|1979 - Staff Sergeant John Coulter of the 1st|
Ballymena Boys” Brigade Company with his
Queen’s Badge, the highest honour in the BB ranks.
BB NI now finds itself at both an organisational and theological crossroads. If it does not take the courageous and correct decision to split from the rest of the UK and RoI, then this champion of Christian evangelicalism will become nothing more than a glorified secular youth club.
At the heart of the supposed consideration of splitting from the rest of the organisation in the UK and Ireland are “cultural differences”. According to a policy document seen by the BBC ahead of an AGM, the Christian youth organisation sets out differences over faith matters, governance and financial matters.
Is this purely a matter of money, or is BB NI concerned the movement in the Province is being forced to spiritually accept the so-called ‘woke liberal’ culture?
BB NI has been a part of my personal, career and spiritual life for over half a century. I am a former member of both the 1st Clough and 1st Ballymena BB companies in the Ballymena and District Battalion.
I am a Queen’s Man - a holder of the BB’s highest award, the Queen’s Badge, and also had the privilege of having my late mum pin the BB’s second highest honour, the President’s Badge, on my armband. My late dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, was a company chaplain during his time in Presbyterian ministry.
During my time in the ranks, I served as a staff sergeant. Later, I served as an officer in the 1st Maghaberry company, then attached to Maghaberry Methodist Church.
My first job as a trainee journalist was writing a weekly BB column entitled ‘Bugle Call’ in the Ballymena Guardian under the editorship of the late Maurice O’Neill in the late 1970s. I later served as Press Officer for the Ballymena Battalion and the Northern Ireland District, as well as being a member of the First For Boys evangelical committee based in Larne in the 1990s.
Given this experience, if BB NI has to make a choice between ‘going with the flow’ in the UK or standing alone as a truly evangelical Christian movement, my strong advice is - as the BB’s motto states - be sure and stedfast in maintaining its Biblical principles.
BB NI’s symbol is the anchor, taken from the New Testament verse of Hebrews Chapter 6 and verse 19: “Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”
The famous adopted BB hymn, ‘Will Your Anchor Hold In The Storms Of Life’, was penned in 1882 in the United States by Priscilla Jane Owens. A year later, William Alexander Smyth founded the BB in Glasgow. The BB celebrated its centenary in 1983.
The strength of BB NI is that each company is attached to a Christian Church. That’s what sets it apart from many other male-focused youth movements.
Remove that church link; make the BB equal with other religions; drop the BB’s evangelical Christian ethos and all that remains is a meaningless spiritually liberal youth club.
Smyth would be spinning in his grave if he imagined the movement he founded in 1883 as an overtly Christian evangelical organisation had become nothing more than a secular community association grouping.
For me personally, my time in BB NI - especially in the ranks as a BB boy - represented spiritual growth and boyhood camaraderie.
I became a born again Christian in January 1972. In my Presbyterian congregation I was blessed with having a range of Godly Sunday school teachers.
But one year, my Sunday school teacher was a heavy smoking, bad tempered, liberal elder who delighted in physically making an example out of me because I was a minister’s son.
I learned nothing from his class that year, but this was countered by the excellent spiritual teaching from the BB Bible class. Even BB Scripture exams were a delight.
As a teenage Presbyterian minister’s son, it was BB chums who supported me after a local thug decided to make an example out of me by giving me a kicking simply because I was the minister’s son, leaving me with a back injury which has required life-long medication.
There was also pride in your uniform, keeping fit through PT, box work (known as the vaulting horse!) and above all, the football sessions each Friday evening. I learned to swim in the BB. The drill exams made me a fierce critic of organisations, when I became a journalist, which do not know how to march properly when on parade!
It was an honour for me to represent my BB company and battalion at cross-country, football or orienteering. Underlying all this sport was the Christian ethos that our bodies are ‘temples to the Lord’ and we should look after them.
And then there was the excitement of the BB camps at Southport in England and Largs in Scotland. As a ‘tent commander’, late night snacks were the order of the day!
Perhaps critics of the BB may moan that surely secular organisations can provide all these activities? But what makes the BB NI unique are the evangelical Christian lessons which I learned in those ranks; lessons which have helped me cope with the rigours of life in the Church, in journalism, and in society.
If BB NI does decide to split from BB UK and BB RoI to preserve this unique evangelical Christian identity and ethos, it will have been one of the wisest decisions since the formation of the movement, and I write this as someone who benefited tremendously from my time in the Brigade.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.