Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Pastor and First Minister have stirred an unholy row

Lame apology: First Minister Peter Robinson's clumsy form of words only added to the bad feeling

Just when you thought that the row over Pastor James McConnell's outburst about Islam could not get any worse, it actually deepened.

Instead of leaving it alone, the pastor went on live television to muddy the waters further, and First Minister Peter Robinson, who ought to have known better, chose a clumsy form of words to defend him, and thus added to the bad feelings all round.

The best advice to people on the back foot is the old maxim: "When you are in a hole, stop digging." Unfortunately the pastor dug himself in deeper, until it became almost embarrassing to watch this verbal car-crash unfold on the BBC's Nolan TV show. It's important to remind people that militant Islam is a major threat, that Christianity is one of its targets and many Islamic regimes are extremely authoritarian, with barbaric punishments. However, all well-informed observers also know that peaceful Islam is no threat to anyone, and that the decent people of this major world faith should be respected like everyone else.

James McConnell is not a bad man, but he was wrong to say what he said, and in all of this he is clearly well out of his depth. Surely the time has come for the pastor's family, for his friends and above all for his church advisers to bring home to him the stark reality that he has painted himself into a corner.

However, I don't really think he understands, even yet, the implications of the huge row he has created, and I wonder how long he can withstand the personal pressures at the centre of the storm. His main challenge now is to walk away with whatever dignity and credibility he can retain. He has made his point, however badly, and it is time to move on from the argument.

The case of our First Minister Peter Robinson is very different, and recent events are making people question his judgment. Most experienced public figures might have addressed some careful words to a pastor friend in his self-created difficulties, but a political statesman would also have quickly and clearly distanced himself from the implications of what James McConnell said.

Peter Robinson failed to do this properly first time round, and ended up having to apologise lamely to the Muslim community. All of this was incongruous at a time when aviation officials here are trying to open a direct link to Turkey, a predominantly Islamic country.

Unlike many non-DUP supporters I have had a certain sympathy for Mr Robinson. He has an impossible and highly-stressful job, and his slightest slip is always magnified.

However he is coming across as increasingly edgy, and he is not the only one. Martin McGuinness, who also has his challenges, also seems remarkably testy, and he and Robinson must stop conducting their public debate at the level of the lowest common denominator. Too many of our politicians and other public figures live in a bubble with little regard for the dignity, inspiration and leadership which we so badly need. We deserve better all round.

Pastor McConnell is yet another symptom of what happens when people lose the run of themselves, and many of the politicians in Northern Ireland remind me of Charles de Gaulle's remark that "politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians".

Sometimes I am ashamed of the worst of Northern Ireland. Some people say that they do not trust Muslims, but in all honesty how far can ordinary decent Muslims here, and other ethnic minorities in our midst, sincerely trust the rest of us?

 

You can’t put a price on praying

One of my favourite churches is St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast which has now decided to charge a visitor entrance fee of £2 to help defray the huge running costs of over £1,200 a day.

They have also produced an audio tour and booklet.

 However, it is important to stress Dean John Mann’s message that anyone can enter the cathedral at any time free of cost to find a quiet space and to pray. Some things in life are without price, and literally priceless.

 

Recording sticks to tradition

Newtownbreda Presbyterian Church has produced a new CD titled Songs from Worship, with 30 tracks from live recordings over recent years.

In these days of so many forgettable clappy choruses it is good to hear some more traditional church music. There is a preview on www.newtownbreda.org/cd, and orders can be placed with briancompston@utvinternet.com.

It even has Love Divine, which should be part of every good church CD.

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