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Printable version

A Theological Comment on the issues involved in the Drumcree Situation

Prepared at the request of the Standing Committee of the General Synod
Advent 1998

This document is offered in all humility by the authors, aware of the complexities and sensitivities involved. The situation at Drumcree is an example; the issues it raises could be multiplied all over Northern Ireland and beyond.

A Christian Response
This attempt at a response is born of a desire to find and contribute an effective means of communication and reform, and in the belief that the arguments of politics and even persuasive logic may not always achieve this: neither are they distinctively Christian. We tire of politics, and can be rather illogical, especially when blinded by hurt, loss and pain, The opportunity remains for an attempt to find a common religious language which might communicate, persuade and inspire to greater things. This creates a situation where all of us together can confront deeply subjective and shared things in a biblical, theological way. In this spirit, a theological and biblical reflection might reasonably be put to those involved, with a request for a response or invitation to discussion. However, we do not anticipate this interim document could be presented without alteration to those directly involved in the Drumcree situation, but at the same time we hope it is sufficiently practical to provide some useful resource material for use 'on the ground'.

Many approaches to the present situation (e.g. attack, criticism, ostracism, ridicule) simply harden sectarian lines, and reinforce a sense of innocent grievance, or the recklessness of the marginalised. Moreover, as with any organisation, there may be some notorious exceptions, but we are persuaded that most members of the Orange Order are manifestly a decent, religious people, yet who are fearful of the erosion and disappearance of their culture and heritage. As such, they would need and would welcome guidance from their church, not ostracism or disassociation. As part of our responsibility as a church, such guidance would involve pastoral care and theological help as they seek to assess their situation for themselves.

Ostracism is clearly unchristian, disassociation probably also. Disassociation would appear to be historically questionable The links with the Order, whilst not exclusively Church of Ireland are irretrievable; the fact that we feel it so keenly in the Church of Ireland North and South proves also our present association. Further, disassociation is theologically questionable (Christ's incarnation is fundamentally an association - see below)

Religion and Culture
We may pursue the issue of guidance a little further. Culture and religion are inextricably tied together. Cultural and religious Protestantism are inextricably tied together. Acknowledging the cultural, our desire is to appeal to the religious nature that lies behind it (and from which it stemmed), and much of which remains in common with those with whom we may disagree. Cultural and religious differentiation is a fact of Irish history; in tending to the branches we must not lose sight of the common historical ground, roots, trunk. Furthermore, in the present, we also share the same atmosphere of opportunity under God, so we ought to persist in trying to get alongside all those directly involved in the Drumcree situation (not just the members of the Order) and talk about God's will for them together, His thoughts, His plans, for them as a group and for us all in this country.

There might also arise a positive affirmation of what can be witnessed to rather than a defensive preservation. Even the word 'Protestant' implies speaking for something as much as protesting against in the modern sense. Yet, when security is threatened, people reinforce their boundaries. When culture and religion are threatened, people reinforce cultural and religious boundaries. They put limits on their company, harden lines of doctrine, and (often unwittingly and from apparently the most decent motives) put limits on their God. This last is the sin of idolatry: the second commandment which forbids making a graven image of God. Note that delineating God or the sphere of His action is the believers' tendency, and problem. Their God becomes 'their' God and there are then makings of a tribal deity - the ultimate twist on Emmanuel, 'God with us' becomes 'God with (only) us'. The God who was encountered is now encapsulated. The essential nature of the Gospel - Good News - is now the stubborn and fearful regurgitation of old formulas, the Gospel which is an event has been reduced to a tribal proposition.

A Way forward
A way forward must involve the proclamation of something greater, or, religiously, of Someone greater and of a better way. In the discussion that follows, we suggest that the Drumcree situation be viewed first in the widest possible perspective, in the light of Holy Trinity. Then we consider some of the consequences of this for the Church which confesses this faith, and finally offer considerations of some of the issues that specifically arise with some biblical resource material and further questions for discussion. In identifying the issues and questions, we prefer not to attempt to dictate the answers but rather to offer a framework for their understanding and resolution. This contains the further advantage of allowing people to understand and discover answers for themselves rather than having them forced upon them.

We suggest we might start with a very broad canvas which is common to us all, Roman Catholic or Protestant, Orange or Green. We could then work from the perspective down to the detail, keeping the perspective in mind. A broad perspective proclaims a greater truth than can be contained by our religious divisions, yet each division must assent to it. So we are starting with assent not dissent. The broad perspective precedes our denominations, exists despite them and calls us forward into diverse unity, the true community of love. Like St. Patrick before us, we suggest we confess the name of the Trinity.

Confessing the Trinity

The Trinity in Essence
We suggest that the Trinity may be viewed as the paradigm of what community can be and ought to be. At the heart of the Trinity is relationship, the holy relationship of love. The universe, the ecological world and the people who live in is are created relational and humans bear the image of their creator. The image is spoiled, but there all the same. It is relationships that matter most to us and cause the greatest pain when severed or spoiled, as in Drumcree, affecting identity, community and church.

Further, the Trinity demonstrates to us how love retains identity within community; the identity of the Father, Son and Spirit are defined by and given by each other. In our context, the shared truth of the Trinity suggests itself, sharing in the sense that the Trinity itself is a sharing of love, and it is this that creates, redeems and sanctifies us as individuals in community. The incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension are all wonderful outworkings of this relational creator; God shares His loving nature with us and invites us to share ours with Him and ours with each other - all without the burden of darkness and sin The two great commandments of Jesus reflect, and are a reflection of, our shared origin, nature and destiny. The prayer of Christ for His disciples (John 17) is for them so share the loving unity that He and the Father share. The prayer He teaches His disciples (the Lord's Prayer) is likewise shared and sharing

So we belong together, and together to God: it's amazing what can flow from this first, united principle. Our shared nature and shared destiny are together the reason and motivation for reconciliation. As with the Trinity, the unity does not lie in uniformity; rather in reconciled diversity - the dialogue of diverse but mutual trust, celebration, love and joy, all of which make for peace. So we seek a relational truth that unites us all; we define ourselves first by this, then by how we differ.

A Trinitarian Approach
A Trinitarian approach, based upon the credal formulas to which we all assent, might go something like this;

God the Father, creator of all. Amidst our Christological preoccupations, it is important to remember the creator. This means we are all one family; we share the same Creator and we share each other; this is a given, a fact. We may not agree with each other but it is a basic truth that we belong to one another. We are created separately together, individually social. We have a common universe, sun, moon, stars. We inhabit the same planet, live on the same island, breathe the same air. Fundamentally we share the same basic human hopes, for life, food, health, relationships; for happiness and fulfilment; for justice and truth, for meaning and purpose, for identity and security. All these, and many more, follow from the creation. Our conflict arises precisely because we do have these things in common; we share them (predestination) but do not share them (free will)! Which leads to .......

God the Son, redeemer. The Incarnation is essentially a sharing, to the point of fusion. The cross is sharing to the point of exhaustion: everything as laid down and offered. The Resurrection and Ascension share exaltation. At first, this is greatly consoling. God is merciful and shares Himself with a fallen world which does not share what it shares. This last is the original sin of pride, and all are found to have sinned. But Christ came to seek and save what was lost; not to condemn, but redeem. Reversing pride, He emptied Himself to the condition of a slave, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2). But second, it is disquieting: 'your attitude should be the same'. Christians are called to the same self-sacrifice, to associate with the unlovely, to be peacemakers at their own expense, to suffer personal injustice in the pursuit of the welfare of others; to take up their cross and follow Christ. Moreover, Christ calls us to repent and believe, to repent over what has been and believe in what can be, to turn from our wickedness and live. We are created by Life and for Life, and the metanoia required is made possible by sharing in the life of Christ. Repentance is to disassembly of pride, and faith involves the humble assent to divine reassembly by God. When we repent, we are reconstructed and meaning and fellowship are restored. This leads to God the Spirit where the confusion of Babel is replaced with the understanding of Pentecost, the founding power of the church. A shared language and comprehension are found in proclaiming God (Acts 2).

God the Spirit, comforter.
We use the word 'comforter' in the sense of 'strengthener', as well as the more usual sense. The same spirit who motivated and was promised by Christ is our interpreter for whom (and to whom) we must pray in any dialogue for peace. This Holy Spirit disturbs and enables us to do what God the Father commands and God the Son demonstrates: to bear the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5). The sinful nature without the Holy Spirit is caught in hatred, discord. selfish ambition, and envy, all essentially non-sharing. The curious mixture of all these attributes, good and bad, is part of our human condition.

Confession of the Trinity
All the above are manifestations of grace, grace which we all need, individually and together. This is the grace of creation, redemption and preservation leading to our hope of glory (cf., General Thanksgiving). We respond to this by confession. This has two meanings, both linked and both unitive.

First as Christians, we confess (admit) the name of Christ, with all that this implies, He is our God and His God is our God. It is not enough just to believe the right things but we must absorb Christ's nature and teaching and submit to it as his disciples. Further, we must seek to bear witness to His nature and example (see below).

But secondly, as Christians, in doing this we find we must also confess our sin; we do not live up to His example, we all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God, though in different ways. This levels us, under His shining example. The proclamation of grace is a wonderful leveller, marginalising sin and invidious comparisons. Under Christ, pride crumbles and we find a common need to seek his grace together (though in different ways). So we are strangely united in diverse failures. This creates tensions: because we need grace in different ways it may appear unfair or even unjust, and we tend to grade and differentiate levels of sin. But grace obviates all that, calling us all to repentance and faith.

Notice too that if grace, once proclaimed, is not accepted, the ensuing marginalisation is voluntary, not imposed. As a church, we have sometimes fallen short in our proclamation of grace. Too often the Gospel of Love has been understood legalistically in terms of principles and propositions. It most certainly is about truth. It is equally about grace. The very nature of the Trinity of Love is a perfect balance of grace and truth. The church is called to be a reflection of this perfect relationship and the implications are profound.

Key issues for the church in the present situation centre around relationships with God, with one's neighbour, and with the political authorities. More specifically, they relate to how we honour God, how we love our neighbour, and how we respect the authorities.

Honouring God
Honouring God involves recognising His true character and giving Him first place in our thinking, acting, responding and reacting. He is the creator of all, the Lover of all and the Redeemer of all. He has created difference and diversity in His creation (Genesis 1). He is to be first in the totality of our lives. He is not to be one among many but to have pre-eminence and exclusive allegiance.

'you shall have no other Gods before me'

It is therefore His will which determines our language, lives and loyalties. His call is not a call to God and ....., but a call to God alone. The priority in any situation is to seek the mind and will of God. Which course of action brings honour to His name? Which decisions will facilitate His will being done on earth as it is in heaven? How is the Lordship of Christ to be expressed? God is honoured by a new quality of relationship with Him and a new dimension of relationship with our neighbour, including those of different cultural and religious background. Honouring God is to see our traditions and culture through kingdom glasses. Obeying God is a greater and more pressing priority than observing a particular tradition or cultural practice. Christ warned of the dangers of the traditions of men assuming more importance than the word and commandments of God. He initiated new relationships with the Samaritans. He challenged familiar frameworks. He changed relationships between Jew and Gentile.

Loving our Neighbour
Equality of worth is the teaching of Scripture and the preaching of Christ. Political opinion (green or orange ) or geographical location (Falls or Shankill) does not negate this basic principle. Christ expressed His love in crossing every barrier and boundary, in forfeiting His rights, and in reaching across the widest divide. The incarnation is about more than building bridges. It is about entering into the world of 'the other side'. It is about losing rights and choosing limitations.

Christ lived a human life, he died a human death. The scandal of the humiliation of the Cross is at the centre of the Christian faith. The sharing of grace with those who least deserve it is the hope of humankind. The radical forgiveness of those who are enemies is at the heart of the Gospel. Such actions lay the foundations of a new quality and dimension of relationship. Christians are called by Christ to such distinctive attitudes and actions.

'You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbour and hate your enemy". But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven........ If you love those who love you what reward will you get?' Matthew 5:43,44

The extent of the forgiveness of Christ is clearly seen at the Cross as He prayed for those who denied Him both civil liberty and physical life....."Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" Luke 23:24. All who own the Name of Christ are called to such costly self giving. But why doesn't the other side make a move? When estrangement and division existed, Christ was the one to move first and initiate reconciliation. He is the Divine Peacemaker and He calls His followers so be makers of peace.

'It is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps...

Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.' 1 Peter 2:19-21, 3:10,11.

Loving our neighbour will mean not only seeking peace but desiring justice. Balanced judgements, generosity of spirit, courageous actions and selfless service are the way of Christ.

Respecting the Authorities
Christians are called to be good citizens. Jesus rendered to Caesar the things that were Caesar's and to God the things that were God's. He submitted to the political rulers of His generation. Christians are exhorted to do they same. The principled pronouncement of the apostles "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) is in the context of the denial of freedom of Christian witness. This cannot be compared with the situation anywhere in Northern Ireland where there is freedom to proclaim Christ.

St. Paul instructs us to recognise that the authorities have been instituted by God and the Christian's duty is to obey the law. We are to honour the King

Queen/President and all in authority. We are to pray for them. We are to keep the law even when we don't like it!

'Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. And those who do so will bring judgement on themselves.' Romans 13:1,2

The same attitude towards the authorities is encouraged in 1 Peter 2:17 - 'Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honour the King'.

Reconciliation and Forgiveness within the Church

In the New Testament, the church is a reconciling community, and the ministry is a ministry of reconciliation. In Ephesians 2:14, Paul speaks of Christ having, through the cross, destroyed the dividing wall of hostility ; and in 2 Corinthians 5:19 he declares that the Church (reconciled first to God) has been entrusted with 'the message of reconciliation'. When he says this, he is thinking of the whole Church, the ekklesia, the Body of Christ, in which all, ordained and lay together are called to participate in this ministry of reconciliation; called to a common, shared life which will proclaim Christ, his sacrifice and work of redemption. 'A new commandment I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.' John 13:34

This is to be the rule within the fellowship of Christ's body; and also the rule for our individual lives. The new commandment is a startling extension of the commands of Exodus; and the Cross has revealed what true love is: caring concern which entails sacrifice, self denial, repentance and forgiveness

The way of forgiveness is not easy, perhaps humanly impossible, and certainly difficult to square with the concept of justice. Indeed the Gospel presents the challenging paradox that forgiveness entails, as the cross itself does, the 'scandal' of injustice. Or perhaps we should say that the highest form of justice is forgiveness, not the eye-for-an-eye, but rather to free the guilty into what they might become, in relationship with God. (Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:19). Only the prevenient grace of God makes acceptance of this possible. Christ demands that we forgive even when we have been severely wronged. We are to forgive because we have been forgiven; indeed, to be endlessly forgiving because of the endless nature of God's forgiveness. 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?' (until seven times was the teaching of the rabbis) but Jesus' seventy times seven means forgiveness unlimited (see also the parable of the Unforgiving Servant and much of Matthew 18). Philippians 2 exhorts us so be like-minded with Christ: 'Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus'. The imperatives which stem from our reconciliation with God might be stated thus: we are to love God because God loves us; we are to be reconciled with others because God has reconciled us to himself; and we are to forgive because God forgives us.

The Witness of Our Church
Most would agree that the events of Drumcree have damaged the witness of the Church, yet it remains our commission to proclaim and share the Gospel of love. This is essentially proactive not reactive. Rather than thinking what we have to preserve, can we think what we have to share? Rather than, say, defending ourselves and our boundaries, should we be proclaiming the power of Christ's selfless and boundless love? Rather than emphasising our church differences, should we first be proclaiming what we share in Christ? 'All are one in Christ Jesus, Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free' (Galatians 3:28). Roman Catholic and Protestant?

Belief ought to unite but so often it divides if preoccupied with personal identity and unaccompanied by love. There is such ubiquitous fear; fear of invasion and fear of loss. Self-preservation, often very courageous, is the natural and understandable response to this. But the New Testament also identifies love as a healing antidote to fear, and to the power of the invader (see e.g. all of 1 John 4: 7-21). There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear. It is in giving that we receive. This is a hard lesson indeed.

It is apparent that we fail in our witness, and have failed in the present situation; we know this a priori: 'If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us'. But ought we to repent specifically for this situation, and for our historical and present endorsement of sectarian attitudes and constitutionally enshrined sectarian principles? Can we possibly profess to love our neighbours while supporting an institution that (as least historically) celebrates their defeat? Repentance is first painful, but yields into faith in delights that can be. 'How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity' (Psalm 133:1) We must not lose sight of this wonderful vision.


There remain many difficult, unanswered questions. If you condemn sin, how do you avoid condemning the sinner? What is it that condemns a person? How do we diagnose where the sin lies? What to one person is a justifiable expression of culture is, to another, sinful triumphalism or infringement of rights. But how do we arbitrate when there are conflicting rights? How do we know what constitutes true justice?

The implications of the Incarnation need further exploration. The Incarnation is essentially a connection, an association, proffered by God and the onus is on us to accept or refuse. So we have to be careful with disassociation from others with whom we disagree, lest we succeed only in drawing yet another line, putting up another barrier which is not from God. We may disassociate from events or actions but not from the people, from sin but not from the sinner. It may be convenient to disassociate from 'membership' which means 'part of the body ship', but we must beware dismembering another body which fundamentally belongs together; our corporate humanity under the one God. In any case, Christ came to associate, 'not to condemn the world, but to save....' This is a long way from the convenient barriers we erect to simplify unbearable division and diversity.

The question of rights is also worthy of further discussion on its own. Rights clearly cease to be right when they squash the rights of another. The example of Christ's gracious abrogation of His own rights for love's sake has already been noted. Furthermore, the bible emphasises that what we now call our 'rights' are given to us by the duties or obligations of others; for example, someone else receives their right so live when I fulfil my duty to do no murder. So rights must be relational and not isolational. The Trinity again provides a perfect model of this.

Another question. How do you diagnose the true prophet? That the voice of God is needed, no Christian would doubt. But who has the authority to speak with the voice of the prophet?

And, hugely important, what of the place of prayer?

Then there is the whole question of Ecumenism, which is seen by some as a betrayal of Reformed faith, appeasement or even as being incompatible with the Church of Ireland. The subject is too huge to develop here, but we need to demonstrate and stress that it is biblical: Christ's prayer in John 17 'that they may be one' remains as a constant prayerful rebuke to our divisions; likewise Christ's loving practice of crossing religious, cultural and geographical boundaries without waiting for perfection, 'while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us'. Moreover, there is great historical unity, not least in the Trinitarian confession of Patrick. Also, despite differences in eucharistic doctrine, the other chief means of sharing the Word (i.e. the scriptures) remains in common.


  • The Church it called to be prophet, releasing God's Word into this situation
  • The Church is called to be priest, praying and interceding constantly and continually.
  • The Church is called to be pastor, to listen to and care for all involved both directly and indirectly.
  • The Church is called to be peacemaker, and to do everything possible, in the energy of the Holy Spirit, to facilitate a resolution of the dilemma and enable everyone to walk down the road of hope!

The above document is published at the request of the Press Office of the Church of Ireland as a contribution to discussion of issues in Ireland today.