Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Why good deeds mean more than the Sabbath

Opposing the idea of a Sunday Belfast marathon is part of a desire to save the traditional Ulster day of rest. It must not succeed, argues Liam Clarke

It was quite inappropriate that Dr Stafford Carson, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, should use his last days in office to write to Naomi Long, Lord Mayor of Belfast, asking her to stop the city's marathon being held on a Sunday.

For Ms Long, a practising Presbyterian, and Belfast City Council, this is an opportunity to take religious dogma out of politics and make a stance for a society run in the interests of its people.

The safety and security of runners, the commercial health of the city, the convenience of citizens and the cost of policing the event, all point to the fact that the Belfast marathon should be held on a Sunday morning, when the streets are generally deserted.

Dr Carson confines himself to hinting that churches may withdraw support if the change takes place. The Rev David McIlveen, of the Free Presbyterians, goes one better and threatens protests.

Where Dr Carson speaks, with doubtful credibility, in terms of inconvenience to church-goers, the Rev McIlveen cuts to the chase. Disruption of church attendance, he admitted, is only a side-show. The real matter is enforcing Sabbath observance.

He is fighting a rearguard action in a long battle to preserve some remnant of the traditional Ulster Sunday, on which practically any event not directly linked to church-going was banned. He has lost every round so far.

Until the late 1960s, children's swings used to be chained up on Sundays in Belfast, and it was said, only half in jest, that "I spent a month in Belfast one Sunday."

Lord Soper, the Methodist preacher, described Belfast as "a city of religious nightclubs". Predictably, Soper, who questioned the virgin birth, was picketed by Free Presbyterians whenever he visited the province.

At one meeting in Belfast, Ian Paisley's heckling was drowned out by the laughter of the crowd. At another, held in Ballymena, Soper was hit on the head by a Bible hurled from the crowd, after he described Rev Paisley, who was in the crowd and who was subsequently fined for disrupting the peace, an "intellectual rabbit".

It is to be hoped that such scenes won't be repeated at the marathon, and to his credit, protests led by David McIlveen at such events as the Belfast Pride Parade are usually orderly.

But isn't it time to give up the campaign to revive the Belfast which was remembered by the poet Derek Mahon as "that dark, unlovely town with its Sunday silences"?

In 2007, the IFA decision to allow Sunday football was described, probably correctly, as "the thin end of the wedge" to a more diverse and user-friendly Sunday.

It followed a series of defeats for Sabbatarianism. First, swings were unchained, Sunday rugby matches continued in spite of Free Presbyterian pickets when they were first announced, leisure centres were opened on Sundays in order to remain economically viable and Sunday afternoon trading was permitted. The principle, if there ever was one, is well and truly breached.

The irony is that it was never an agreed biblical principle in the first place. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, leaders of the Protestant Reformation, held that Christians were not bound by the law of Moses and regarded Sunday rest as a human institution established to allow for physical relaxation and religious worship.

St Paul didn't quite run a marathon on the Sabbath, but he did walk 18 miles and he did teach that Christians were not bound by the Law of Moses as the ancient Israelites once were.

It is easy to see why. When God gave the commandment to Moses, he also took the opportunity to forbid religious tolerance, enjoining the children of Israel to "make no covenants" with other inhabitants of Palestine.

"You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars and cut down their sacred poles," He told Moses, as he delivered the commandments. Who can claim, with any credibility, that this is an eternal law true in all times and circumstances? Christ repeats the teaching of many of the 10 Commandments, but undermines Old Testament Sabbatarianism. The Old Testament Book of Numbers states that a man spotted gathering sticks on the Sabbath was stoned to death on the direct command of God. Yet in the New Testament, Christ heals the sick and gathers grain on a Sunday.

When the Pharisees take Him to task, He tells them that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, and asks rhetorically whether it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

We shouldn't really depend on religious arguments on public issues like this, but it's clear that the founder of Christianity had a more tolerant and reasonable view than many of those who now claim to preach His word.

If Sunday is the Sabbath, then it is lawful to do good on it, and the marathon is, by common consent, a good thing, raising large sums for charity, promoting a healthy lifestyle and putting Belfast on the map. Protestant churches should consider accommodating it.

The Catholic Church holds Saturday evening Masses for those who can't make it on Sunday due to commitments like Gaelic games and holidays. Mightn't a prayer service for marathon runners on Saturday night be a good way to boost both the sporting event, and the churches that enter teams in it?

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