Orange chaplain supports Catholic church ban repeal

Orange Order chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson.
Orange Order chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson.

One of Northern Ireland’s most senior Orangemen has said he would support the lifting of a ban on members attending Catholic church services – but wouldn’t initiate such a “divisive” change in policy himself.

Reverend Mervyn Gibson, the Order’s county grand chaplain for Belfast and assistant grand master, said the rule “harked back to a different era”.

There is a difference between attending and actually participating

Tom Elliott MP

Rev Gibson made the comments on the BBC Talkback programme on Wednesday.

On Wednesday night he told the News Letter he had not intention of calling for a rule change.

“I was asked what I think, but I’m not going to initiate anything,” he said.

“There will close friends of mine who will be in disagreement with me, that is the nature of the Institution.

“It does split the Institution and it is quite emotive. Can you imagine how members, who missed family events because of that rule, how are they going to feel if it gets changed...the hurt that must have caused, so it is quite an emotive issue for some. But if people feels strongly about it they can bring it forward.”

BBC presenter Gloria Hunniford revealed in 2006 that her Orangeman father missed her wedding, to a Catholic, due to his strict adherence to the Order’s rulebook.

In the book about her daughter Caron’s battle with cancer, Hunniford said: “I came from a Protestant Ulster family and my father took his role within the Orange Order very seriously, so our marriage had initially caused upset to my family. In fact, my father, a highly principled man, had refused to attend our wedding and my mother had to follow suit.”

A survey of Orange Order members carried out by the grand lodge in Co Fermanagh two years ago showed that almost 50% would be happy to see the ban lifted, while only 25% said they would vote for it to remain.

In 2011, Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Tom Elliott (then an MLA) faced Orange Order disciplinary action for attending the funeral service of murdered PSNI officer Ronan Kerr.

On Wednesday night he said: “It is a matter for the Orange to discuss if they so wish and I would quite happily partake is such a discussion, but I know it is divisive.

“But it think a discussion around it would be healthy. There is a difference between attending [a funeral] as a mark of respect, and actually participating.”

Lord Trimble was threatened with expulsion from the Order in 1998 when he attended two funeral masses for Omagh bomb victims.

Afterwards, he said: “There are circumstances where it is one’s duty as a human being, as a Christian – indeed even as a politician – to go to services in other churches.”

• Although he said he had no objection to the lifting of the ban on Orange Order members attending Catholic church services, Rev Mervyn Gibson told the programme he would was firmly against the participation of a Catholic priest during worship St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.

Last month Fr Edward O’Donnell, parish priest of St Brigid’s in Belfast, was deemed eligible to read scripture, lead prayers and preach at the cathedral, after his appointment as a Roman Catholic ecumenical canon in the Church of Ireland,

Rev Gibson said he would not attend such a service.

“If he was taking part in the service I wouldn’t be present,” he said.

Rev Gibson also said he viewed Catholics as “Christians in need of reformation”.

Commenting on the weekend’s resolution to the parading impasse at the Ardoyne/Twaddell interface, said he believed the loyalist protest activity at Twaddell had had a positive impact.

“If we hadn’t had the protest camp we wouldn’t have to the agreement [for the parade that broke the deadlock].”

When challenged by a caller to the programme that the Order was akin to the Ku Klux Klan, the chaplain said: “We would stand against the Klan. We would stand against anything that stands for racism or sectarianism in that way.”