Were they really Huguenot? Picky, picky. They were Huguenot enough for me.
And so here I am, all those years later, a true Irish Protestant on both sides of the family for at least – oh — one generation. I am inside the pale of privilege and entitlement which the native Protestant population has carefully built around itself since the foundation of the State.
And now this awful Northerner, the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, has called us “sectarian”. Last week he told the Dublin and Glendalough synods that “exclusionary attitudes, and indeed sectarianism itself, is alive not least in the Church of Ireland community.”
Is he for real? Does he think he’s in some black hole up North? Doesn’t he understand that we , the Protestants of the South, are market leaders when it comes to being liberal? We are the Irish liberals. No need for any more. All you have to do to protect Irish liberal values is protect us. Just give us our little schools beside our little crumbling churches. What was that line in the Church of Ireland catechism I studied for Confirmation ... You can tell the Church of Ireland is the true church of Ireland by the fact that we have all the historic churches in all the historic sites? Give us our fee-charging schools but give us capitation grants as well. We had double funding from 1967 until 2008 and its withdrawal is forcing some of our best schools into the free scheme. To add insult to injury, the increase in the pupil/teacher ratio in fee-charging schools is deliberate discrimination against us and is, as 13 Fine Gael councillors past and present said in their recent plea to Enda Kenny, “putting Protestant schools beyond the means of ordinary Protestants.”
And above all, give us our Church of Ireland College of Education to teach teachers to be, not just teachers, but Protestant teachers. This is very important. For this reason, as the college’s website says, “all available places on the degree course are reserved for those who are members of recognised churches in the Protestant tradition.” As to quite what is “the Protestant tradition” — that’s a tough one. The Church of Ireland is as Archbishop Richard Clarke said recently, “the reformed Catholic church”. It’s actually the Catholic Church reformed within the context of the nation state. This offers it huge advantages, not least of which was getting women into dog collars. The Church of Ireland had women priests before the Church of England and now we have, in Pat Storey, the first woman bishop in these islands.
This is part of the attraction of the church for me, but I also love the way, as a national church, the Church of Ireland can follow the seasons. My favourite festival is Harvest Thanksgiving, and my favourite line is from the hymn ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’: “He paints the wayside flower, He lights the evening star.” In a way the Church of Ireland brings us back to a Celtic Christian Church, before the power of Rome overcame it.
But the Church of Ireland still has far more in common with the Church of Rome than it has with Presbyterianism or Methodism or the Baptist Church of the Quakers or the Plymouth Brethren or on and on and on. The truth is that there is no such thing as “the Protestant tradition” except that it is not Catholic.
Protestants have been bonded together, in Ireland, by politics. Marooned in a Catholic State which had some very Catholic laws, we got together and developed our brand in a passive-aggressive manner. The key words are “minority” and “liberal”. With these we have managed to claim for ourselves the status of an endangered species without which the eco-system cannot survive.
While we are a minority, we were very powerful until recently. In 1961 a third of directors and managers were Protestant, while only 642 of 48,000 labourers and unskilled workers were Protestant. A quarter of senior bankers were Protestant in 1972. In the 1960s, 80% of Protestants worked with other Protestants and ads such as this one from 1969 still appeared: “Junior copy typist (Protestant) required by large city firm.”
We can hardly be described as “liberal” unless you focus exclusively on women priests and less than black-and-white attitudes to contraception, divorce and abortion. All of these are important issues but they are hardly the preserve of the Church of Ireland. And let us remember that the Church of Ireland Gazette opposed Noel Browne’s mother and child scheme.
While you can understand how, in the past, Protestant women would have looked for doctors and gynaecologists, the importance of Protestant children being taught by Protestant teachers quite eludes me. My grandfather was a Church of Ireland primary school principal and my granny trained as a teacher in the Church of Ireland College of Education. I am still grateful to a number of great teachers at my own Church of Ireland school.
But it is also clear to me that this has to stop. The college of education has become the agent of a mindless sectarian division. Its teachers should be hired for their professional ability alone, not their religion. How could schools hope to find the best teachers from such a tiny minority? Most of us educated in Irish Protestant schools will answer
— they can’t.
The only non-denominational primary teacher training in this country is currently offered by Hibernia. But part of the Higher Education Authority’s plan to rationalise teacher training is that the College of Education should become part of a new Institute of Education involving St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute and Dublin City University. It is hard to overstate how positive this development might be, blending several rich traditions in the context of a vibrant university. But it is outrage at this plan within the Church of Ireland community that led Archbishop Michael Jackson to make his scorching comments about “sectarianism” last week. Walton Empey, Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough from 1996 from 2002, has led expressions of concern from the Church of Ireland establishment about protecting the Church of Ireland ethos in education and the college’s links with Trinity College. He defended this position in a letter to the papers, saying it was “not sectarian” but about maintaining “our ethos as a minority church”.
Well I for one don’t want to be bunkered into a “minority church”. I am a Christian. I subscribe to a very beautiful Christian cultural tradition which has much to offer this society. It is not threatened by other Christian traditions, it is enriched by them and by the beliefs of those of other faiths and by those of none. At its centre is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who managed to teach pretty well without a degree from the Church of Ireland College of Education.
I am with Pope Francis on this one. There is no Catholic God. And there isn’t a Protestant God, either.