Backlash to Methodist Covenant apology

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A GROUP of Belfast unionist councillors is demanding a meeting with the city’s Methodist Synod after it issued a written apology for the church’s role in the Ulster Covenant in 1912, which, the Synod claimed, “implied approval for the use of violence”.

Devout Methodists Jim Rodgers (UUP) and Brian Kingston (DUP) will be leading the five or six-strong delegation, which the Belfast Synod said it will be “only too pleased to meet to explain the full statement”.

The statement, which was issued earlier this week, said it recognised the importance of the Covenant Centenary.

The 100-year mark is being celebrated today with a major parade from Belfast City Hall to Stormont, with tens of thousands expected to take part.

The meeting was chaired by the Rev Dr Heather Morris, president elect of the Methodist Church in Ireland, who is travelling tomorrow to St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Dublin to receive the honour of Ecumenical Canon.

The synod statement also made a plea “to all those responsible for these parades to ensure that they take place with dignity and respect for others, and that the organisers should take responsibility for the actions of their members and also ensure that accompanying bands behave with dignity at all times, especially in interface areas”.

Mr Rodgers and Mr Kingston said they took exception to the part of the statement which said: “The Belfast synod recognises the involvement of our church in the signing of the Covenant which invoked God on ‘our side’ and implied the approval of the use of violence in ‘our cause’.

“We now realise that God stands on the ‘side’ of humanity as a whole and not just on ‘one side’, and so we express our profound regret and commit ourselves to active non-violence and to working and praying for a society in which all live in mutual understanding.”

Mr Rodgers, a member at Mountpottinger Methodist Church, described the synod members as “apologists for the protestors who are doing their utmost to spoil this important occasion for the greater number of the people of Northern Ireland who are still vehemently opposed to Home Rule”. He said: “It’s the action of clerics who are removed from reality. I am a personal friend to many Roman Catholics and constitutional nationalists and I respect their culture.”

He added: “I am a lifelong Methodist, but frankly I can’t see the point in the issuing of this statement, which doesn’t say a word about people who are doing their best to undermine our culture.

“Attendance in the mainstream Protestant churches is dwindling, and it’s no wonder when statements like this are issued. Does this all mean that the Belfast synod will be apologising for Methodists who fought in World War One and World War Two, many of them having given their lives?”

Mr Kingston comes from a devout Methodist family in north Belfast, and is related to Dr Morris. He said: “I am mystified and astounded by the statement, apologising for the church’s involvement, a century ago, in the signing of Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant. This was a cause to which the vast majority of the Protestant people in Ulster of the day rallied, in defence of their position within the Union which they considered was under imminent threat. Indeed by making that stand they helped to secure the retention of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. I don’t understand what purpose it serves for the Belfast synod to disassociate itself, in the relative comfort of the modern era, from the actions of church clergy and members in those fraught times. This statement was unnecessary as the difficult and contentious nature of the decade which we are now starting to commemorate is widely accepted.

“They appear disconnected from the thinking of many within its church membership and the broader Protestant/unionist/loyalist community in Belfast.

“Along with other concerned Methodists, I am seeking a meeting with representatives of Belfast synod to express our grave concerns and to ask how such a statement came about.”

A statement from the Belfast Methodist Synod confirmed: “We will be glad to meet with Jim Rodgers, Brian Kingston and others. The synod’s statement is not critical of any political party, including those represented by Jim and Brian, whose democratic mandates and contributions to political and community life are highly regarded.

“It should also be noted that the word ‘apology’ was not used in the Methodist statement.

“In making its statement the synod was aware both of the danger of confusing any legitimate political aspiration with the purposes of God, and of the danger of resolving to use ‘any means necessary’ in support of that aspiration. In 1912 there were those within Belfast Methodism who, while unionist in political affiliation, were also alert to these dangers and for that reason did not sign the Covenant.

“The synod’s reflection applies not only to the 1912 Ulster Covenant, but also to those other political movements which took place in the opening decades of the 20th century and whose centenaries will be commemorated over the next few years. The synod’s one desire is to build a peace in which all may share.”

Meanwhile, Jason McCullough, 39, a lifelong member of Finaghy Methodist Church, yesterday contacted the News Letter after reading the Methodist ‘apology’ report.

Mr McCullough, who has acted as a scrutineer for the Methodist conference, said that the move was wrong.

He added: “I make no apology for what our forefathers stood for. I’m disgusted at them for putting that statement out.

“They don’t speak for me as a Methodist.”