Certitude was the order of the day, moral certitude. Everything was clear and straightforward, this was right and that was wrong. There were no grey areas, there were no matters upon which there could not be a definitive opinion, there were no questions that had not a clear answer. Theological college in the 1980s was a place where one could accumulate certainties, not from the lecturers, who were much more tentative and qualified in their assertions, but from the other students.
Living in Northern Ireland required one to be old before one’s time. Youth culture was mostly absent from the Protestant community, the punk revolution of the 1970s seemed to have passed by the Province. On a Sunday morning, teenagers going to the Protestant churches might have been from a picture of 1950s America. There seemed hardly a thing upon which the evangelical preachers did not pronounce, there seemed nothing enjoyable that was not sinful. Certitude in all things: from public houses to the clothes one might wear, from the music one played to what was permissible if one was allowed on a date.
Certitude governed how one dressed, one could not be among those taken seriously if one dressed in the “liberal” uniform of jeans and sweatshirt. Collar and tie, V-neck pullover, plain trousers, sensible shoes – it was a culture shock for someone who had been at the London School of Economics the previous term to step back thirty years in time for the theological education provided by the Church of Ireland.
The rigorous teaching of the days in London was replaced by the collection of things one should know; questioning was difficult; debate, all but impossible. Among the fundamentalists there was an aggressive response to anything that did not concur with their worldview; academic study of the Bible was a “liberal heresy.” Booklists were challenged, lecturers were criticised, particularly if they were Roman Catholic. Nothing was allowed to impinge upon the conservative evangelical mindset. The logic was similar to that of the revolutionary Marxists who would have gathered in the student union bars in London; if you did not agree, it was because you did not understand, because you were guilty of a false consciousness. One evangelical used to say, “you cannot understand the Bible if you do not stand under the Bible;” it was entirely circular logic.
There was a wise old cleric who used to tell a story of a clergyman’s notes for a sermon on which there was an annotation, “point weak, shout louder.” The church has come to that point, marginalised by a society uninterested in its pre-modern views, struggling with a generation of young people who reject its homophobia, it resorts to assertions, to shouting loudly. Thirty years ago, it may have worked; now, no-one is listening.