Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Psalm for Back to Church Sunday

This is a call to worship I put together for Back to Church Sunday 2011 but forgot to post at the time... So here it is another year on...

I rejoiced with those who said to me,

"Let us go to the house of the LORD."
Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
for he is our God, our loving heavenly shepherd
And we are his flock, the people of his pasture.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and glorify him with music and song.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

From Psalms 95, 118 & 122

Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Untraditional Route

I live in a leafy suburb of East Belfast (although I largely work in a slightly less leafy loyalist housing estate further east) and it is a rare day that the sound of Orange parades is to be heard here, in contrast to my last manse, which was practically on the route of the largest Twelfth Parade in Ireland. However, today, I have no doubt that I will hear more than a few flute bands as what is predicted to be the biggest parade of loyal orders (and others) for many years arrives at its destination in the Stormont Estate, just across the road. They are coming there to share in a family fun day celebrating the Centenary of the Signing of the Ulster Covenant. Due to its scale there are multiple "feeder parades" which will merge at Belfast City Hall where there will be a number of re-enactments of the initial signing of the Covenant, before the long haul out to Stormont and back again. The choice of Stormont as the ultimate destination is an interesting one, given that whilst it was once reputed to be the seat of a "protestant parliament for a protestant people" (in what might be said to be a "popular misquote regarding an unpopular political entity") it is now the seat of a power-sharing executive that would have had the original signatories of the Ulster Covenant drafting a contemporary version (which would not have looked like the one offered in yesterday's post). But that is echoed in the irony that as the Parade makes its way up Prince of Wales Avenue it will be greeted by the giant statue of Edward Carson, who, whilst the first signatory of the Ulster Covenant, never wanted a separate Northern Ireland that left Unionists in the rest of Ireland outside the United Kingdom.
Whilst this part of the Upper Newtownards Road is not part of any so-called "Traditional Route", I doubt there will be too many protests, nor will there have to be a Parades Commission determination to take into account the sensitivities of the citizens of this part of town (so long as the flute bands do not interfere with any TV coverage of the Ryder Cup... if that happened there is no telling what the citizens around Stormont would do... they might go so far as to write a strongly worded letter to that Stephen Nolan fellow). There has been a determination on other parts of the parade however, and all reasonable-minded people hope that the parade will go off peacefully all along its route. But there are more than a few unreasonably-minded people on both sides of our sadly divided community here, and there will need to be good leadership on both sides to make sure that there are no repeat of the provocative actions or unnecessary violence that have accompanied other parades throughout the summer, especially when the bands accompanying the Royal Black Institution's Parade in Belfast on the last Saturday in August ignored a legally binding determination of the Parades Commission. It might be argued that resisting the determination of the parades Commission is small beer compared with the ironic actions of the "loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V" signing a Covenant where they promised to support each other in resisting the will of His Gracious Majesty's legally elected government "imposing" Home Rule on those loyal subjects, but such is the persisting complexity of Ulster loyalty. Indeed, another irony of the destination of today's parade is that the last time such a huge crowd gathered in the grounds of Stormont was to catch a glimpse of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II on her diamond jubilee visit, whilst here they gather to celebrate what might be described as an act of defiance against the crown if not outright treachery.
Recently, the Belfast District of the Methodist Church made this statement at its autumn synod sitting in Knock Church Centre, a mere hundred metres from the parade route today:
Synod recognises that for many people in Northern Ireland it will be important to mark the centenary of the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant. While acknowledging the right to do so Synod is clearly of a mind that this should be done sensitively so that it will not provoke a negative reaction from those who would not be in sympathy with the sentiments of the Covenant.
Synod understands that parades will form part of the commemorations and insofar as parades are concerned Synod makes the plea to all those responsible for these parades to ensure that they take place with dignity and respect for others. Synod also calls on parade organisers to take responsibility for the actions of their members and also ensure that accompanying bands behave with dignity at all times but especially in interface areas where insensitive behaviour could result in inter community strife.
Synod further recognises that other centenaries will be marked over the coming years and would make the plea that all such events be characterised by dignity, sensitivity and respect.
Personally I doubt that there are many within Orangeism today who listen too much to what the Methodist Church might say, despite the fact that Methodist voices were some of the loudest in support of the Ulster Covenant, and indeed in laying the groundwork for it a hundred years ago. But we've moved on from there, and we trust and pray that this province will move on too. The organisers of today's parade may not pay much heed to a few Methodists meeting in the leafy suburbs of East Belfast, but it was good to see two out of the three nouns which close that statement "dignity, sensitivity and respect" being echoed in the statement of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland in response to the Parades Commission Determination:
"The institution will do everything possible to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant with respect and dignity."
Two out of three ain't bad... And I trust that they will be the watchwords of all that happens today. Although it might be interesting to see some of those parading to set aside their dignity on getting to Stormont and have a go on some of the entertainments I saw yesterday being set up for today's fun day...
An Orangeman on a bouncy castle... Now what would Carson make of that!?

ps. As an alternative perspective on the Ulster Covenant check out Patrick Mitchel's personal sketch.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A Contemporary Covenant

I'm currently reading (among others) a local history of the area in which I minister, Dundonald, on the eastern outskirts of Belfast, entitled “The Most Unpretending of Places”. That is the origin of the grainy photograph at the head of this post, and according to the author, Peter Carr, it is a picture of some citizens of Dundonald signing the Ulster Covenant on the 12th September, 1912. Either the people of Dundonald were ahead of the curve and wanted to sign that document a fortnight before Edward Carson appended his signature to the top of it, or else the author got his dates wrong…
It was on this day, September 28th 1912, that the majority of the adult Protestant population of Ulster signed a document known as the Solemn League and Covenant, in order to articulate their absolute opposition to the Home Rule Bill then being proposed by the British government. This piece of legislation would have left Ireland still firmly within the British Empire, but many within Ulster believed would threaten Ulster’s economic welling and might radically affect the culture and religion of Protestants across the island.
The leaders of all the main Protestant denominations in Ulster, including Methodism, and some of the smaller ones, were united in their opposition to Home Rule, which was an ecumenical miracle in a way... It is notable that it was unity around an issue of earthly citizenship rather than for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and was largely founded on anti-Catholic sentiment, and an understandable fear of suddenly finding themselves in the minority within Ireland rather than a majority within the United Kingdom, with a lot of old sectarian scores to settle, dating back to the Potato Famine, Penal Laws, Cromwell and beyond. But it should be said that while there was much anti-Catholic sentiment in many of the speeches that formed the context for the signing of the covenant the document itself is free of such overtly sectarian rhetoric (much more so than the 17th century Scottish Solemn League and Covenant on which it is based). For those who are not familiar with the document, here it is in full:
BEING CONVINCED in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire, we, whose names are underwritten, men of Ulster, loyal subjects of His Gracious Majesty King George V, humbly relying on the God whom our fathers in days of stress and trial confidently trusted, do hereby pledge ourselves in solemn Covenant, throughout this our time of threatened calamity, to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom, and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament in Ireland. And in the event of such a Parliament being forced upon us, we further solemnly and mutually pledge ourselves to refuse to recognize its authority. In sure confidence that God will defend the right, we hereto subscribe our names.
And further, we individually declare that we have not already signed this Covenant. 
This was only signed by men, there was a separate Declaration for women to sign… But both of these documents were signed the length and breadth of Ulster, with many of the venues being Orange Halls and churches. My own relatives on my Dad’s side signed it in Lissan Orange Hall and the porch of Claggan Presbyterian Church outside Cookstown in County Tyrone. Some signed it in their own blood, some only making their mark as they were unable to write… And I am sure that there are similar stories in your families too… To some it may be a source of pride and a reminder of the resolve needed then and now to preserve Ulster’s distinct religious and cultural heritage. For other Christians, there are several problems with the document, in particular its insistence that God is on the side of Unionism and its implication that physical force against the British Government may be needed in order to prevent political defeat.
I could go into some detail as to the relationship of the Ulster Covenant with Biblical understandings of covenant, but I'll spare you that for today. But at best it is an agreement between people committing them to support one another in defying the government, asking God to bless this endeavour, which in itself is slightly problematic as … Which, as Romans chapter 13 reminds us that government is set above us by God and hence we would need to have compelling reasons to violently resist such authority. It is not a classic covenant between a nation and God, because in those, God takes the initiative and there is no blasphemous claim made by the drafters of the covenant that he does…
As such I don’t know that I would agree with some that this covenant itself was blasphemous and has brought down a spiritual curse on this land – a covenant with death akin to that which Isaiah accuses Ephraim of making:
We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement.

Isaiah 28:15 (ANIV)
I'm also currently reading Harry Smith's "Heal not Lightly", which I've had on my shelf for some time, but since it is largely a spiritual analysis of the context, content and consequences of the Ulster Covenant, I thought I really should read it now. I'll give it a proper review when I've finished, but so far I would say that his introduction on the Biblical and political context of the covenant is concise but helpful. However, I don’t agree with the underlying "spiritual warfare" theology underpinning what follows. That said, there is no doubt that the mindset of God on our side, which is found in both the Ulster Covenant and the later republican Easter Declaration of Independence, has unleashed a century of death and destruction on this land. That is why you will not find me referring to the events of this weekend as a celebration of the Ulster Covenant. It is a cause for commemoration, but certainly not celebration. And the same applies to the many events that will be marked throughout this decade.
But I hold on to the fact that, even if this may be termed a covenant of death, Isaiah’s words to Ephraim have been fulfilled:
Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the grave will not stand.

Isaiah 28:18 (ANIV)
Through the new covenant in Christ's blood we are freed from the power of death… And whatever is celebrated or commemorated this week and throughout this so-called Decade of Centenaries, those of us who claim to be part of God’s covenant people, need to take seriously what that means. Our first loyalty is NOT to a nation state… be it the United Kingdom or a United Ireland, but to the Kingdom of God… a Kingdom which is founded in the new covenant, promised by the prophets, made at God’s initiative through the blood of Christ – as he explained at his last supper with his disciples:
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Matthew 26:27-8
As I think about the covenant signed 100 years ago I wonder if I would have signed it with my family, particularly if church and political leaders told me that my faith, culture, livelihood and perhaps even life was under threat… I don’t know, and I’m not going to stand in judgement over them for that… but 100 years on I, and Ulster, are in a radically different place, and when a number of my fb friends have asked me to add my name to and share a post celebrating the Ulster Covenant I quietly declined. However I responded warmly to the invitation by Contemporary Christianity (formerly ECONI) to draft some liturgical material for a Contemporary Covenant. I asked that there might be no formal acknowledgement of my authorship on the document, not out of any embarrassment or fear, but lest perceptions about my theological perspectives put anyone off using it. But I'm happy acknowledging my authorship here since this blog doesn't have a huge readership... and if you've found your way here you probably don't find my pronouncements too objectionable... It has been encouraging to see it being referred to and posted elsewhere and I hope it has been and will be useful. I largely based the material on the structure of the traditional Methodist Covenant Service which we usually celebrate on the first Sunday in January each year, but I'm sure that John Wesley and his successors will forgive me such plagiarism as he largely pilfered it from the writings of the puritan Richard Alleine. What follows is the act of covenant itself, if you would like the full liturgy (including call to worship, responsive psalm, act of confession and prayers of intercession, as well as suggestions for Bible readings and prayers) you can find it on the Contemporary Christianity website.

Brothers and sisters in Christ,
fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God,
let us together reaffirm our commitment to the solemn covenant which God has made with his people of all ages, nations and races,
a covenant of grace, sealed with the blood of Christ.
We are convinced that God’s Kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom;
All earthly empires and kingdoms rise and fall
but we confess our loyalty to a King that men did not crown and cannot dethrone.
His only earthly crown was one of thorns, a sign of sacrificial servant kingship.
And we know because of his death and resurrection that there is no power in heaven or on earth can separate us from that steadfast sacrificial love.
And so we take upon us the yoke of Christ,
making his purposes our priority,
seeking to do what is right in his eyes,
not necessarily what is popular among our peers, or in the court of public opinion.
We turn away in repentance from our failings in the past
And through the power of Christ’s Spirit we commit ourselves to do what God desires,
to love as sacrificially as Christ has loved us;
to forgive as we have been forgiven;
to engage in the ministry of reconciliation;
to seek and make peace;
to speak the truth, in love;
to hope unswervingly and proclaim that hope consistently
to serve rather than seek to be served,
to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to God what is God’s.
to act justly and practice mercy,
and walk humbly with our covenant God. 

At times this may be easy, at others it will be difficult;
It will sometimes bring honour, at others shame;
At sometimes it will fit with our own inclinations and serve our material interests,
At others it will be contrary to both;
In some cases we may please Christ and please ourselves;
In others we will not be able to please Christ except by denying ourselves;
In some cases we may be loyal to Christ’s kingdom and honour earthly loyalties;
In others we cannot be loyal to Christ and his kingdom except by rejecting previous loyalties and defying earthly authority.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
Therefore let us make this covenant of God in Christ our own.
Let us give ourselves to him, trusting in his promises and relying on his grace. 

Faithful Father God,
since you have called me through Christ to share in this gracious covenant,
I pledge myself to you and your Kingdom
I take upon myself with joy the yoke of obedience
To give to you all that I have and am
In all things to seek first your Kingdom
and to do what is right in your eyes;
Seeking to serve you wherever you chose to place me
in every sphere of my life.
To live for you and your glory alone.
Now and forever more. So be it. Amen.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Thoughts on Playboy by an Old Married Man

Just had a very relaxing 24 hours or so, in between what was a busy and traumatic week and what is likely to be a busy and traumatic week... I had planned to take a 3 day weekend to celebrate our anniversary with my wife... But various crises have conspired to curtail that... However, we did manage to get to the Lyric Theatre's production of "Playboy of the Western World" last night... This was particularly appropriate as it was through a student theatre company in Edinburgh that we were both members of that we got together... and the director of this production, Conall Morrison, was another member and good friend... although his speech at the wedding reception will live long in the memory... especially the memory of Sally's family who thought he was suggesting that I should actually have married another friend, the actress Ali White... But that's another story (which I'll tell some day over a flagon of mead.)
But anyway, it was good to get out and exercise that theatrical bit of the brain... And it was a good production... Lalor Roddy as Old Christy and Brid Ni Neachtain as the Widow Quinn were especially good, the energy levels on stage palpably increased when they came on... and indeed that would probably have been my only criticism, in that the energy levels all round weren't as high as they might have been, especially the romantic energy between Pegeen Mike and Christy and during the farcical fight scene towards the end... But it is early days in the run and that will probably pick up.

Well actually it isn't true to say that is my only criticism - it's my only criticism of the production - but to tell the truth I have never really understood this play, nor the general reaction to it... whether that be the violent riots it provoked when first staged by the Abbey in Dublin, or the widespread adulation it seems to garner from Irish theatrical cognoscenti... I've seen a number of productions (and this is one of the better ones) but they've all left me a little cold. I actually went so far as to re-read the play in the run up to this production to see if I've been missing something, but I don't think I am. Some of the language in the play is wonderful, and there are some very amusing scenes, but it just doesn't hold together for me. If it has any theatrical value I think it is as an historical artefact, standing between the romanticised version of rural Ireland to be found in Victorian melodrama (like Boucicoult's "Colleen Bawn"), and the more extreme parodies (eg. Flann O'Brien etc) or overtly politically conscious plays of later generations (like Friel's "Translations"). As such I'm probably expecting too much of it... 
But I've always found it ironic that the romantic nationalists who rioted at its opening because of the negative picture it painted of the Irish peasantry, in many ways were ignoring one of the key messages of the play... Not the difference between the romance and reality of the Irish peasantry, because the drunken, brawling picture painted by Synge has no more reality than the bucolic scenes beloved of De Boucicoult, but the difference between the romance and reality of violence. Christy is a hero when he was thought to have killed his father at the far end of the country, but is different altogether when it happened on their doorstep. Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, was said to have been outraged by Synge's portrayal of Irish peasantry... I don't know whether he joined the rioters or not, but perhaps he and his followers might have been better placed taking note of this critique of violence, instead of following a pathway defined by the romanticism of violence in support of nationalism that ultimately led to the GPO at Easter 1916 and the bloodshed that has flowed from Pearse's poetic endorsement of the myth of redemptive violence... 
Another interesting fact that I learned from the programme notes last night, is that when the Abbey took it's production on tour to Unionist Belfast the audiences there did not riot (despite usually being up for a riot at the drop of a hat)... They didn't care if Irish peasants were maligned... Sure Synge's portrayal showed why they didn't want "that lot" having any say over the north in some Home Rule parliament... But they clearly paid no attention to Synge's attitude to violence either, because a few short years later they committed themselves to a path of violent resistance to Home Rule in the Ulster Covenant... But I'll probably be saying more on that in the next couple of weeks...
Anyway... Got to go and enjoy my last few hours off before my mini anniversary break comes to an end...


Friday, September 7, 2012

Thankful for the Coming Weekend...

The beginning of September is usually a little crazy in any minister's household as everything kicks into gear for another year of fun and games. Add to that a little additional insanity when the minister's spouse is also employed in a church or church-related community project...
That's the baseline for our family as the summer holiday's some to a close... this year we've had the extra stress of Ciaran starting a new school and Owain resuming school (going back a year) after a somewhat disastrous year 13 due to injury and illness... Then 2 days into the school year Owain dislocates his shoulder through the strenuous activity of turning over in bed, necessitating a 2 day sojourn in hospital and another trip to theatre to reset it...
Most people come to the end of weeks like that and are thankful for the coming weekend... So what are we doing for our first weekend of the school year? Well, tomorrow we're all taking part in the DFCI North Down Coastal Challenge, a 16 mile sponsored walk from Orlock Point to Holywood, supporting the work that Sally is involved in with Dundonald Family and Community Initiative - helping families in Ballybeen housing estate... with many of those families facing much more challenging situations than we ever will... The stresses and strains on us are temporary and not life threatening, but with many the situations they find themselves in are both more serious and sustained... 
Many of you have already sponsored me due to my nagging and spamming on Facebook and Twitter (I nearly got blocked from Facebook Messenger because of my messages yesterday). If you have done, thank you... If not then you can use this widget to do so...

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

 If I am still capable of walking on Sunday I have 4 different services to conduct... Maybe I should have done a sponsored event to see how many services I could do in one day...

Anyway, this is not just a way of encouraging people to sponsor me... It is also by way of warning you that if you attempt to find me on Monday you will fail...