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Traditional Roots: Towards an appropriate relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Orange Order

Earl Storey. Columba Press, Blackrock, Co Dublin, Éire. ISBN 1 85607 364 5. Ł7.99 Amazon Co UK

Traditional Roots is a wittily titled examination of the relationship between the Orange Order and the Irish Episcopal church – or as it grandly styles itself – the ‘Church of Ireland’.

The controversy since 1995 around the annual church parade to Drumcree Parish Church in Portadown, Co Armagh has brought this relationship to public attention. The author, who is the rector of Glenavy Parish Church in Co Antrim, believes that the violent scenes in and around the Drumcree church have compromised the Church of Ireland’s Christian witness. A onetime junior Orangeman himself, Mr Storey sets out a case for ‘progressive disengagement’ of the links between his church and the Orange Order.

Although the Church of Ireland and the Orange Order have a large overlapping membership, especially in rural parishes, and they share a similar outlook on a number of issues, the author contends that they have fundamentally different aims. He takes a chapter each to look at the history of the Order and the Church. He acknowledges that both bodies’ interests have been interwoven over the past few centuries. After all, the Irish Episcopal church became known as the ‘Church of Ireland’ because it was the legally established State Church for over three centuries until 1869. To its own members – and to those of other communions – it became known as the ‘British church’ in Ireland as it identified with the Empire and the Union.

Wedded as it is to the Union and Nineteenth Century notions of the Empire, it understandable that the Orange Order has had strong informal links with the Church of Ireland for many years.

Since partition in 1921, the Church of Ireland has struggled to find a secure place in the public life of the independent Irish State. It lost its power, its prestige and a large swathe of its members after independence. In the overwhelmingly Catholic society that emerged, the Church of Ireland has to keep its head well down to ensure its survival in uncertain times. It’s no surprise, then, that the most vocal criticism of the Orange Order in the church should come from parishes in the Republic. The Church of Ireland’s perceived public association with the Orange Order at Drumcree acutely embarrasses these folk.

What’s to be done then? Mr Storey has given this matter some thought. Church of Ireland members could look the other way, bury their heads in the sand and hope the matter goes away. This, he argues, is not a good approach for the Church or the Order.

Some voices in the Church of Ireland, most notably the Catalyst Group, would cut all ties with the Orange Order and close all church doors against it. Mr Storey doesn’t see it in such black and white terms.

For example, he acknowledges that Ulster Protestants, unionists and Orangemen see themselves as in retreat on all fronts. Despite the ending of overt hostilities, he realises that Ulster is now the focus of a nasty cultural cold war. In this phase of the conflict, Protestants, unionists and Orangemen are forced onto the back foot:

"Other means for fighting the conflict have been developed… The parades issue is a prime example of community antagonism in Northern Ireland being fought in another context…"

"Whatever the circumstances of any particular parade it is implausible to suggest that elements within republicanism have not takes opportunities to capitalise and increase agitation in certain situations within the context of an greater agenda of political struggle. The Orange Order has been demonised and politically manoeuvred by various parts of the republican movement." Gerry Adams confirmed this impression in his infamous 1997 address to a Sinn Féin meeting in the Republic: "Ask any activist in the North if Drumcree happened by accident and they will tell you ‘No’. Three years of hard work went into creating that situation; and fair play to those people who put the work in. These are the type of scene changes that we have to focus on, develop; and exploit."

Mr Storey argues that it is quite valid for a member of the Church of Ireland to be a unionist – or indeed an Irish nationalist. He sets out lucid arguments to show that the Church of Ireland is separate from the Orange Order and that it has no calling to promote the aims and objectives of such separate bodies. "The Church of Ireland is no longer part of the party political voice of unionism or a co-traveller with the Orange Order in its cause." He makes the clear point that its members are generally decent people who mean no harm to anyone, so the Orange Order ought not to be demonised by the Church of Ireland. There ought to be an ‘appropriate relationship’ – open and above board ‘progressive disengagement’. This, he hopes, should give rise to soul-searching within the Protestant-unionist-loyalist community. Their political philosophy does not need any theological justification of denominational ‘imprimatur’.

This point is certainly true. However, the ideology of many unionists does have a strong theological foundation. What such a breech will do to the morale of Orangemen who are also Church of Ireland members is open to question. It could be devastating if the church that nurtured them is seen to cast them adrift. As Mr Storey himself acknowledges: "The Protestant community in Northern Ireland is very inarticulate. It is obviously not the case that there is an absence of opinion, but rather that it is not easily verbalised. This does not contribute to a peaceful society, because an inability to articulate and reasonably argue a political view leads to frustration, anger and a sense of alienation. If one also accepts the thesis that the Protestant community is both insecure and pessimistic at present, this does not aid its ability to articulate."

The Church of Ireland, he argues can help here. The Church should "foster political debate and the ability to express a viewpoint" in its membership. That’s great; as long as the Church hierarchy don’t decide what political path those members should travel. Many of us who campaigned for a No vote still remember the cynical use made by NIO spindoctors of Church of Ireland Primate, Dr Robin Eames, to engineer a Yes vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum. The lingering suspicion has never been dispelled that his elevation to the House of Lords - soon after the ‘right’ vote was delivered - was a thank you present from Tony Blair. If there is going to be a separation from party politics it going to have to be all or nothing or the Church of Ireland will be cutting its own throat if it goes through with this.

Mr Storey’s book is compelling reading. Many will take issue with the author’s arguments, but he at least is asking questions that do need to be asked. The onus is now on others, notably the leadership of the Orange Order to set out their own case for a continued relationship with the Church of Ireland and other Protestant denominations.

David Kerr

 

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