Ian Paisley is a Catholic….

…though obviously not a papist!  Anyone expecting me to reveal that Dr Paisley has been secretly attending Masses and/or negotiating with the Pope for a cardinal’s red hat, buzz off and wait for some tabloid to discover/hack/invent that story.  This item is a serious discussion of how the word ‘catholic’ is to be interpreted.

The word ‘catholic’ is derived from the Greek phrase ‘kata holos’, meaning something like ‘according to the whole’, as in the New Age buzz words ‘holistic/holism/etc.’  (The ‘holic’ bit is nothing to do with ‘alcoholic/ workaholic/ chocoholic/etc’ which are derived from the Arabic ‘al cohol’ meaning, well, alcohol)  ‘Catholic’ can fairly be translated as ‘universal’.

Way back, the word ‘catholic’ is used in early creeds like the Apostle’s Creed to describe the Church – ‘We believe in the holy catholic Church….’  At that time of course the Church was not entangled with the state but had voluntary membership, so ‘kata holos’ meant on the one hand that as God’s Church it was universal as God himself is, but with voluntary membership meant more like ‘for everybody’, ‘applicable to everybody’, or ‘open to everybody’ without distinction – ‘As many of you as have been baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  No Jew or Greek there, no slave or freeman, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus’  In that kind of sense I’ve no objection to saying the word ‘catholic’ in the creed myself, though I admit I prefer, to avoid unhelpful associations, the English translation ‘universal’.

Things changed after Constantine, and even more so after his successor who made Christianity compulsory in the Roman Empire.  With everybody in ‘Christendom’ assumed to be ‘Christian’ following their infant baptism (apart from Jews whose status was grudged and under threat), ‘catholic’ ended up meaning something a great deal more like our word ‘totalitarian’, similar to Nazism and Stalinism, and ended up with the biblically dubious practices of Inquisitions and Crusades to enforce the faith.  With the splitting of the Roman Empire ‘Christendom’ was divided between ‘Eastern Orthodox’ and western ‘Roman Catholic’, but the state church principle remained, and both sides of the split were ‘Catholic’ in the totalitarian sense.  The Eastern Orthodox can still be pretty totalitarian – see ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Serbia and attitudes too often seen in Russian Orthodoxy.

At the Reformation the western church split between Catholic and Protestant, but both continued the practice of being totalitarian state churches; Protestants vary between the established national Anglican and Lutheran Churches and some Presbyterian/Reformed churches with varying degrees of connection with the state.  Even Cromwell, an ‘Independent’ in church government terms, nevertheless believed that the state should be ‘Christian’ in some sense.  The ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ might have sought freedom from Anglican tyranny  this side of the Atlantic, but the Puritan state they initially set up in the New World was – let’s say it wasn’t so free if you weren’t a Puritan…!

In the modern world few churches are as intolerant as used to be the case; a non-Catholic won’t have the Inquisition set on him if he goes on holiday to a Catholic country.  But the idea of a ‘Christian state’ in which the Christianity is generally privileged and assumed to be the norm still exists, and with different versions of Christianity so, sadly, does the idea that ‘our’ version be privileged and others ‘second-class citizens’ still exist.  And this, essentially, is the post-Constantine version of the ‘catholic’ idea still running and still causing damage.

I recall seeing Ian Paisley giving a speech somewhere circa 1970 and he said “This is a Protestant country!”  It is this belief in a Christian country that makes him ‘Catholic’ in the bad sense of the word; and it is that kind of Catholicism on both sides there which leads to the fighting and terrorism and the current marches, riots and protests.  As I’ve said before on this blog, it is not the theological disagreements but ironically the point the two sides are agreed about which causes the trouble. 

In contrast were the Anabaptists.  They realised that Christianity required a voluntary spiritual new birth that couldn’t be imposed by worldly legislation, and so any state including Christians must be pluralist, consisting of the born again and the still unconverted.  They realised too that therefore church and state should be separate – it wasn’t the church’s job to ‘Christianise’ worldly states, but to spread the gospel and bring people into the kingdom of God.  That kingdom consists of those who follow Jesus because they hear and believe him (i.e., not merely because some earthly ruler passes a law declaring his people to be Christian), and so instead of existing in this world as a regular geographical state, or as an ethnic entity like the Kurds or the Basques, Jesus’ kingdom exists as a worldwide body of ‘resident aliens’ – citizens of the kingdom of heaven living as ‘expats’.  

For Anabaptists and anyone else who accepts that basic idea, ‘catholic’ means what it meant in the first centuries of Christianity; universal in a sense of suitable for everyone, freely offered to everyone, open to all regardless of race, gender, or nationality in this world[i].  Such a church does not need a conventional worldly state based on worldly physical power and so does not need worldly warfare such as we see in Northern Ireland. 

It is ironic that this central value of Ian Paisley is also the key value of the Roman and Orthodox Churches; it is not the Bible teaching that Protestantism is supposed to stand for, but an unbiblical tradition going back only to nearly 400 years after Jesus, and actually actively contradicting the Bible itself.  But note that although the two sides in Ulster have slightly different formulations of the ‘Christian state’ idea, they still have that idea in common, and the resulting implication that they can engage in warfare for their version of a Christian state and so against each other.  Both sides need to do some serious thinking about this, including that Catholics need to recognise that their ‘totalitarian’ past, until such time as they disavow it, gives some valid reason for Protestant opposition. 


[i] Because Anabaptists rejected the ‘totalitarian’ interpretation of ‘catholic’, apparently many of them would refuse to use that word or its German/Dutch equivalent ‘gemeinde’ when saying the creed; the Inquisition would use that to identify Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists would not reject the word in its original sense, but probably didn’t realise in those days that the meaning had changed over the years.  Likewise the Inquisition; for them also the ‘Catholic Church’ meant their totalitarian body.   

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As Peace in Ulster Flags….

This issue takes my blog right back to its roots.  I was at University in the late 60s when the previous (or arguably the still current) round of Ulster’s ‘Troubles’ kicked off, and up till then I had been rather vague about the specifics of church/state relations.  Watching Ian Paisley in action on TV news from Ulster, or denouncing Catholics in an Oxford Union debate forced me to think hard.  On the face of it, I agreed with way over 90% of Ian Paisley’s theology (though in Baptist Confession rather than Westminster Presbyterian form) but how he applied this to politics, and the behaviour of ‘Protestants’ in Ulster was – well, frankly, appalling.  Did the Bible really teach the kind of thing being practiced in the name of Jesus in Ulster?

Now I do accept that there is more to Ulster/Ireland than just the religious issue – particularly an English or originally Anglo-Norman colonialism that went back way before the Reformation and the Catholic/Protestant division.  But I also find it very clear that once the ‘religious card’ had been played by the various parties[i]  it considerably aggravated the other grievances and made the whole thing intractable.  It still does make things intractable and I am amazed that mainland UK politicians seem to think that they can just ignore the religious issues and try to solve things by political tinkering alone.

My investigations led me to a rather surprising conclusion (and please note that what follows is only a summary – to do full justice to the complexity of the situation would require something a lot longer than this blog; I nevertheless think I’ve got the basics right).  In the religious area the cause of the fighting and violence in Ulster was not the various things Protestants and Catholics disagree about; Mass or Communion, prayers to saints, etc.  The cause of the fighting was a point they agreed about!  Sounds weird, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that point they agreed about, with only detail differences, was the concept that there should be ‘Christian countries’; which led in turn to the idea of ‘Protestant Christian countries’ or ‘Catholic Christian countries’, and inevitably to one form of Christian ruling and being favoured and privileged in their state, and the other being second-class citizens disadvantaged and discriminated against in various ways – jobs, council housing, even fair voting.  Unlike the theological issues, these are the kind of things which cause real grievances and which people might think worth fighting about.  When Irish ‘Home Rule’ came along, Ulstermen faced a possible change from being part of the ruling Protestant majority in Britain to being a minority discriminated against in a Catholic Ireland, and they weren’t willing to give up their dominance; whence their insistence on remaining part of the UK.  In contrast, setting up Ulster, the ‘six counties’ with a Protestant majority, to remain in the UK as a separate province, meant that Catholics in Ulster would not share the freedom of their fellow-believers in Eire but would remain victims of discrimination in the province.

[The Christian country notion has a further distorting effect on the situation.  Of course you find people who are truly and sincerely Christian but are misguided, through their belief in that notion, into doing terrible and un-Christian things.  I’d regard Ian Paisley as such a case, rather than the ogre many English people think, and though I couldn’t give names, I’m sure there are similar people on the Catholic side.  Many good men and women on both sides who believe they are doing right, but are misled by the belief that they should establish and defend ‘kingdoms of this world’ for the Lord Jesus.

But as well as these sincere but misguided folk, the doctrine also produces other problematic followers.  By the nature of the case, the ‘Christian’ country contains many people – many, many people – who are not genuinely Christian but think they are Christian because they are born in that ‘Christian country’.  They superficially conform, of course, but they are basically just worldly people.  This is not so good when we are talking of the thousands and thousands of nominal Christians in England who put themselves down as ‘C of E’ but have never been seriously challenged by the need to be ‘born again’ spiritually.  But it’s worse in Ulster, where there is a divided culture, with two parties in conflict over the kind of Christianity the country should favour, and with serious discrimination facing the un-favoured party.  In this mix are many thousands of people who count themselves on one side or other because they were born in either Protestant or Catholic culture; they are involved in the consequences – the effects in society of the divisions and discrimination, the fears on both sides, and so on.  But because they are not truly born again, they have an essentially worldly approach to their situation – and if they are discriminated against, they will respond in a worldly manner, by physically fighting back; or alternatively if they are the dominant culture but fear losing that dominance, again their response will be at a worldly warfare level.]

While I understand that there has been some discrimination against Protestants in Eire, they are a relatively small group that isn’t really threatening, much as the Catholic minority isn’t threatening to the mainland UK.  But it was – and still is – different in Ulster; there was a quite large Catholic minority in the ‘Six Counties’, encouraged by the existence of a Catholic majority over the border in a country to which they thought Ulster should belong anyway.  Ulster’s Protestants were more extreme than mainlanders; many had been deliberately ‘planted’ as part of an anti-Catholic movement by the English government, and in many cases they were of the Puritan faction, almost as much opposed to England’s established church as they were to the Roman church; for many of them moving to Ireland as government-supported ‘planters’ was similar to the more drastic emigration of groups like the Pilgrim Fathers, escaping from Anglican persecution on the mainland, while the government was quite happy to have dissenting nuisances from the mainland diverted to opposing Catholics in Ireland.  Not only were Ulster’s Protestants descended from those Puritan extremists, but the pressured situation of Ulster combined with the mistaken doctrine of the ‘Christian country’ kept that extremism alive.

Ulster’s ‘No surrender!’ sounds harsh to the average mainland Englishman; but in original intention it is the same as Peter’s declaration (Acts 5; 29) that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ – you cannot surrender about what you believe is the will of God.  Combine that with the idea that God’s will is for his people to rule in the nations of the world, and the enemies of the gospel to be discriminated against … the result is inevitable; I think the slogan was “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!”  Catholics, Puritans and Anglicans all had similar doctrines and so a religiously based willingness to lord it over or actually fight those they disagree with.

Mentioning Peter helps to show why the ‘Christian country’ or ‘Christendom’ position is wrong.  When he said “We must obey God rather than men” he was not contemplating a dominant situation in defence of which he would fight to impose his will on any state; on the contrary, he was on trial before the government of his nation (the Jews) who wanted him to stop preaching the gospel and were threatening to imprison him if he didn’t.  Peter was saying they could threaten him all they liked; he would have to go on preaching the gospel, precisely in order to obey God.  Not “Do as I say or I will violently rebel against you and fight you in the name of God” but instead “I will peaceably accept martyrdom at your hands rather than disobey God as I would have to if I obey you”.

Peter in his first epistle portrays the church as God’s people living on earth as peaceable ‘resident aliens’ (one of his Greek words translates almost exactly to that), subject to the state authorities, not murdering, fighting and robbing like the ‘Zealots’ of Palestine or their modern paramilitary equivalents like the IRA or UVF of Ulster, not even being ‘allotriepiskopoi’, ‘managers of the affairs of others’. He had learned the lesson from his Lord who had said before Pilate ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and who had instructed Peter personally to put up his sword because ‘they who take the sword shall perish by it’.  Paul gives similar teaching including that our warfare is not with worldly weapons and powers but by spiritual power.  In short, no Christian countries!

Apply that to Ulster, how does it work out?  Well, you may be a Roman Catholic who believes Peter to have been the first infallible Pope; or a Protestant who simply believes I Peter to be part of God’s infallible Word.  Either way, if you are setting up a Christian state, or defending such a state by force, or taking up arms in God’s name, or rioting and throwing petrol bombs in the cause of being a Christian ‘allotriepiskopos’, then you are disobeying Peter (and his Lord) and by that fact disobeying God; simples[ii]!!   The irony of the Protestant position is that in accepting the basic ‘Christian country’ idea, they are accepting an unbiblical Catholic belief which arose centuries after Jesus!  Arguably indeed, the fundamental Catholic belief, because there is a case for saying that the imperial church came before the development in a divided empire of a special place for Rome and the idea of a special authority supposedly derived from Peter as Rome’s bishop.

My title of course makes an ironic pun on the cause of the recent renewal of violence – the Belfast council Union Flag decision.  Why is this so important?  Basically, it’s about the ‘Unionist’ and ‘Loyalist’ aspect of Ulster; Ulster’s Protestants are ‘loyal’ to mainland Britain, and want continued ‘union’ with mainland Britain, because they see mainland Britain as a ‘Protestant country’ which will protect them in their privilege in Ulster and preserve them from neighbouring Catholic Eire.  That the politics of Ulster capital Belfast have so changed that the council don’t want to automatically everyday fly the symbol of that loyal union is a real blow to Protestants, threatening a slide away from the Union.

It is perhaps ironic that even as Eire received Home Rule and Ulster was separated from Eire, mainland Britain was already moving away from Protestantism of all varieties towards liberal pluralism, plus the churches themselves were often becoming theologically liberal and very different from the traditional Protestantism of Ulster.  Basically the Unionist/Loyalist/ Protestants had allied themselves to a country increasingly out of sympathy with their aims, and which often reacted with bewildered dismay to the late 1960s renewal in Ulster of a conflict almost forgotten on the mainland.  It didn’t help that the Catholics were now Post-Vatican II Catholics who actually looked a lot more politically liberal and democratic than the Protestants!

But the key point here is that the flag in question is ours – that is, the flag of the mainland UK.  It puts the ball rather in our court ….

A digression – has the ‘peace process’ really solved the problem?

While I was preparing this I happened to catch on the BBC Parliament Channel a programme in which a PSNI Police Federation leader was answering questions in a Stormont committee.  Basically he was complaining, obviously in light of the flag protests, but also more generally, that police provision was being changed (reduced!!) as if there already was peace in Ulster; no, he said, it’s not really so.  The ‘Good Friday’ peace process has secured a fairly wide ceasefire in terms of classic terrorism, but it hasn’t actually resolved the underlying issues; all the sectarianism, he said, is still seething away under the surface ready to emerge in response to provocations like the Union Flag issue.

To me this confirms something I’ve been thinking for a while.  The current peace process has indeed not resolved the issues.  It has however lasted better than some; in my opinion this is because of external factors which have made terrorism both harder to do and less desirable except to the hardest of hardliners.

First of these external factors was simply 9/11.  With Western states, including the US and UK, fighting a global ‘War on Terror’ there is no longer the same support from the US for the IRA; Ireland’s Republicans could seriously lose American support if it seemed that Irish-American money for Irish causes was funding terrorist activities rather than the peaceful Stormont process, and such activities would now attract much more attention from Federal US authorities.  Similar but generally lesser support for Protestant paramilitaries has been likewise reduced.  The international climate in the West no longer favours terrorism as a means in Ulster.

Secondly, there’s been a change in the nature of terrorism itself.  Most 20th Century terrorism was really a branch of the Cold War, in which the nuclear powers of the USA and USSR fought their battles by proxy in third world countries or occasionally in Europe through terrorist groups.  Much terrorism in the Arab world was less Islamist and was supported by the USSR or China.  Some at least of the Irish Republican cause was significantly left-wing socialist rather than Catholic as such, and fought for Irish liberation from the Imperialist/capitalist Brits rather than for Catholic Eire.  As part of this, Soviet-supported Arab states like Libya would smuggle arms and explosives to the IRA, and there were cases like a young soldier I knew who, while on service in Germany, was lucky to survive being shot up by a German left-wing group whose public statement claimed they had done it in support of the IRA.

This background has changed massively with the changes in Russia since Glasnost, and indeed in China since the death of Mao.  International left-wing terrorism is massively reduced and no longer much funded by the states which used to support it, while Arab terrorism has become almost entirely Islamist in nature; either way, the Irish Republican cause is no longer on anybody’s list of kindred causes to support.  Again, the international situation makes Irish terrorism for Irish causes harder to fund and supply.

But, as the PSNI spokesman pointed out, the underlying issues have not gone away at all, indeed have barely been meaningfully discussed let alone resolved!!  And gradually they seem to be bubbling back up; I keep some track on Ulster affairs via BBC Teletext, and bombs, gun attacks, protests etc. seem if anything to be slowly increasing….

And it’s our flag which is the centre of the new protests….

So as I said, this rather puts the ball into our mainland court.  And if my analysis above is correct, UK politicians are singularly ill-equipped to deal with it; they don’t even know how to ask the right questions.  They don’t know how to really resolve the issues, only how to superficially tinker.  The only way to resolve Ulster’s issues is to tackle head-on the issue of Church and State relationships, and this can’t be done by a mainland UK in which that issue is still distorted by the existence of an established Church and a general position of privilege for the Christian faith.  Therefore to resolve Ulster’s problems we need first to tackle and resolve the Church and State problems of the mainland.  UK groups which are not speaking against privileged Christianity on the mainland can’t consistently offer a better approach in Ulster.

A Specific Resolution

We aren’t simply after ‘disestablishment’ here.  We need to tackle the underlying theories and arguments, so that people both in and out[iii] of Christian churches understand that Christianity was never intended to be established.  We need a situation where the issue of establishment is so forcefully argued that the Anglicans actually accept that they shouldn’t be established and actually want to be free of their state entanglements.  And also a situation where other churches that have sought various kinds of privileged status for Christianity in the state recognise that Christian states are simply inappropriate, that the only ‘Christian nation’ the world has or needs is the international Church itself, Jesus’ followers throughout the world.

To achieve this, we here in Britain need to challenge all those who believe in the ‘Christian country’ idea to demonstrate that it actually is the teaching of the New Testament; and I have to tell you that there isn’t much teaching in the NT that can support that idea, and very much that contradicts it.  It is not so much a biblical doctrine as just a worldly assumption that ‘surely God must want it that way’; an assumption which ignores the much better way of doing things that the NT actually positively teaches!  Check it for yourselves….

As I said at the start, this idea of the ‘Christian country’ is the underlying religious problem of Ulster; challenge it, and they might finally be able to find their way to peace over there….


[i] Originally I understand by Anglo-Norman Irish nobility rebelling against Elizabeth I, to encourage support from their native Irish serfs.

[ii] (I’ll be dealing with Roman Catholic issues in other items on this blog-site, so apart from underlining the point that if Catholics really mean it about Peter’s special authority they should take his clear writings in the Bible seriously, I’ll leave that aside for now).

[iii] May I point out to any atheist readers I may have that fighting established Christianity head-on with atheist arguments tends simply to make the establishment dig in; you want disestablishment, your best chance is to convince the various ‘Christendom’ churches that establishment is contrary to the New Testament and so unChristian!

4thought on Ulster

This item was prepared as a response to the week in which Channel 4’s ‘4thought’ strand dealt with the issues of the Ulster ‘flag protest’.  I’ll be saying more about Ulster in future posts, but for now here’s a basic idea to think about….

4thoughttv

I first looked into the problems of Ulster in the late 1960s when I was at Uni and the current troubles kicked off.  As an evangelical Christian I obviously had a lot in common with Ulster’s Protestants, but was appalled by what was going on there.

My analysis then was that oddly the religious aspect of the violence was not in the many things that Catholic and Protestant disagree about, but in one of the few things they broadly agree about.  Thing is, you could have real ding-dong arguments about issues like mass v communion, prayers to saints or not, papal infallibility v biblical infallibility – and yet the argument would remain just that, a verbal debate; these issues would not provide cause for riots, guns and bombs.  But the idea they agree about is the notion of having a ‘Christian country’, albeit with detail differences in each faith.  And by the nature of states, this means that they have to accept real physical fighting – war or police action – to establish or defend that Christian state, and social discrimination in the state in favour of one religion and against others; practical discriminations in areas like jobs, council housing, even fair voting arrangements; and those things lead to fighting  This also creates a dynamic of fear; the Catholics obviously want to change a fearful situation of being victims of discrimination, but Protestants fear losing their dominant position and becoming themselves underdogs.

The other thing I realised was perhaps the ultimate irony; despite the agreement of both Irish ‘sides’, the idea of a Christian country’ is actually not a Christian idea.  It is not taught in the New Testament and arose only three hundred years later when first Constantine formally tolerated Christianity but also supported it and tried to exploit the faith politically, and then about 70 years later another emperor decided that he wasn’t willing to have his subjects disagreeing with him about religion and made Christianity effectively compulsory.

In the New Testament, Jesus disclaims the idea of Christian states by saying ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, and by teaching the need of a spiritual rebirth which of course cannot be achieved by human legislation.  Paul and Peter both portray the international multi-ethnic church itself as the real Christian nation, citizens of heaven who live humbly on earth as ‘resident aliens’ even in their native land, whose warfare is ‘not with physical weapons’ and who are not meant to be ‘managers of other people’s affairs’.  (this is only a sketch – there’s lots more similar teaching)

On the one hand, so long as Catholic and Protestant retain this idea of a Christian state, ongoing conflict is pretty much guaranteed; on the other hand, if both would recheck their beliefs against the Bible and discover this original alternative teaching which rejects the Christian state of either kind, then there would be a hope of taking the religious element out of the conflict.  That wouldn’t totally resolve all the issues, but as far as I can see many of the other original issues are now out of date, and compromise would be a lot easier if people were not thinking that they were doing the will of God and upholding a religion rather than just secular issues.

Sadly neither Eire nor the mainland UK can help in following that course because both are themselves nominally religious states, Eire Catholic and England with an ‘established’ Protestant church of which the Queen is earthly ‘supreme governor’.  ‘Unionism’ and ‘Loyalism’ are basically about Ulster’s Protestants wanting to remain part of ‘Protestant’ England, which is why the Union Flag is such an emotive symbol and the decision to stop flying it has caused such protest.