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9 June 2003

The Past Is Orange

As the marching season reaches its traditional climax, leading churchman Richard Holloway joins the throng and finds that behind the triumphalism and bravado of the parades there is a terrible sadness

followed by a reply from Ruth Dudley Edwards 

IT'S a Saturday afternoon in June and I'm standing in Stewartfield Park, Broxburn, having just paraded the Sash through two once-proud West Lothian towns. The park is the venue for the rally which ends the parade, one of dozens of Orange Walks which will take place across Scotland this summer. And standing here, reflecting on what I've seen, I'm struck most of all by the idea that the marchers have chosen the wrong hymn to start the proceedings. But I'll come back to that in a minute. 
An hour and a half earlier, 5000 of us gather at King George V Park in Uphall for the start of the Walk. As well as actually taking part, I'm here to talk to the participants -- and to try to understand what makes them cling so stubbornly to a tradition many see as an ugly relic of religious intolerance.

Even by 11.30am there are quite a few well-oiled young men around, as well as lots of women in hats and a sprinkling of smartly dressed children. But it's mainly a gathering of middle-aged and elderly men. Were it not for the abundance of orange sashes, it could be a trades union congress: the brothers dangerously overweight, sweating heavily in the sultry heat of June in suits that are too tight . 

While the flute bands tune up, I can hear the good-natured banter among the beefy men at the marshalling point. But before I can introduce myself to the office bearers, I'm approached by a man in his early 60s who claims I saved him from converting to Mormonism 40 years ago. He tells me that, in 1962, I took him for a pint to the grottiest pub in the Gorbals and persuaded him to read a book by Havelock Ellis called The Battle For The Boyne. He looks disappointed when I deny any knowledge of the incident, not least because I know that Havelock Ellis was more interested in sex than in radical Protestantism. 

Then it dawns on me. In the tumult and noise I've misheard him. He had the title right but the author wrong. I had given him a book to read, The Battle For The Mind, but the author had been William Sargant . Anyway, it had done the trick and he had remained faithful to the Church of Scotland.

Though my memory of the encounter is hazy, I remember that Sargant's book had been about religious and political brainwashing, and it had made a bit of a splash when it was published in 1961. I wonder what Sargant would have made of his success at saving Jimmy for Orangeism. Then I immediately feel ashamed of the thought: Jimmy seems fine to me. Overweight and unhealthy looking, like everyone else around him, but a nice man, widowed and living alone in Glasgow's Shettleston, immensely proud of his son. I knew many men like him in the Vale of Leven when I was growing up. He belongs to what we used to call the respectable working class, now an endangered species. 

The next surprise is meeting the chairman of the day's events, the County Grand Master and Junior Deputy Grand Master for Scotland. His face I definitely recognise, which is hardly surprising, since he is a prominent member of one of the Episcopal Churches in Edinburgh. He invites me to march beside him in the parade .

We talk as he leads the 12 district lodges, each with its own band, on the sweaty three mile hike to the rally in Broxburn. I ask him how long he's been in the Orange Order and what led him to join. He tells me that as a boy in Edinburgh he heard John Cormack speak in defence of Protestantism and in opposition to Rome and was instantly converted to a cause from which he had never wavered. It's at this moment that I realise the exasperated straggle of unfashionable looking men is the tail end of a long procession winding out of Scotland's turbulent past. And to understand why members of the Orange Order speak and act the way they do, we have to take a quick flight over 440 years of history. Though 1560 was the year in which Scotland went officially Protestant and kicked out Roman Catholicism, John Knox's dream of a single reformed Scottish Church began to fade almost as soon as the ink was dry on its title deeds. The main threat lay in the fact that while the Church was Presbyterian in structure and Calvinist in theology, Scotland's Stuart monarchs were either Episcopalian or Roman Catholic, and tried their damnedest to form the Church of Scotland in their image. Though there was an armed struggle in the 17th century to protect Scottish Protestantism against the designs of the king, it took revolution in England to save the Scottish Kirk. 

Alarmed by the prospect of James II trying to make England Catholic, a faction in the Westminster parliament persuaded the Dutch prince, William of Orange, to come to their rescue. He took over in England without much resistance, but he had to fight in Scotland and Ireland to establish his authority. Scottish resistance was quenched at the Battle of Dunkeld in August 1689, but the climax of The Glorious Revolution was the Battle Of The Boyne in Ireland in July 1690, hence the famous Orange refrain: 'King Billy slew the Papish crew at the battle o'Byne Water.' 

Though it effectually stopped the religious violence that had disfigured Scotland for centuries and established Presbyterianism as the national church, The Glorious Revolution was unable to protect Protestantism from the inevitable erosions of time and change. Which brings us neatly to John Cormack, the mentor of the County Grand Master beside whom I was marching on this hot Saturday. The Church of Scotland had its own difficulties in protecting its Protestant heritage. It split in two at the Great Disruption of 1843, over the state's right to appoint the Kirk's ministers, a schism which was not healed till 1929. By this time any dream of a united Protestant Scotland was dead anyway. Though Roman Catholicism had never died out in Scotland, it received an enormous infusion of strength when the potato famine of 1851 led to a mass exodus from Ireland. Many of those fleeing the great hunger went west to America, but a significant number took the shorter eastern trip to Scotland. It is reckoned that in 1851 there were more than 200,000 people living in Scotland who had been born in Ireland, mostly Roman Catholics. Their presence inflamed the paranoia always latent in the radical Protestant mind, which tends to interpret the accidents of history as conspiracies. If you have been indoctrinated in a faith that defines itself in contradistinction to the corruptions of Roman Catholicism, you are bound to view with alarm the re-emergence in your own land of this hated creed.

But it wasn't only the rabble rousers who were alarmed. The Church of Scotland got in on the act at the highest level. It produced a report in 1923 called The Menace Of The Irish Race, which gave a cloak of respectability to the anti-Irish movement. One of the men ignited by the controversy was John Cormack. A n Edinburgh town councillor, he formed an organisation called Protestant Action that was a sort of religious National Front. Its high water mark was the riot of 1935, when he led a mob of 30,000 Protestants against a Catholic Congress that was taking place at a priory in Morningside. The County Grand Master reminds me nobody died in the Morningside riot. It was merely an attempt by good people to protect the purity of Protestantism from the infection of Papacy. And that was why he was marching today . 

When he speaks later at the rally, he inveighs against the kind of political correctness that paralyses the ability to make judgements and take a stand against things of which it disapproves. It proves to be a predictable rant against a list of the usual suspects of the paranoid mind, but at its heart there lies a strong and cogent point. He claims that the only minority that it is fashionable to denounce in Britain today is the Orange Order. With a stab of sorrow, I realise that he is speaking the truth. 

These fat, unhealthy men, with their old-fashioned prejudices that were once the religious coinage of the realm, now find themselves beleaguered by a society they do not like and cannot understand. Even the industries they once laboured in have disappeared, witnessed by the melancholy slag heaps that still dot the West Lothian landscape. Because they fail to recognise that history constantly erodes the most enduring of human institutions, the men on the Orange Walk detect conspiracies everywhere, most of them involving the Pope and European Community. Another target is the ecumenical movement, which is probably why one nice man tells me that the biggest threat to the Protestant cause today is the Church of Scotland.

I realise as I chat with these friendly but prejudiced men that they are all mourners in a funeral march for a way of living and thinking that is dead beyond any resurrection. One expects elegies to be beautiful. This isn't, which is why it is so inexpressibly sad. And so to Stewartfield Park, the rally, a prayer and then that hymn: O God Our Help In Ages Past. An obvious choice, but it's the wrong one . They should be singing Abide With Me, with its plangent refrain: 'Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.'

Richard Holloway is the former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh. He will be appearing at the International Book Festival, August 9 to August 25.


* * * *

THE REPLY: deriding Orangeism is trendy, but the real gripe is with the challenge militant Protestantism poses to the liberal mindset, argues Ruth Dudley Edwards

ONCE upon a time, Richard Holloway and I walked up and down a hill between Drumcree Church and the Garvaghy Road talking about Orangemen for the benefit of a television camera. I remember him as a pleasant and well-meaning man so awash with uncertainties that he seemed unnerved by anyone with firm beliefs. 

I looked at the video of our encounter with a friend the other night and we found it hilarious. There was I, an atheist, trying to convince a retired bishop that for many people in Northern Ireland religion had been a positive force for good: a genuine belief in Christian teaching had enabled tens of thousands to forgive those who had caused them terrible suffering. And there was the man of God confiding that he was so possessed by doubt that the idea of absolute truth or untruth nibbled at his soul. 

Richard might have had his doubts, but he also had his prejudices. He arrived at Drumcree pretty certain the Orangemen were a frightful, intolerant bunch and seemed disconcerted that I thought their concern with the errors of Roman Catholicism to be perfectly legitimate. He was surprised to learn that you cannot join the Order without promising solemnly, never by word or deed, to show intolerance towards any man because of his religion. Now, I don't for a minute pretend that a Protestant group such as the Orange Order -- like Muslims, Catholics and Hindus -- doesn't have plenty of bigots in its ranks. But by and large, in my experience, they're mostly very decent people who have an attachment to their religion and country that may be unfashionable but which I find very refreshing at a time when the chattering classes are dogmatically secularist and unpatriotic. 

But as Richard's article seems to imply, to be unfashionable is to be wrong. Now, I'll give him his due. When we talked at Drumcree he did genuinely accept that Orange people might be better than he had thought. And now he has at least bothered to go on a real parade, which is more than most critics of Orangeism do. Mind you, he entirely misses the joy and happy socialising that characterises such gatherings: I suspect the West Lothian Orange people thought they had a good time, but to Richard they were an 'exasperated straggle'. Still, he does describe as 'a strong and cogent point' the County Grand Master's statement that 'the only minority that it was fashionable to denounce in Britain today was the Orange Order'. Yet he makes it clear that this is because the 'fat, unhealthy men, with their old-fashioned prejudices' are unable to change in the way necessary to fit into modern life.

I'm sure Richard would be shocked to be accused of this, but he oozes condescension. First, there is the shock at seeing people who have not embraced contemporary body fascism. These 'beefy' people are mostly 'dangerously overweight' and they sweat in the sultry heat in suits that are too tight. They should look like Tony Blair but instead resemble John Prescott, the token working-class fatty in a Cabinet of lawyers and polytechnic lecturers.

Well, Richard, as you recognise, it's a bit of a class thing. Many of these people do come from what you call the 'respectable working class', where it has been customary to accept rather than fight the ravages of age. They wouldn't often have occasion to wear a suit, so they won't get a new one till they have to, but they'll wear it on parade because they think the occasion deserves their best clothes. Their class is, as you say, 'an endangered species', not least because fashionable politicians sneer at and undermine such values as industry, thrift, fidelity and a belief in family. I'd wager that if you did a survey of those on parade you'd find they had much lower instances of drink or drug abuse, divorce, fatherless children, violence or welfare-dependence than you'd find in your average non-Orange group from similar backgrounds. Personally, I hope for the sake of our increasingly dysfunctional society that some of those funny anachronistic notions of personal responsibility make a comeback.

What horrifies Richard Holloway most, however, is what he thinks are prejudices and the paraders think is faith. The ex-Primus of the Scottish Episcopalian Church is so liberal he seems shocked to discover there are still people in the church who are Protestant. He may reflect that the fall-off in numbers in the church in which he spent his life may have much to do with worshippers getting fed up with woolly-minded bishops who don't know what they believe . In contrast, the Orange Order in Scotland is maintaining its numbers along with its sense of identity. If its members are nervous about Roman Catholicism (and, these days, Islam), it is because in their blood is a horror of authoritarianism and a passion for civil and religious liberty. They are right to revere The Glorious Revolution: it is a disgrace that most children leave school without knowing about it. I'm pleased that William III rather than James II won at the Boyne. I grew up a Catholic in Ireland at a time when my church ruled the roost and a very unpleasant place it was -- there was far more freedom of speech and far less cruelty to children in Northern Ireland.

Richard sees Orange suspicion of ecumenism and the EU as further proof of paranoia. A close friend of mine, an Ulster Orangeman, the Rev Brian Kennaway, who will not share services with non-Protestants, is a passionate defender of religious liberty who has challenged anti-Catholic bigots at every turn. And when it comes to the EU, I think there are millions of people in the United Kingdom who are as jaundiced by its unaccountability, secretiveness, meddling and imperial pretensions as any Orangeman. Richard forgets to mock Orange support for the monarchy, but in a world where the Prime Minister is messing around with the constitution from a position of complete historical ignorance, I'm delighted that there are some people who have a sense of history, a respect for tradition and care about our ancient liberties.

Many people need certainties and the company of the likeminded. Better they pray, socialise and parade with others who share their values and religion than they run into the arms of extremists. Ultra-Protestantism and the flight of Christians to Islam are the product of ultra-liberalism.

Richard believes Abide With Me is a suitable hymn for people he thinks are caught in a timewarp. Well, I think the Orange Order is better represented by Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus -- though I realise Richard will think it multiculturally insensitive. 'Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross/Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss/From victory unto victory His army shall He lead/Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.' 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards