Orange Order's country cousins can teach Belfast's brethren a real lesson
The authentic Orange Order tradition still exists, but you have to travel far from the cockpit of north Belfast to find it, says Brian Kennaway
Published 11/07/2014 | 10:45
When the original Orange Society was formed in James Sloan's house in Loughgall, Co Armagh, in 1795 the object of this new society – later to be known as the Loyal Orange Institution of Ireland – was "to aid and assist all loyal subjects, of every religious persuasion, by protecting them from violence and oppression".
Those who met in Sloan's house pledged themselves in mutual protection and in the defence of Protestantism. Protestantism, in those days, was understood purely as a religious term; as its name suggests, witnessing to the faith.
This authentic Orangeism expressed in the original Qualifications and Basis, formulated in 1798, makes no reference to Roman Catholics, either as individuals or as a Church.
Both documents express the high ideals of the Reformed Faith and include the phrase "will not admit into its brotherhood persons whom an intolerant spirit leads to persecute, injure, or upbraid any man on account of his religious opinions".
Even the present Qualifications, to which a prospective candidate must assent before he is initiated, contain such phrases as: "A sincere love and veneration for his Heavenly Father; a humble and steadfast faith in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind... he should honour and diligently study the Holy Scriptures... he should remember to keep holy the Sabbath day and attend the public worship of God... he should never take the name of God in vain."
Unfortunately, this is not the popular public image of Orangeism today.
How far has the Orange Institution moved from those origins?
Over recent years many who have embraced that authentic Orangeism and have sought to live by the core values have simply walked away.
Although Orangemen are reluctant to make reference to numbers – except for the often-quoted "100,000" – there has been a serious decline in numbers, far outstriping the reduction in church membership.
A County Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast publication, The Twelfth 1992, makes reference to "100,000 Orangemen" displaying "continued commitment" at the Tercentenary Parade in Belfast on September 29, 1990.
This figure – to project an image of the institution which is numerically much stronger than it actually is – is far off the mark; 45,000 would have been a more accurate figure.
As with any organisation, numbers have fluctuated over recent years. The highest figure in recent years – some 93,000 – was in 1968, a massive increase from 67,000 the previous year.
This spike in numbers could well be due to the increased interest in the institution at the start of the Troubles, when some thought that they were going to get arms to defend Ulster. These new members quickly moved on to other things and numbers fell to 64,000 the following year. Belfast – once the proud holder of the title of the largest county lodge – is now reduced to some 2,000 members.
The introduction of "flagship" parades on the Twelfth have encouraged local rural demonstrations to be more family-orientated. In spite of being supported by the business community and Belfast City Council, the attempt to rebrand a religious organisation into a cultural expression of Protestantism (Orangefest) has been nothing short of disastrous, as witnessed by the violence last year.
It was widely stated by commentators at the time that the institution in Belfast had a lot of work to do – including dealing with the nature of some bands – to make Orangefest successful.
In 2006 the Belfast Telegraph's Lindy McDowell asked: "Is it wise for the Government to give £100,000 of public money towards promoting the Orange festival as a tourist attraction?"
This exercise to persuade a sceptical world that the institution was genuinely interested in political change was accompanied by an attempt to make the Orange Order more acceptable to non-religious Orangeman by emphasising the importance of its culture rather than its faith.
Orangefest cannot get the institution out of its present predicament and is seen by many as merely window-dressing. The real issue is behaviour in the public square. Any organisation claiming to be Christian should reflect Christian values in its public behaviour.
It is regrettable that, of the 18 Orangemen interviewed for the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday, none offered any critical analysis of the behaviour of their brethren in north Belfast.
If the Orange Order is, as it claims, "a Christian organisation", if it is "Christ-centred, Bible-based, Church-grounded", if religion plays a significant role rather than a merely symbolic one, then that religious dynamic must be to the fore in its cultural expression.
The United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) described "culture" as follows: "Culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society, or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs."
Cultures are worth protecting and preserving so long as they are authentic.
That is a culture which has an authentic, historic past – even though it is evolving, taking into account the dynamics of the changing society within which it functions.
A culture is worth protecting and preserving which adds to the value of society as a whole, making it a richer and more diverse society.
An authentic Orange cultural identity, as expressed in the Qualifications and Basis of the institution, is, therefore, worth protecting and preserving.
A culture which evolves without losing its core values is worth protecting and preserving, but not a culture which is artificially created.
In terms of the faith-based Orange culture to which I belong, the problem lies not so much in the culture itself, but some of the expressions of that culture, as seen in the disrespect to Roman Catholic places of worship, which gives the greatest cause for concern.
Seven years after its introduction there is no evidence that Orangefest has been used by the leadership of the institution to justify the statement that "the Order is quietly rebuilding and returning to its roots".
The roots of the Orange Institution lie in the county of its origin, Armagh, which, like other rural counties, offers an example of authentic Orangeism.
The Twelfth demonstration in Co Armagh last year was in Newtownhamilton – hardly a hotbed of loyalism. Although this was the largest Twelfth demonstration, it received minimal coverage by the media.
There were no reported arrests or disturbances of any nature. The good behaviour of members, bands and supporters saw to that.
A Co Fermanagh Grand Orange Lodge audit published in January 2014 revealed the prevailing attitude of rural Orangemen towards Belfast when it referred to Belfast Orangemen in negative terms on 17 occasions.
Evidently, the roots of authentic Orangeism are still to be seen in rural Ulster.
The Rev Brian Kennaway is a former senior Orangeman. He served on the Parades Commission from 2011-13 and is the author of The Orange Order: A Tradition Betrayed (Methuen)