Attending a two day seminar in Liverpool, I picked up the programme with its list of participants. Mostly clergy, there were a few of us who had lay titles, ‘Mr Ian Poulton’ among them.
I am not even sure if I am still entitled to use the title ‘Reverend’, even if I am, I would not be inclined to do so.
Ordained deacon the year before, it was thirty-five years ago yesterday that I was ordained as a priest, thirty five years ago today that I celebrated Holy Communion for the first time.
I remember waking on the morning of 28th June 1987 in the residential centre at Murlough in Co Down. Memory says there was dormitory accommodation, perhaps that’s why the unpleasantness was possible.
The night before the conservative evangelicals who comprised most of our number had been forthright condemnation of everything they perceived as ‘liberal’ and ‘unChristian’.
Particular venom was reserved for the books on the reading list for Northern Ireland GCE English examinations. The book Lamb by Bernard MacLaverty attracted forthright condemnation from a non-stipendiary clergyman from north Belfast.
it reached the point where I couldn’t listen any longer to the outpouring of prejudice and said that I had read Lamb and also had read Cal and that I thought MacLaverty was a fine writer who had dealt very sensitively with difficult subjects.
The self-appointed guardian of teenage readers, who was about to be ordained priest to serve in the Shankill Road area of Belfast, turned and snarled at me, ‘there’s no need to wallow in the filth’.
I went back to reading the book on cricket that I had brought with me. The County Ground at Taunton seemed a world apart from the bitterness of Ulster. Thirty-five years later, the words still linger.
The service of ordination to the priesthood took place that Sunday afternoon and from the early hours of Sunday I had been troubled by the vitriol of the response. Why was someone of such bitter feeling even considering being ordained? How could you engage in reconciliation work if you were so entrenched in your opinions? If he represented the church, then did I want to be part of it?
Bernard MacLaverty’s work may have been better received if he had not been Roman Catholic. Hardline Protestants will always reject anything that does not accord with their extreme views.
Had the objector listened to the addresses given during the retreat, he would have been challenged about persisting with his beliefs. The prospect that he influenced a community with his attitudes was an uneasy one.
By lunchtime, we all went our separate ways to prepare for ordination. I never saw the man again.
Sometimes, there are moments when I pause and wonder what life might have held if I had decided just to walk away from the church on that Sunday morning.