The Protestant Paradox

Not again! I thought we’d got beyond all that. Are we going back to the old days. Are the jobs going to disappear? Do they not realise what they’re doing? Day after day of protests, riots, stone throwing, petrol bombs, attacks on the police, illegal parades.  It’s all so very familiar if you were around at the beginning of the troubles. And the places are the same: Albertbridge Road, Lower Newtownards Road, the Short Strand. The slogans may be focused on something different, the controversy over the flying of the flag on the City Hall in Belfast, but they expose the presence of familiar attitudes. It’s easy to condemn those involved rather than try to understand them.  However the cause of the unrest is a complicated one, and needs proper political attention. But what the flags protests reveal, more than anything else, is that the Protestant paradox is alive and well and living in Ulster. Those involved in the protests are concerned about an erosion of their British culture and their British heritage. This heritage may be very narrowly defined as the right to fly flags, even to brandish them, and the right to parade where parades have traditionally gone. While narrow, it would be unreasonable to object to this desire to retain one’s identity as one sees it. The defence and expression of one’s political views is legitimate in a democracy, provided it is undertaken within the law. However, many of those involved in the protests see themselves as not only defending their British identity, but as defending Protestantism. The paradox is a familiar one.  Many of the Protestants who wish to defend Protestantism seem to have left it behind. Their fight is not for the key doctrines of the Reformation: the centrality of scripture, salvation by faith in Christ alone through the grace of God alone. Many Protestants do not know the bible, do not read it, have not sought (or found) salvation in Christ and have little time for God. Moreover the right of Protestants to worship is not in question. We are free to preach the doctrines of grace. The division caused by the Reformation remains, but too many who use the term Protestant seem to have forgotten what it really means.  The name Protestant remains as a symbol, for many, of division, but is empty of its true content, the desire to love God and to serve Him. Secularism and the process of secularisation take many faces in the West. Protestant secularism in Northern Ireland has been exposed by the recent flags controversy, by the worship of our British heritage above everything else, to be placed alongside the preoccupations of those in leafy suburbia. Protestant secularism is just as much a working class as a middle class phenomenon.  God is left behind, disregarded by a concentration on the here and now. That is the saddest thing about the recent events: the fact that many do not base their lives on the authority of scripture, have not placed their faith in Christ and are not seeking to live for Him and His glory alone through grace.  For that is what the Reformation was about in the first place, wasn’t it? John Gillespie John Gillespie is Professor of French Language and Literature at the University of Ulster and a Presbyterian Elder.
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6 Responses to The Protestant Paradox

  1. Noel McCune says:

    Brian, Catholics are involved in CC ( See for example and and we are very happy to have their contributions to our work.

  2. Brian Eggins says:

    Do you not have any Catholics in ‘Contemporary Christianity’?
    The trouble with some Northern Ireland protestants is their virulent anti-Catholicism. Do they not realise that for Catholics, Jesus Christ is at the centre of their faith. They do believe in the Bible as the word of God. They do believe in justification by faith. Check it out in ‘The Catholic Catechism’ (1994). Of course there are differences of emphasis on some issues. But ‘Where two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there in the midst’.
    Why not meet a few Catholics, talk to them, listen to them, share the Bible with them and pray with them? I am a Christian first and a Catholic second and I met regularly with Protestant friends for Bible study, discussion and prayer.

  3. Puran Agrawal says:

    Thanks Peter for your response. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. Paryer is the first and the last resort of a Christian along with, of course, whatever other action one ought oought to and can take.

  4. Peter Mercer says:

    I agree with Purin that it will take a long time to heal this society and one of the sad results of the current dispute is that the small cross-community steps that have been taken have been at the very least put on hold. However, although the traditional view is that the argument is a Republican/Loyalist one, much of the current dispute lies within the Unionist community itself with those who take a pragmatic approach (perhaps more from the leafy suburbs) with those who take a much more hard-line one (loyalist working class areas). This is not to demonise either side. It is the way that history has evolved. Unfortunately, in the process God has got left out of the equation and we should pray for more power for those churches and leaders who are trying to reestablish the connection.

  5. Puran Agrawal says:

    If I understand it correctly the Protestant Paradox is this: The Protestants in Northern Ireland (NI) have identified themselves in terms of flag-flying on public buildings and Orange Order Parades rather than in terms of key Reformation doctrines such as “the centrality of scripture, salvation by faith in Christ alone through the grace of God alone.” Further, the paradox consists in the fact that those involved in the recent protests claim to be doing so in order to stop “the erosion of their British culture and their British heritage” whereas a vast majority of the British people in England, Scotland, and Wales see no the threat to their British identity because flags on public buildings, including Queen’s official residences only fly on designated days.
    Only fact that explains this paradox is that for centuries the Protestants in NI have been concerned only with their economic and political privileges rather than with their Reformation heritage. This was what the 1912 Ulster Covenant and the slogan “The Protestant Parliament for Protestant people” about. Both a large part of the leadership of the Protestant churches (with the support of a vast majority of their congregation) and a vast majority of Protestant political leaders have been complicit both in creating and maintaining the “myth” that their primary concern has been to maintain the o so-called Protestant religious heritage. The sad fact is that this “myth” is still alive fifteen years after the 1998 peace process. Individuals like John Gillespie and organizations like Contemporary Christianity must accept a simple fact that it will take generations to eradicate such centuries old myths and prejudices and be ready for the hard work that lies ahead.
    As for the Protestant working class, their utter cynicism and embitteredness is understandable in the light of the fact they have been led up the garden path and down again too many times over the last forty-plus years by both their church leaders and political leaders. They are increasingly attracted by secularism because they find secular voices more honest and relevant to their immediate needs. Secularism, thus, though a natural enemy of the Christianity, may, in the context of the current situation in NI, prove to be a blessing in disguise in awakening both the church leaders and politicians from their “deep slumber.” Christians not only in NI but also in the Irish Republic can counter secularism only if and only if both Protestants and Catholics join hands together on specific moral and social issues in unison.
    Puran Agrawal

  6. Peter Mercer says:

    Agree with the general tenor of the article – indeed I think there should be more attempts made to get into the working class Protestant mindset, especially by those of us from the “leafy suburbs”. However, the churches themselves had a part to play in the initial sectarianism – if we weren’t actually told all Roman Catholics were going to hell, it was tacitly assumed they had no hope of salvation and that led to them being thought of as lesser mortals. I believe we are still living with the consequences of that mind-set.

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