an independent (and beardy) people

So I watched the first episode of  ‘An Independent People‘ , a  3 part BBC Two show telling ‘the dramatic story of Ulster’s Presbyterians’, something I didn’t realise that we Presbyterians had. We’re box office material.

Saying it is such a dramatic story I would have perhaps preferred an art house film starring Daniel Day Lewis. Daniel could have perhaps thrown himself into the part by enrolling at Union Theological College and becoming a real life Presbyterian minister for a number of years complete with superb facial hair just to get a real life feel for things. For the role of Presbyterian arch nemesis I would have gone for someone like Liam Neeson (though I’m not sure about his facial hair capabilities).

My initial reaction was that this dramatic story of Ulster Presbyterians seemed to involve a lot of beards, which reassured me that I actually do stand in the tradition of Presbyterianism (contrary to those who think I might look a bit more like someone out of The Dubliners or even Mohammed)

It actually places me in the line of every illustrated Biblical character I remember including Jesus himself, but the ‘Gerry Adams effect’ is a powerful force to be reckoned with that means fellow beardys may feel excluded in some current Presbyterian circles. (‘Would you wear that beard if you were meeting the Queen young Ronnie Drew?‘)

My other initial reaction was that this show seemed to be a nicely shot celebration of people I know, or people I used to know or people I nearly know.It was like having a tribute to your Presbyterian friends mixed with a Sigur Ros video made in Northern Ireland.  Oh look, there is your man! Oh, I know him! I remember that guy from university! I’ve been to that church! He gave us a lift home from Cookstown! (moody music plays in background)

I have to admit I feel a bit confused by the actual history of our church though.

I still don’t really understand what was going on and even feel a bit disillusioned by what was going on (if it’s possible to feel disillusioned hundreds of years later?)

So much of it seems to have been about power struggles or striving for freedom or their rights. And bloody as well.
Someone in the show pointed out that the first Presbyterian congregation was set up by members of the Scottish army who came with the Bible in one hand. There are so many blurry lines and things that are complicated, things are messy.

Part of me knows that is just the way things are, life is messy and people are broken and have feet of clay.

On the other hand part of me struggled to see how God was working in the Presbyterian Church. Or too put it another way, watching the program last night I didn’t see too much evidence of people acting like Jesus. I know it was a TV show but if a Christian is a follower of Christ and a church is made up of Christian then those early Presbyterians would be Christ like. Did I get some sense of that coming through the nicely shot camera work? I’m not sure. Can you be Christ like holding a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other?

I know that the right answer should be yes otherwise there isn’t hope for someone like me. Sometimes I can act in a Christ like way, but a lot of the time I don’t. So it would be hypocritical or unrealistic to point out the faults in other people even if that was hundreds of years ago. Also perhaps if someone was acting in a Christ like manner around Ahoghill in the 1700s or Ballycarry in 1800s on a Monday morning it mightn’t make sexy TV. Someone sharing a potato with a hungry neighbour mightn’t make the most dramatic viewing on a Sunday night whereas stories of a woman throwing a chair at the minister in the pulpit and rioting does.

Yet there is something about the way that our church was planted (or officially planted) that doesn’t seem particularly Christian.

Another thing which I’ve just realised is that the story is telling the story of Ulster Presbyterians. I wonder if that story is the same story of Irish Presbyterians? We’re officially known as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland but everything about the Presbyterian Church in Ireland seems to centre around Ulster so sometimes the Presbyterian Church in Ulster would be a more accurate description of the way things really are? The Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland would be even more accurate.
A few months back marked all the current Presbyterian congregations in Ireland on a map and ended up with this. (If a gap is appearing in North Antrim its only because Google can’t load them quick enough. )


So this morning I knew that there would a very glowing sermon for the Queen and this made me stay away from this morning’s service,
but wasn’t an option for my better half who has to go, even though she is Irish, as in born in Co. Offaly or lived mostly in Co. Dublin.  Not British yet part of the Presbyterian Church, like many other people. Well like some other people maybe.
So our gracious Queen isn’t her gracious Queen, and if you are from German or Korean, Polish or a republican from Belfast she isn’t your queen.
The point isn’t whether the Queen is good or bad, is gracious,etc  the point is that if you are the Presbyterian Church in Ireland then you are excluding people if you talk about ‘our Queen’ or ‘our nations armed forces’  as they might talk about at the General Assembly when talking about chaplains and the like.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland means that glowing sermons for the Queen might be divisive in your sister churches a few hours down the road, in places like Cork, Sligo, Dun Laoghaire,  Dundalk area, not even to mention 5mins up the road in west Belfast.

It’s hard, I always seem like I’m moaning about church or my faith, life in general. Yet if you are asking members of the church to bring a friend along to a service but giving glowing sermons for the things British or holding a Remembrance Day with the British National anthem that puts up a barrier to bringing along people who are Republican and saw the British Army as the oppressors….well, you know….it’s the PCNI…