Yesterday the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland spoke at a funeral of a man murdered viciously. He said that the killing of the Maghaberry prison guard David Black was an attack “on this whole community.” Northern Ireland is still recovering from a brutal civil war. One hopes that what Roy meant was that if prison officers get murdered, something of the fabric of civil society is pulled apart. However, the draping of the coffin in a Union Jack flag gives the impression that the community being referenced is somewhat smaller.
Before I get into this, I should point out that for five years Roy Patton was technically my boss. He has been an active support to me in my training. He has welcomed me to preach in his pulpit. He is a truly decent man. I also was welcomed to the Cookstown Presbyterian church where this funeral was held this very year. The minister there, Tom Greer, welcomed me and my friends from Maynooth with warmth and kindness.
I should also point out that I realise I don’t know the tensions and difficulties on the ground in Cookstown. Things are fraught there, socially and spiritually, in a way that is hard to grasp in the calm plain that is Dublin. What has happened in Tyrone is a tragedy. I don’t want to call that into question in any way.
But still, reflection in this instance is inevitable. When we allow powerful symbols and language from the wider world into our church vernacular we must be extremely careful that they don’t distort the very message we proclaim. Or phrased more theologically, the powers and principalities of this world have tools and methods that are not congruent with the ways of the Kingdom. A symbol that the wider world in the form of the State uses to coerce obedience from people is the flag. Christians in Ireland need to be more careful with their use of flags. Flags should not be inside our worship spaces. Flags should not fly in our burial grounds. When we die, the Scriptures promise us that we will find the country we are looking for, “a country of our own.” Before then, we are “foreigners and strangers on earth.” If only from Hebrews 11 it would seem to be clear that the followers of Jesus don’t get to bring their passports to whatever comes next. Neither should we seek to be joined by the flags we have waved.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is too often the Presbyterian Church for Northern Ireland. That would be bad enough. But on weeks like this the impression is given that we are actually the Presbyterian Church for Unionists in Ulster. This is devastating to the actual mission that God has called us to pursue. We can’t declare Jesus as Lord in any meaningful sense in Tullow or Manorhamilton or even the nationalist homes in Cookstown if we give people reason to conflate our cause with a particular politics.
Let me give you one attempt at a contextual analogy before closing with a lovely quote. I was talking with an older gent in my congregation this morning about this. He is British. He and I realised that it would be madness to even try to imagine a member of the Presbyterian Church in Maynooth wanting their coffin wrapped in an Irish tricolour. The reason is, of course, that here in north Kildare the flag is not contentious. It has no serious meaning and the Irish nation State is unable to claim our allegiance over our status as followers of Jesus. He said that he could imagine my coffin draped in the colours of Man City easier than the Irish flag.
If it is absurd to wrap a flag around a coffin here, why is it not a hundred and fifty miles north of here?
Because that flag has a potency and a meaning in Cookstown that no flag has here. Which is another way of saying that a narrative other than the Gospel competes for the affection of Cookstownians in a way that would have no traction in Maynooth. And if for no other reason, that is why we should not have flags involved in any worship. At best they distract, in most cases they confuse and in the worst situations, they actively compete with our allegiance to God.
I’ll finish with a wonderful paragraph from Hauerwas that Steve Holmes reminded me of this week:
I shall never forget a night in New York City in which Enda [McDonagh; Irish Roman Catholic theologian] told a group of neo-conservatives he would rather live in Zimbabwe than America. He wonderfully defended his ‘preference’ in the face of their utter disbelief that any ‘rational’ person would actually make such a choice. How could you not want to live ‘in the lead society’ of the world? Enda pointed out he already lived in the ‘lead society’ of the world. It was called the Catholic Church.
– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Where Would I Be Without Friends?’ in Nation & Wells (eds), Faithfulness and Fortitude: In Conversation with the Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, p. 331.
Presbyterians are part of the church Catholic. For my generation of fellow leaders on this island – teaching, reminding and encouraging our people with this truth that liberates us from the petty slaveries of nationalism, tribalism and violence – that is no secondary activity.
Your Correspondent, Could salute a flag that could burn itself