Today, the 12th of July, is a national holiday in my home land, Northern Ireland. It is the highlight in the calendar of the Orange Order and many Protestants in Northern Ireland as they celebrate their culture and their Protestantism. As a child growing up as a Protestant in Protestant Greenisland I always looked forward to “The Twelfth“. I was a member of the Orange Order. As a teenager, I played in a Loyalist flute band. It was just what you did – at least if, like me, you didn’t belong to a middle class family who would often use the “Twelfth Fortnight” to take themselves off to sunnier climes on holiday.
Later, when I became a Christian (not just on paper, but deep in my heart!) I began to think about what it means to be “Protestant”. When I hitch-hiked my way through Europe from Bangor to Bobbio in Italy, on the trail of 6th century Saint Columban from Bangor, I reflected further about what it means to be Protestant, but even more importantly, what it means to be Christian (Christ-like). I wrote about this in my book which has been published (and already reprinted!) in German (Pilgern auf Irisch). In the autumn I hope to publish it in English as an ebook under the title, When the Saints go Marching. I would like to share two passages with you today. The first passage, taken from chapter one of my book, describes my visits to Bangor with the Junior Orange Order….
The only time I went to Bangor as a child was on Easter Tuesday. In fact I was in Bangor on Easter Tuesday for about five years in a row, because it was the venue for the annual Easter parade of the Junior Orange Order. This organisation, with its annual parades celebrating Protestant culture and religion, was – and still is – an important part of life for many in my community. As a member of LOL 52, I always looked forward to Easter Tuesday, when I would wear my new white shirt, crimson-coloured lodge tie and white gloves, along with the orange sash, clearly identifying me as a member of Loyal Orange Lodge number 52. I was only 10 years old but felt much older, marching with my tribe to th
e beat of the drum around our housing estate before traveling by bus to Bangor, where we joined dozens of other lodges and bands for the main parade.
I looked forward to marching to ‘the field’ behind our flute band which prided itself in being louder and rowdier than the other so called ‘blood and thunder’ bands. (Truth is, these bands were actually more often thud and blunder.) I looked forward to the crowds of onlookers who always commented on “how well the boys look today”; to my cousin’s hamburger stall at the field, where I got free drinks with my burger – it obviously didn’t hurt him too much, seeing that he’s a millionaire businessman in Belfast today; to the tuppenny falls in the amusement arcade in the town; to buying a present for my wee brother – usually a stick of Bangor rock; and to finishing eating my fish and chips on the bus home, before we reached a certain section of north Belfast, where our bus was usually pelted with stones by kids from the ‘other side’.
These kids, I might add, probably knew as little about why they were throwing stones at us, as we knew about why we were marching in Bangor. Pretty naive. I guess we were all quite green back then.
Thirty five years later I am once again heading to the town of Bangor, and once again for religious reasons. This time however I march to the beat of a different drum, so to speak. Having experienced my own personal ‘reformation’, I now understand what it actually means to be “Protestant”. No longer is it a term that determines which side of the sectarian divide a person in Northern Ireland is supposed to belong to. Nor is it a term that automatically defines where someone’s political affinities lie. For me today, being a Protestant has to do with being a practising Christian. It’s about professing a living faith in a God who walked this earth breaking down every conceivable barrier and crossing all borders in order to reach people with life-changing love.
And here is a passage from the last chapter of my book, as I reflect on what I experienced on my hitch-hike adventure through Europe in the footsteps of the Bangor medieval monk who so changed the religious and cultural landscape of Europe right up to today…
On every part of the journey strangers became friends. Catholic friends. By no means a given among the Protestant working class who grew up during the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
As a child, I thought like a child. I thought to be Protestant was to be British. The violent campaign of the anti-British IRA just reinforced my identity as a British Protestant. It was the paramilitary campaign of the IRA that led my father to become a member of a loyalist paramilitary organisation called the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), whose stated aim was to defend the union with Britain. Maybe that’s why, for me as a young boy, to be Protestant was to paint the lampposts on my street red, white and blue and to fly the British Union Flag every July to commemorate the victory of the Protestant King William over the Catholic King James in 1690.
To be Protestant was to belong to a particular tribe and let yourself be shaped and formed by the narratives of that tribe. These narratives, reinforced by the terrorists who sought to bomb us into a united Ireland, led me wrongly to view Catholics as the enemy. For me, to be Protestant was to be anti-Catholic. To stop in front of the Catholic chapel and play triumphalist, sectarian tunes with the marching band. To accompany my father to the UDA social club as an eight year old, and sense his pride when he prompted me to sing the loyalist songs I knew by heart, ‘The Orange and Blue’, ‘The Sash’ or ‘The Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne’.
To be Protestant was to travel once a week up to ‘Long Kesh’ prison as a ten year old to visit my father, who had become a so-called ‘Loyalist Prisoner of War’. To hang up on my bedroom wall the hand-painted cotton handkerchiefs he sent to me from prison, with their paramilitary emblems and symbols. To grafitti my school bag and playground walls with the red hand of Ulster, complete with the British crown above and the letters, ‘UDA’, below.
This was the Protestantism of my childhood – a far cry from the expression of true Christian faith and identity in Christ I was later to discover. My new found Catholic friends, encountered on my Columban travels, remind me how far I have travelled. By the grace of God I am not the person I once was. The Protestant faith I adhere to today is more spiritual, more biblical, more true, when compared with the pseudo-political counterfeit of the days of my childhood. My Catholic friends are a confirmation of this.
I wish all my kinsfolk in Northern Ireland today a glorious and trouble-free twelfth of July (and 13th…the main parades take place a day later when the 12th July falls on a Sunday). If you identify yourself as Protestant, may you have the liberty to celebrate your culture and your identity today. This is your civil and religious right. And, guided by a true and genuine Protestant faith, may the celebration of your culture never be at the detriment of anyone else’s culture. As you would agree, bigotry, triumphalism and sectarianism have nothing whatsoever to do with being a follower of Christ.