Mention Catholics and Protestants working in unity and immediately Christian fundamentalism will scream to high Heaven about the evils of the so-called ecumenical movement.
I recall the dark days when my late dad was co-chairman of the Evangelical Prayer Breakfast movement in Northern Ireland and militant fundamentalists used to picket the hotels where the breakfasts were taking place because Catholics were present.
The role of the Evangelical Prayer Breakfast movement was a social opportunity for Catholics and Protestants to have a morning meal together, then the ‘born again’ Christians - such as dad - would give their testimonies on how and why they became ‘born again believers’ through the New Testament doctrine of Salvation.
I once had an argument with one such militant fundamentalist who criticised my dad for his role in the Evangelical Prayer Breakfast movement because a Catholic priest attended.
Practically, my dad had breakfast with the priest, then shared his testimony with him. Yet the militant fundamentalist said he had no difficulty himself going to a Catholic convent, having tea with the nuns, and then sharing his testimony with the sisters!
I always strongly suspected the real reason for militant fundamentalist opposition to the Evangelical Prayer Breakfast movement was because of the fact that some of the ‘born again believers’ attending and participating were either members of the Ulster Unionist Party or the Loyal Orders or both.
The late Rev Ian Paisley (later Lord Bannside) founded his fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in 1951. His denomination was given a public relations impetus by criticising and picketing meetings of the mainstream Irish Presbyterian Church because of the latter’s links to the staunchly ecumenical World Council of Churches and theological liberalism within Presbyterianism.
Yet ironically, when Paisley senior entered politics both as a Protestant Unionist and later from 1971 when the DUP was formed, he always attracted a significant Catholic vote in Westminster, European and Assembly elections because of his theological stance on issues such as homosexuality, equal marriage, divorce and especially the protection of the unborn.
My dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, enjoyed similar support from the Catholic community because of his evangelical Christian stance on such issues in his election campaigns for Council, the Northern Ireland Forum and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Sometimes I would be asked - if you weren’t a Unionist, but instead you were an Irish nationalist, which party would you vote for? The answer for me, as a ‘born again Christian’, was simple - Aontu, which champions a very staunch pro-life agenda.
While Sinn Fein seems hell-bent on the ‘tricky sell’ of Irish unity to Northern Ireland’s pro-Union community, with a heavy focus either on liberal Unionism or pro-European Union Unionists, maybe Aontu could pull the rug politically from under Sinn Fein’s feet by attempting to sell the spiritual benefits of Irish unity to Northern Ireland’s evangelical Christian community?
As a radical Right-wing Unionist myself, I have written from time to time as to how I would view all-island unity. In 2014, I penned a new non-violent staunchly Christian ideology for republicanism in an ebook entitled ‘An Saise Glas: The Green Sash: The Road to National Republicanism.’
This was an attempt to purge republicanism of its overtly socialist, even Marxist agenda, and replace it with a conservative Christian ethos.
In articles and radio interviews in 2017, I suggested the creation of an Irish Christian Party (ICP), which would be organised on both sides of the Irish border and would have a strongly Biblical Christianity ethos. Here’s the link to the Sunday Times article.
However, the Achilles heel in the ICP project was that conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians are notorious for falling out and splitting over trivial theological items, such as translations of the Bible, women wearing hats at worship, the role of women in the Christian Church, musical instruments in praise time, colours in men’s ties, adult baptism verses infant christening, choice of hymns and songs … and so the list goes on!
Given the reaction I got to the ICP project, I was left with the distinct impression that we Christians seem to have more issues which divide us, than issues upon which we could base a common cause - such as the definition of the Biblical institution of marriage, Christian lifestyles, and the protection of the unborn.
Indeed, you need only look at the number of Protestant denominations and independent fellowships which exist in Northern Ireland alone in 2020 to gain a perception of how they all claim to be the defenders of the Christian Reformed Faith.
Even Presbyterianism now has the mainstream denomination (and it is split into liberal and conservative wings), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Free Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church to name but a few.
However, if there has been one event which has forced the Christian Church as a whole to rethink its strategy, it has been this year’s pandemic.
The lockdown across the island earlier this year physically shut all places of worship from cathedrals to churches to mission halls, forcing many clergy, parishes, congregations and fellowships to embrace the merits of digital technology with online services, prayer meetings and Bible studies.
Coronavirus has forced the Christian faith as a whole to address the issue of how it will be spiritual relevant in a society now knows as ‘the new normal’.
In this respect, the time has now come for the formation of an all-island pressure group which can represent the basic theological foundations which unite conservatives, evangelicals, and fundamentalists from all Christian denominations.
This latter paragraph may have existing groups up in arms claiming ‘we are already here!’ The Irish Catholic Church could point to the roles of the various Holy Orders in terms of conservative theology, such as the Jesuits or Opus Dei.
Protestantism will return the serve by pointing to the existence of the Loyal Orders, and pressure groups such as the Evangelical Protestant Society and the Caleb Foundation.
Each of these groups or orders could claim it is organised on an all-island basis, so why the need for yet another organisation?
In this case, what is needed is an Evangelical Forum where Christian groups who call themselves conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist can voice their opinions and agree a common agenda - or perhaps, it is a case as in republicanism, that the first item of business on the agenda is ‘the split’!
Like it or not, Irish Christianity will have to swallow some very bitter medicine. If the Church is to become spiritually relevant in a post-pandemic ‘new normal’, there will have to be some degree of spiritual and practical co-operation between ‘born again believers’, otherwise churches will become nothing more than tea-drinking social clubs for local gossip.
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