No going back

Jan 31st, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

Instead again, it’s locked park Sunday Belfast

The line from Seamus Heaney’s Tate’s Avenue conjures memories of Protestant hegemony.

Be-hatted Free Presbyterian ladies gathering for the latest burst of demagoguery; men in shirts a collar size too small, carrying black leather bound Bibles from their shiny cars, polished the previous day. A photograph of swings chained up in a children’s park, a visual reminder that Sunday was not for enjoyment, that the King James Version held sway in this land, no matter whether you believed or not.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the watchword for parenting.  Who knows how many violent actions sprang from the inculcation of violence as the answer to problems? Raising children in ‘the fear of the Lord’ seemed often a loveless and graceless affair.  God was the violent and arbitrary father, coming home and swinging his belt; God was prone to violent and irrational outbursts. Whatever came along, it was God’s will; it must be accepted without question.

The Protestant faith was strident and triumphal; there could be no place for diversity; there could be no questioning of authority. Scripture was invoked in support of beating children, in support of oppressing women; in granting no tolerance to anyone who did not conform.  Scripture was conclusive in the inferior place of Catholics, for were they not led by the Antichrist himself?

‘Locked park Sunday Belfast’ epitomises the hypocrisy of a society that made so much of its outward observances; as if the Kingdom of God did not include decent housing and jobs for the poor on both sides of the city; as if it did not include respect for each person made in God’s image; as if Jesus himself spoke in Seventeenth Century English and held in contempt progress in the arts and in the sciences.

Like cardinals who believe that one can recover the past by restoring the Latin Mass and putting people back in their place; there are fundamentalist Protestants who believe they can recover their golden age: a vision of a man and his wife with their two submissive children filing into their pew each Sunday; of women who stay at home and bake bread and home made cakes each weekday; of a world without lesbian or gay people, a world without immigrants with exotic religions, a world that is uniform and ordered, a world they can control.

It is hard to reconcile the itinerant First Century preacher from Nazareth with the locked park version of the Gospel, but, as someone once explained, the ‘the Gospels were written for the people in Jesus’ time, they weren’t for us now’.  It was hard to argue against such logic; it allowed for the a la carte selection of whatever Bible verses suited

There is a certain delight in watching the waning influence of the churches in Ireland; perhaps it opens the possibility of less religious people and more Christians.

A colleague in the North wrote of pouring himself a gin and tonic on Friday evening and looking forward to the weekend.  Standing aside from parish ministry, no shadows cross his path until Monday morning. I wonder, what are his memories of locked park Sunday Belfast?

Leave a comment »

  1. Quote: … there could be no place for diversity; there could be no questioning of authority. Scripture was invoked in support of beating children, in support of oppressing women; in granting no tolerance to anyone who did not conform.

    Hmm. So they weren’t that different from Catholics in the South then?

  2. I only read McQuaid’s biography in the autumn; there were striking parallels in the two very dysfunctional societies.

  3. I’m not sure how long ago you’re speaking about but that certainly wasn’t my experience as a ‘protestant’. I always found it friendly and casual with Sunday School (something Catholics don’t do). We used to attend the first 15 minutes of the service then move to the school hall for hours of entertainment and colouring fun . . .I found the catholic ‘faith’ far more restrictive and dogmatic although things have changed there dramatically in the past 20 years – then the Irish take religion much more seriously than the Aussies I think.

  4. Baino,

    I thought you grew up in England. Did you ever experience a Belfast Sunday?

  5. I’ve just finished a frenzied hour of colouring and cutting and stcking with our little Sunday School. I think the adults enjoy it as much as the children. We try to do a bit of learning along the way too but I try to take Freda Webb as my example and hopefully leave the children with fond memories of coming to SS although there won’t be any impulsive piling into a car for a little trip out somewhere.

Leave Comment