SCOURING the mildewed corridors of my memory I cannot ever recall being in accord with the Orange Order.
In my youth I was dimly aware of its existence through my paternal grandmother, who was a member of the Eastern Star which, despite sounding like a Chinese takeaway, was closely connected to the Masons. Whether my grandfather was a Mason or a member of the OO I have no idea. What I do know is that his younger son, my father, resisted all attempts to enlist him, devoting much of his spare time to serving the Church of Scotland both as an elder and as an officer in the Life Boys.
I thought of him when I read of the Orange Order's criticism of the Kirk which it denounced in typically intemperate terms, bemoaning its inability to offer moral and spiritual leadership and insisting that it "can no longer command high public regard and influence". That seems to me fair comment. Of late the Kirk has grown insular and obsessed with its own internal mechanisms. Like trade unions in the days of yore, it takes for granted its members, many of whom are dismayed by reports of women ministers being bullied and the deeply divisive and interminable debate over homosexuality. Moreover it seems to have no voice, no impact, no ideas, no intellectual core, no sense of direction. Increasingly it feels redundant, irrelevant, anachronistic, out of touch.
But is the Orange Order the answer? It would have us believe that many Protestants now consider it to be more in tune with its "values and aspirations". How it knows this, other than from anecdotal evidence, it does not say. Perhaps it bases the assumption on polls, in particular those regarding independence. The Orange Order is implacably Unionist, a view it shares with the Wee Frees, which those involved with the No campaign may regard as the kind of blessing they can do without. It would like the Kirk to join it in defending the Union against nationalism. Here, I'm afraid, I must part company with the Orange Order, not because I'm in favour of independence, which I may or may not be, but because it's none of the Kirk's business.
For the determined and rapidly ageing few who regularly inhabit the pews, however, the problem is knowing what exactly is the Kirk's business these days. While the Catholic church, for example, has little trouble opining on whatever issue takes its fancy, the Kirk remains worryingly silent. That it has views is apparent whenever one meets its panjandrums but ask them to go on the record and you get the kind of the reaction mafiosi gave when asked to clype on one of their own. Those versed in Kirk lore will tell you that this is a good thing, that it is not a dictatorship, that it speaks as a democratic chorus rather than as a spotlight-grabbing soloist. In many respects this is admirable but the upshot is that it is hard for lay folk to comprehend what it stands for. For better or worse it needs someone with whom the wider public can identify.
In his or her absence, it delegates to the conveners of committees whose forte, like the saps who deliver the Thought for the Day, is to say nothing that would frighten the pigeons while delivering a sermon of saccharine unctuousness. Where there are fences to be found they sit on them. Wherever possible spades are called shovels and body-swerving controversy smacks not so much of respect for an alternative point of view but as of cowardice. What, one wonders, does the Kirk think of the banking crisis, the Big Society, youth unemployment, the sheer greed that pervades the City?
One listens attentively but no sounds seep out of 121 George Street, the Kirk's Edinburgh HQ. Did they ever? We who grew up in it and have much to thank it for now wonder if its past influence was overstated, that it did not play such a significant part in the nation's moral formation as we have been led to suppose. Its debates and decisions at the General Assembly were reputed to matter, but did they really?
Like the apostle Thomas, I'm beginning to have my doubts.
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