The churches during the crisis
IT IS A MARK of the irrelevance of much of the modern Irish Church that whenever a crisis in the North erupts the Churches cease to be of paramount significance. In between crises the leaders of the Churches receive a great deal of publicity for their efforts to patch up wounds created by their ancestors. Such was certainly true when representatives of the four main Churches visited the BQgside and Fountain Street in Derry. Their reception was friendly on all sides and liberal newspapers hailed the visit as one of enormous significance. Only a month later the North was plunged into a frenzy of fascist repression and fear. The main factor to bear in mind in an examination of the Churches' public stance in the North is that their leaders know that they cannot momentously influence events.
Furthermore all the Churches are expected to adopt a liberal position on the problem of sectarian hatred. No Church leader could really suggest nowadays that hatred was Christian. The significant policies are therefore seen in what the leaders do not do and in their attitudes to the subordinate clergy who have more local influence. The main churches in the North are the Catholic and Presbyterian. The latter has two of the most significant classes in its fold: the petty bourgeoisie on the one hand and the Paisleyite working class on the other.
While the Presbyterian Church is technically democratic it is in effect controlled by an alliance of the clergy and the petty bourgeois group, which comprises small shopkeepers, small factory owners and the lesser professionals. These are, of course, the backbone of the local Protestant communities and while they do not control the Orange Order, they are certainly considered locally as the citizens of greatest stature.
Their theology is polemical rather than protestant. Because they fear that their complex web of privilege and contract is threatened by the Catholics, they tend to align themselves either with the anti-reformist right-wing of the Unionist party or with the more militant Paisleyite movement. Though only a minority join the latter, they do, in effect, constitute the organisational backbone of Paisleyism.
The working-class Presbyterians, including those who constitute the militant wing of Paisleyism, are inhabitants of the Shankill Road area. This area is only about thirty per cent Church of Ireland. More significantly the Presbyterian clergy are indigenous to the area while most Church of Ireland ministers are not. As a result even the Church of Ireland laity in the Shankill Road look to the Presbyterians for their ideological leadership.
The Presbyterian Church clearly represents the most reactionary elements in the North: a declining middle class throughout the province and a traditionally anti-Catholic unskilled working-class in Belfast.In East Belfast the majority of Protestants who organise joint vigilante committees are Church of Ireland and skilled. The Presbyterian Church is more important in areas that are totally Protestant such as the Shankill. In areas such as Ardoyne, religion plays a less important role among Protestants.
There has been a marked trend towards reaction at the Presbyterian Assemblies in the last few years. This year an Evangelical Protestant from Bangor who has little time for the Ecumenical movement, Dr. John Carson, was elected Moderator. The General Assembly was held in the R.D.S. in Dublin this year. Among other things it passed a unanimous vote of confidence in the R. U .c., the Stormont government, and by analogy the Ulster Constitution. The lone dissenting voice of Rev. Terence McCaughey from Dublin, received a lukewarm reception. Needless to say there was much private doubt expressed at the attendance of President De Valera, and the playing of the National Anthem of the Republic. There was a good deal of annoyance also at the treatment the southern press gave their bigoted prevarications and the prominence the press accorded to Terence McCaughey. At the end of the Assembly, Dr. Withers, the outgoing Moderator, made an incredible speech claiming the troubles of the North were caused by individual failure rather than any specific grievance. Last year Dr. Withers had steered a perilous course between his Paisleyites and his few O'Neillites. During the General Election he went on holiday to South Africa. But Dr. Carson in his politics, background, and theology inclines to the reaction which Withers had tried to avoid.
In August Dr. Carson attended the funeral of the dead Protestant who was killed during the riots before the troops arrived. There is evidence that this man was shot in the head when attacking Catholics leaving their burning homes. His mere attendance along with Mr..Paisley and his cohorts had an unfortunate significance. This was made more pointed by the non-attendance of catholic churchmen at other funerals.
His funeral oration was even more tactless. He warned the people present not to seek revenge. This could have been expected of any cleric, even Mr. Paisley. But he continued to justify turning the other cheek by quoting " vengeance is mine saith the Lord and woe unto them who arrogate my authority! " This passage has a history of unfortunate theological implications and is beloved by clerical demagogues.
Furthermore it implied that vengcance was needed, thereby implying guilt on the Catholic side.
When the Catholic hierarchy issued a statement on the events in the Falls Road, Dr. Carson outflanked the Prime Minister by stating then" this exacerbates tension which prevails about the province." His statement, furthermore, seemed to .make claims about. the political role of the Catholic hierarchy. The statement, he claimed, " confirms the fears and suspicions of the Protestant people."The statement of five Presbysterian ministers in the Shankill was much more moderate. It merely claimed that the hierarchy had made things more difficult.
The emergency meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly confirmed that Dr. Carson was speaking from a firm base of reactionary Presbyterian support. On August 26th reverting to traditional evangelical explanations for all the world's evils he said the Northern troubles sprang from" shameful misunderstandings, evil rum ours . and drunkenness." This evidently contributed little to an understanding in the North. The statement totally ignored political problems or their solution.
The attitude of the rank and file of Presbyterian clergy was not made apparcnt till well into the present disturbances.
Rev. J. Hill took a very brave stand in debunking Mr. Paisley when he denied that an armed guard for children attending a school near the Falls Road was necessary. But the Presbyterian clergy who were in a position to restrain the mobs in the Shankill and Sandy Row were conspicuous by their absence until early September when a linc of clergy twice stopped a clash between the people of Shankill and the British troops.
Since the majority of the clergy come from the most reactionary petty bourgeois background, they tend to support with some misgivings the policies of the Paisleyites although they resent him stealing their flocks and incorporating them in his Free Presbyterian Church. The professors of the Presbyterian Seminary Assemblies College, find that students entering it in the last five years have tended increasingly towards a right wing position.
The Chu~ch of Ireland plays a different role. Its laity generally come from the landowning class, who control the Unionist Party and from the East of the Bann middle-classes. This latter group constituted the main support for O'Neillism, while the landowners support their own, namely O'Neill and Chichester Clark. Most of the clergy are trained in the South and come from pretty comfortable backgrounds. Although the Church of Ireland is more numerous in the North there are a greater number of artificially subsidised parishes and consequently a greater number of clergymen south of the border.
Thus the Church of Ireland has supported O'Neill and his cohorts since thebeginning of the crisis. As a Church it has always supported the ruling government North and South. Because of its clerical membership it has little influence with the Protestant forces of raction. All the year the Church leaders have called for peace. Their success has not been evident.
Canon Kerr at the Apprentice Boys' march in Derry on August 12th, made a modcrate speech calling for" a competition in doing good based on the bible story of the two debtors." During the riots in Derry two Derry clergymen called for peace saying that" perfect love casteth out fear." On August 22nd the Church of Ireland Gazette criticiscd the pacifism of the Church of Ireland. On the same day the Dean of Cork, F. K. Johnston, said he was ashamed to be termed a Protestant because of thc massacrc in Belfast.
During August the new Primate, Dr. Simms, made various calls for peace. On one occasion he admitted" many people were unaware of the wrongs existing in the community." In general, the performance of Dr. Simms was cautious and although he was more strenuous than his predecessor in his call for peace, he had little effect.
The Catholic Church probably acted in the most courageous and responsible manner. This is not because of any greater political depth. Cardinal Conway still finds Eddie McAteer the most congenial politician in the North. All the hierarchy of the North apart from Rev. Anthony Mac Feely (elected in 1965) whose residence is in Lettcrkenny, were appointed during a period when the Catholic hierarchy really did control the Nationalist Party to a large degree. Dr. Neil Farren was appointed to Derry in 1939. Dr. William Philbin, appointed to Belfast in 1953.Dr. Eugene O'Doherty to Newry in 194-1, Dr. Austin Quinn to Cavan in 1950, William Cardinal Conway to Armagh in 1958, and Dr. Eugene O'Callaghan to Monaghan in 1943.
Thus they are an old hierarchy with extensive contacts with the old A.O.H. and Nationalist alliance which ruled the Catholic areas outside Belfast. During the year the hierarchy confined itself to issuing statements questioning the truth of official versions of controversial events, appeals for peace and reiterated old charges of underprivilege. Eugene O'Callaghan was probably most consistent and emphatic in his demands for civil rights. This was surprising since only a small part of his Diocese is in Tyrone, the bulk of it being in the Republic.
Dr. Farren was the most insistent in his efforts efforts for peace, facilitated, of course, by an amenable Protestant community in Derry. But he did authorise night-long vigils for peace in Sr. Columb's and St. Eugene's Cathedrals on November 16th and he led and organised the joint tour of Derry by Church leaders in July.
The hierarchy did not publicly support the C.R.A. for a number of reasons. Firstly the hierarchy had a few contacts with the new C.R.A. leaders and had an ill-concealed distaste for People's Democracy. Secondly they seem to have decided at their bi-annual Synod in Maynooth last October to refrain from giving ammunition to people who would stir up Protestant fears of an episcopal overlordship of the C.R.A.
The hierarchy's relations with the Unionist party have remained pretty frigid over the year since the big disputes over a higher state subsidy and new governing boards for Catholic schools and the Mater Hospital in Belfast. Earlier in the decade, with increasing state expenditure on Catholic social services, they had become fairly warm but these big disputes had already considerably worsened relations before the advent of the C.R.A.
Ir does seem, however, that Cardinal Conway's statement during the February elections was a concession to O'Neillite Unionists. By stating that Catholics could vote according to their consciences he merely repeated a tenet of the Vatican Council. But Unionist circles at the time were delighted and rightly believed that many middle-class Catholics would interpret the statement as permission to vote Unionist.
During the tragic events of August the hierarchy reacted with restraint and honesty. Dr. Philbin visited the besieged Falls Road area when it was still quite dangerous and he was instrumental in having troops drafted into Ardoyne, which lay at the mercy of the Specials. The statement of the whole Northern hierarchy which clearly laid the blame at the feet of organised Protestant extremism in Belfast, and attacked the defence of these forces by the Unionist mass media may have been provocative. But nobody could deny that it must have had a beneficial effect on world opinion and must have been a necessary booster to Catholic morale in Belfast which was besieged on the .one hand by Protestant mobs and on the other by the Unionist press. Very wisely too the hierarchy from the South confined themselves to calling for interdenominational relief.
The prime Catholic episcopal virtue is probably that of pastoral care, however misguided, for its people. Whenever sectarian riots have hit the North the hierarchy have reacted admirably.
Indeed during the massacres of 1935 the Catholic hierarchy were the only significant organised body to attempt to bring Unionist oppression to the attention of the world. Similarly in 1922 when the Irish government was relatively silent on sectarian dispossession of Catholics in the North the Catholic hierarchy was loud in protest.
However, the rank conservatism of the hierarchy comes to the fore during spells of peace. By the beginning of Septcmber, Dr. Philbin was" Welcoming the proposals of Mr. Callaghan "and Cardinal Conway" was hopeful for the future." They issued these statements when Catholic families were daily being evicted from mixed streets in Belfast and in the same week in which the British troops refused to stop intimidation at work.
Throughout the year the hierarchy have placed far too much trust in grudging reform proposals doled out by the Unionists. They have shown themselves to be interested more in peace than in justice. The hierarchy supported the month's truce called after O'Neill's famous television speech last December. The hierarchy also demanded a period of grace for the ambiguous Chichester-Clark when he came to power.
Dr. Philbin's evident collusion with the British military in removing the barricades is probably the worst example of a hierarchical desire for peace at all costs. General Freeland had been told to get the barricades down by the fickle Mr. Callaghan on September 16th. On the same day the people of Falls Road and Divis Street voted to keep their barricades. Then on the next day Dr. Philbin with a phalanx of the more conservative local clergy pressurised the people to take them down when their menfolk were at work. The record of the Catholic hierarchy bears comparison with any other powerful interest group in the North. Its record has been one primarily of politically shrewd, honest conservatism.
The only other significant Church in the North is the Methodist Church. This Church represents neither the working class nor the wealthy middleclass. It has a minority influence in most areas in the North. On the Shankill Road there are two Methodist churches. But nowhere does it have a great deal' of influence. Irs Annual Assembly in 1968 in Cork showed a marked degree of reaction. And as a Church it was hardly in a position to greatly effect the Protestant community in the North. During the August crisis its governing body made no public statement. It did finally make a statement asking for peace when a Methodist church was burnt down on the Crumlin Road. A statement by its leading clergymen is not recorded.
The Protestant Churches are in a weak position in the North. They have allowed their laity to remain theologically naive and Evangelical and Paisleyite in their attitudes. Biblical niceties cannot effect generations of clerical difference to lay religion. Thus all laity are potential victims of Paisley's religious views even if they are not attracted to his fascist politics. Futhermore with a well organised U.V.F. only a very brave clergyman could operate independently in riot areas. Similarly the younger Catholic clergy do not play a leading role in the C.R.A. In rural towns such as Dungiven the influence of the priest is more marked. But the era of clerical hegemony in Catholic political circles ended with the advent of the C.R.A.