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Orange Order's inertia is not sufficient excuse for putting off decision on attending Mass

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 06/10/2016

Mervyn Gibson, the Assistant Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, told Radio Ulster's Talkback listeners yesterday that he would like to see the prohibition on members attending a Catholic Mass go one day.

But he added there was no rush and that he had no immediate ambition to change the rule.

"There's not enough hours in the day to do it now."

While it's significant for some people, he explained that "walking through the doors of the church doesn't mean you will sympathise any more".

Perhaps not, but that an Orangeman would go through the door of a Roman Catholic Church could matter a great deal to a friend or neighbour, which is why so many members of the loyal orders have for many decades ignored a rule they thought outdated and unchristian.

Plenty have attended Roman Catholic funerals, weddings and christenings.

When I was growing up in Dublin, the Roman Catholic hierarchy prohibited its members from attending non-Catholic services.

It is still a matter of embarrassment to many Irish Roman Catholics that in 1949, after the death of Douglas Hyde, who had been President of Ireland, during his funeral service in St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral, all but one member of the Cabinet - the rebellious Noel Browne - remained outside. It mattered a great deal in 1998 that First Minister and Orangeman David Trimble deliberately went to Buncrana to attend the most high-profile Roman Catholic service for victims of the Omagh bomb.

It also mattered that in 2011, senior Orangeman Tom Elliott - then leader of the Ulster Unionist party - attended the Requiem Mass in Beragh for murdered Constable Ronan Kerr. Just one of the 1,200 Irish lodges complained, but, as in the case of David Trimble - who had been applauded by the entire congregation - no action was taken by Grand Lodge.

Unlike Mervyn Gibson, I think a change in the rule is long overdue.

Overseas, Orangemen and women are astounded to find it still in the Irish rulebook. I welcome the efforts the Grand Orange Lodge have made in recent years to explain the institution to the outside world, but inertia is not a sufficient excuse for postponing doing the right thing.

Many people from Northern Ireland are delighted about the recent outbreak of peace in Ardoyne. Could there be a better moment for Grand Master Edward Stevenson to say publicly that he agrees with Mervyn Gibson, but that he would like reform to come sooner rather than later?

Ruth Dudley Edwards' The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions is published by HarperCollins

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