Is the Orange Order Really Protestant?

Posted By: October 11, 2013

The Orange Order sees itself as a truly Protestant organization. William Scholes — who writes about religious matters for the Belfast Irish News —  questions whether the Orange Order really applies Reformation principles to itself.

Orange Order needs to do the Protestant thing.
William Scholes. Irish News ( Belfast). Friday. October 11, 2013
IF you think it incongruous for an organisation which self-identifies as Christian to call for civil disobedience, as the orange order has, you would be right. It is not impossible, however, for the Christian to embark on civil disobedience.
Take the apostles. Their compulsion to share the radical new gospel of Christ and his resurrection brought them into direct opposition with the civil authorities. Deciding to obey God instead of man was not without consequence. Persecution, imprisonment, torture and death could follow as prices to be paid for disobedience.
Even through orange-tinted glasses it is difficult to compare the apostles with the gathering around the caravan at Camp Twaddell.
Where they were motivated only by speaking of Jesus, there isn’t quite the same single-mindedness in the orange order’s activities in north Belfast.
Their energies are instead directed at defying the Parades Commission, which has refused permission for parades to pass nationalist homes on Crumlin Road.
The call for civil disobedience came from William Mawhinney, county grand secretary of the order’s Belfast district.
Its membership may have dwindled but its influence hasn’t. The order remains plugged into the institutions of government; Mr Mawhinney shared the platform with DUP MLA Nelson McCausland, a member of the Stormont executive and a prominent Belfast orangeman.
I know orangemen who admit privately that elements in the Belfast district and some of the bands it uses have dragged the order’s reputation ever lower.
What goes on in Belfast doesn’t measure up to how the order conducts itself in rural areas, they say. That is largely true but they still say it privately, rather than break the omerta which means that even if you disagree strongly with what your brethren are up to, you keep quiet.
The orange order styles itself as the supporter and defender of Protestantism, so it is reasonable to assume that the Protestant Churches might have something serious to say about the threat of civil disobedience and the order’s activities.
It’s hard to tell though. One might ask where the Churches stand on the issue, especially when Protestant clergy play public and leading roles in the order.
The truth is that a ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ approach prevails when it comes to the Churches challenging the orange order.
It isn’t hard to see why. The order is embedded in the Churches and their structures, from parish level upwards. It can be hard to criticise yourself. Those who do act as critical friends end up ostracised.
That lack of self-criticism speaks also of a lack of self-awareness, of failing to see yourself as your neighbour does; it also means that you can’t expect the neighbour to begin to understand your position.
Anyone seriously interested in promoting faith, Protestant or otherwise, should appreciate the significance of this, as the
apostle Paul did when he addressed the Areopagus in Athens.
The ‘neighbours’ in the orange order’s 21st century Areopagus include Catholics, of course, but also Protestants for whom the orange order, its parades and culture are an irrelevance and an imposition.
Jesus set out the principle for Christian civil disobedience when he said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.”
He was speaking into the reality that the Christian is a citizen of earth as well as of heaven, each of which has its own obligations. Where those pull in opposite directions – ordering citizens to do something contrary to God’s law, for example – there is a limit to the government power which means it cannot prevent the payment to God of what is rightly his.
That is plainly not the case with Camp Twaddell. The Parades Commission’s determinations have not prevented the gospel being shared. The sad truth for the order and its many faithful Christian members is that it has managed to do that itself.
All of this presents the question of just how Christian the orange order is.
If it is truly concerned with extending Christ’s kingdom and loving its neighbour as itself then, at best, it has an idiosyncratic way of going about it.
There is another possibility, one which its members and apologists should address; that the orange order is just as secular and spiritually corrupt as the world it rails against, a world which has left it behind and looks on with increasing bewilderment.
The Protestant reformers spoke of semper reformanda, of the need for continual reform in the light of the Scriptures.
Instead of griping about everyone else, the orange order should ask if it needs to apply some reformation principles to itself. That would be the Protestant thing to do.