Irish Presbyterians Say Ecumenism Doesn’t Extend to Catholics

 — Sept. 15, 199915 sept. 1999

Irish Presbyterians Take a Principled Stand, Say Ecumenism Doesn’t Extend to Catholics

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – An effort to make an existing Protestant-Roman Catholic committee the top ecumenical body for Ireland has been stymied by a vote of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI).

The plan, which had been approved by the three other major denominations in both the Republic and in Northern Ireland – the Anglicans, the Methodists and the Roman Catholics – went down by a 224-144 vote during the Belfast General Assembly in June. Its opponents say it was defeated by the fact that an institutional identification with the Roman Catholic Church would imply approval of its doctrine.

And that is, in a word, apostasy.

If this all sounds like theological separatism, it is. But this is Northern Ireland, where politics and religion stay unintelligibly and painfully entangled – no matter how much distance Catholics and Protestants put between themselves, and no matter how many centuries go by.

The political stalemate isn’t so dissimilar.

Ulster’s major unionist (and largely Protestant) party is refusing to form a four-party administration to govern Northern Ireland – including Sinn Fein, the radical republican party – because the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) has refused to disarm, and because of apparent breaches of the outlawed group’s 1997 cease-fire.

To some, the Protestants’ refusal – either politically or ecumenically – is just principled pragmatism, taking a stand and sticking to it. That is how the PCI’s evangelicals understand their vote against creating one Protestant-Catholic ecumenical body for Ireland. But to others, this ballot represents another lost chance to sit Catholics and Protestants together at a central ecumenical table – just as, in the political realm, calls for a politically inclusive, power-sharing governing body fall on deaf ears. To those folks, the vote sounds suspiciously like what unionists have been accused of for centuries – plain, old-fashioned bigotry.

“The Reformed churches gained their identity from the Reformation, from opposing the Catholic church. There’s a deep anti-catholicism within Ulster Protestantism. … It’s in all the Protestant churches,” said David Stevens, who added that Ulster’s Presbyterians are no exception to the. “The Presbyterians and ecumenism have had a tortured and difficult history over the last 20 years.

“They left the World Council of Churches (WCC). They did not join the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. … This,” he said of the most recent vote, “is about relations with the Catholic Church.”

Stevens is general secretary of the all-Protestant Irish Council of Churches (ICC) and joint secretary of the Protestant-Catholic Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM), the two bodies at the center of the hubbub.

The proposal was to eliminate the ICC and give more authority to the IICM, eliminating some duplication of work, and to cut at least 40 percent of the cost the PCI now incurs to support the two groups.

“This was all perceived as a compromise of doctrine and authority,” said the Rev. Robert Herron the chairman of the PCI’s Inter-Church Committee, who put the overture before the more than 1,000 elders and ministers who comprise the PCI’s annual assembly. “The fear is that the Roman Catholic Church would be perceived to be speaking on behalf of our church.

“Fear was the word used most repeatedly … and the comments made were really reciting the errors of Rome, rather the addressing the issue before us, which was … restructuring two ecumenical bodies.”

Fear is what governs much of what goes on in Northern Ireland. Voters want peace, but, as they admit about themselves, they get spooked when it looks as if peace will be costly. Which is why longtime British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) analyst Eric Waugh says the odds are 50-50 for a political settlement now. “It’s in the balance at the moment,” he said during a telephone interview from his Belfast residence.

Right now, Ulster unionists are threatening to withdraw from former U. S. Senator George Mitchell’s attempt to mediate the blocks to peace – especially if he rules that the IRA is meeting the terms of its cease-fire. Anxiety is not any less in the Republican camp, where the latest uproar put demonstrators in bloody standoffs with the police to protest the annual parades celebrating Protestant victories in 17th century religious wars.

Ecumenical equilibrium is almost as precarious; although the PCI’s vote in no way curtails the denomination’s current role in the IICM, a body that speaks for the four churches on major issues in Ireland.

Evangelicals are intent on preserving what they call doctrinal purity, fearing that compromising Calvin on one issue will lead to more compromises. Moderates are hesitant to cast a ballot for more ecumenism, because they have to go back home and face the more conservative folks who sit in their pews – many of whom don’t consider Catholicism to be a Christian faith, and who use the Roman church’s doctrines about justification, transubstantiation and the role of Christ as evidence.

And then there’s just plain fear among Ulster’s Protestants and largely unionist population – similar to the feeling in Ulster’s Catholic and predominantly republican one – that they’ve been giving in on issue after issue in the peace process, and that, when it comes to the principles of the reformed faith, it is time to take a principled stand. “You can’t avoid the fact that the divisions within the political systems are not [purely] over political issues,” said Herron. “There’s deep-seated religious feeling in there. That’s all part of it.”

Hence, in Herron’s mind, the “no” votes.

Former PCI Moderator the Rev. William Craig – a retired pastor now in his 80s – is adamant, however, that the vote was doctrinally, not politically, motivated. He said unionists are unhappy with the way political events are shaking down, and evangelicals like himself are unhappy with the way ecumenism dilutes evangelism. “We committed at our ordination to teach doctrine … and defend [it], I think the phrase is, to our utmost power. And I’m not too happy to become deeply involved with a denomination that does not [have] the same doctrinal standards. …

“Obviously, the Roman Catholic Church has many doctrines that are unscriptural. This has nothing to do with politics,” he said, just before putting down the phone to get his tea.

The Rev. Norm McAuley of Maderafelt says much the same.

“We’re not anti-Roman Catholic at all. But we are strongly anti-Roman Catholicism,” he said, stressing that the informal ties between the churches provide enough links for now. “My vote has nothing to do with politics,” said McAuley, insisting that the kingdom that matters most to him is eternal.

But he does draw the line where political accommodation means what he calls religious accommodation.

The PCI did – a century or so ago – state formally that the Roman Catholic Church is, indeed, Christian. That act was reaffirmed again in 1968 – the same year that the paramilitary and street violence that has killed more than 3,500 people erupted in a spectacularly gruesome way throughout the province.

But practicing what the church preaches has been harder, especially when it means sitting down at a table that was once Protestant, although not thoroughly reformed, and now only filling 50 percent of the seats.

“The IICM has been going on for 25 years and has been increasingly active in different ways. But to formalize the relationship was too difficult of a step for many people,” said Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker Doug Baker. Baker has been tied to the PCI in Belfast for more than 20 years and believes that a sizeable chunk of the membership in the province’s churches are clinging to outdated perceptions of each other. Republicans, he says, can’t see the compromises unionists have made, and vice-versa.

“It was a bridge too far for the majority of the church,” said Baker, who described the Ulster Protestant psyche as highly moral and ethical, but unyielding when it comes to pragmatic kinds of compromises.

“This reflects the degree of isolation that still exists. So many folks have not had the opportunity or experience to be enabled to move beyond their mistrust,” he said, noting that neither the political nor the ecclesiastical systems have been able to provide the assurances or guarantees that are necessary to quell centuries of accumulated fears.

The quest for pure doctrine only intensifies mistrust, according to Baker, and unwittingly fuels divisions and hostilities within the larger society. “Behind the vote shows the level of profound mistrust of the Catholic church as a body,” Baker said, noting that similar levels of distrust pervade both sides of the political stand-off.

The PCI’s press spokesperson, Stephen Lynas, said that the 100 or so PCI voters who filed a formal dissent after the balloting worry that the “no” vote is one with symbolic repercussions – since the churches have been pushing Ulster’s political leaders to make peace. “There’s a big weakness in our Christian witness,” he said. “There’s a big split in it.

“Compared to where we were, we’ve come a long, long way. But in the wider world context, we have a long way to go,” said Lynas.

That would get no argument from Stevens who says the Presbyterians have left Ireland’s other three major denominations with a big decision.

“The Presbyterian Church is going to have to stand on the sidelines while others decide what to do,” he said, noting that the options run from maintaining the status quo – since the PCI is such a large church in Northern Ireland, particularly – or forming an ecumenical body that does not include Presbyterians. “I doubt that would happen immediately,” he said, “but it could happen.”

The fact that many PCI delegates simply failed to show up for the vote is what gripes Stevens. He reads that not as apathy but as fear – a way to avoid taking a position that might be tough to explain back home. “It’s like [Irish writer] Seamus Heaney said: `Whatever you say, say nothing.’ They [the PCI] don’t want to appear anti-Catholic. But they don’t want to take a stand, either.”

Posted: Sept. 15, 1999 • Permanent link:
Categories: Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue, PCUSA NewsIn this article: Catholic, Ireland, Presbyterian, religious hatred
Transmis : 15 sept. 1999 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue, PCUSA NewsDans cet article : Catholic, Ireland, Presbyterian, religious hatred

  Previous post: Ancien article : After Many Delays, WCC Prepares to Deal with Orthodox Complaints
  Newer post: Article récent : Anglican, United church dialogue advances in Canada