn (then only a town), or Antrim for the main demonstration reporting on speeches and stories on individual preceptories - always making sure I joined dad for the traditional salad lunch!
But just as this column is now drifting rapidly into nostalgia, there is also the danger that the Black could succumb under Covid 19 to the perception the Institution is merely a gathering of old men in suits with no real relevance to a modern Northern Ireland.
Within the range of the Protestant Loyal Orders, the Black would be seen as the most senior to the Orange, Apprentice Boys and Independent Orange Order.
It is also viewed as being the most overly religious and has, by and large, managed to avoid many of the parade controversies which have dogged the Orange Institution.
In this respect, the role of the Black should be in encouraging people back to places of worship if restrictions are eased, or if there is a second wave of the virus and further restrictions are imposed, then it should encourage people to return to online worship.
While lockdown saw a massive increase in interest in online services and Bible studies, the easing of restrictions has presented an equally huge challenge to all places of worship as to how they continue with their services whilst abiding by social distancing guidelines.
And with the centenary of Northern Ireland due to take place next year, the Black has an important role to play in commemorating that event.
More significantly, to ‘kill off’ the stigma that the Black is merely for middle aged or pensioner males, the Institution will have to focus on a recruitment drive to ensure it has a new generation of Sir Knights well into the next century of Northern Ireland’s existence.
Perhaps to survive, the Black will have to think the unthinkable - allowing Protestant women to enter their ranks as Lady Knights, instead of the women being reduced to the usual role of making and serving the salads!
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com