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The struggle to stay 'Protestant' on Merseyside

city's 6,000 Orangemen. David Harrison reports.

city's 6,000 Orangemen. David Harrison reports.

ARE you a Protestant? It seemed a simple enough question to ask an Anglican bishop at Liverpool's Church House. But the Rt Rev Michael Henshall, one of the diocese's three bishops and 'deputy' to Bishop David Sheppard, was uncomfortable with the P-word.

'That's not the word I would use,' he said, fiddling with the cross around his neck.

What then? 'I am Catholic,' he said. Does the Archbishop of Canterbury know about this? 'Catholic and reformed,' he explained. 'Not a Roman Catholic.'The bishop was making the point that the Church of England was the Catholic Church until the Reformation. Historically correct, and also politically correct.

There used to be Protestants and Catholics in Liverpool. Now Anglicans in a city proud of its achievements in breaking down barriers between the two faiths over the past 20 years have almost banned the word Protestant, believing it smacks of sectarianism.

'The word Protestant gets overplayed,' says the bishop.

Thousands in the city disagree. They belong to the still thriving Orange Lodge and to independent and 'house' churches.

Many of the fundamentalists are proud to be Protestant. They feel neglected by the established Church and, fearing that ecumenicism means subjugation by the Vatican, are digging in harder than ever.

Earlier this year, Liverpool's Catholics were caught up in controversy when the author Alice Thomas Ellis said the city's late Catholic Archbishop, Derek Worlock, who forged a powerful ecumenical alliance with Dr Sheppard, had weakend Catholics' faith by moving too close to the Anglicans.

When Patrick Kelly, 57, former Bishop of Salford, was appointed Worlock's successor he pledged to continue cross-faith co-operation. Catholic traditionalists were disappointed. But so too were many hardline Protestants.

At Liverpool's Orange Lodge headquarters in Everton, Ron Bather, provincial leader, says Dr Sheppard has 'bent over backwards' to appease the Catholics: 'If he carries on with the new archbishop he will end up as a contortionist.

'We are not interested in unity. We believe it would be a take over by the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr Bather says the Catholic lobby _ Catholics make up nearly half Liverpool's population _ is helped by a pro-Rome media. 'We are called extremist Protestants, yet extremist Catholics are called devout.'The Roman doctrine remains anathema to Orangemen. Mr Bather almost spits out the words 'Papal infallibility' and and 'Maryology'.

Unlike the Anglican Church, they do not see any point in 'discussing' these differences with Catholics.

The Orange Order is still a force in Liverpool, claiming 6,000 members in more than 100 lodges, a slight increase on 10 years ago. Perhaps surprisingly for an organisation often accused of racist bigotry, there is a predominantly black lodge in Toxeth.

Members will march regularly, on St George's Day, Empire Day and, of course, tomorrow. They also join Orange marches in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The marchers will attract abuse from Catholics, but serious sectarian violence has not been seen in Liverpool for 50 years.

'You'd still get the odd fight, mind,' recalled one Protestant in Toxteth. 'The Catholics used to throw pepper and eggs at us.' The 'Proddies' retorted by hanging hams outside their houses, with cards saying 'This ham was cured at Lourdes.'Wartime, when Catholics fought alongside Protestants, helped to end religious hatred. Inter-marriage became common. The city's two big football clubs, unlike their counterparts in Glasgow, shed sectarianism decades ago _ Liverpool was Protestant and Everton, whose ground is in fact in the Walton district, was Catholic.

In the Sixties, the sectarian bastions _ Scotland Road for Catholics and neighbouring Everton for Protestants _ were weakened when thousands of residents were moved out to satellite estates such as Kirby, Speke and Netherley.

But the drift towards compromise with Rome drove many Protestant church groups away from the Church of England. They keep a lower profile than the Orange Order, quietly spreading their fundamentalist message.

One such group, the Christian Brethren, which has churches all over Merseyside and in other parts of the country, is anti- ecumenical.

'It will lead to a mish-mash. They don't want unity, they want union,' said a 70-year- old church elder who worships at a chapel near Liverpool's Anfield football ground. He declined to be named for fear of being seen as 'glory- seeking'.

The elder, who describes himself as 'just a Christian', said the Church's biggest problem was not ecumenicism but materialism, which was keeping people away, especially the young.

Attendances at his own chapel have fallen to 30-40 each Sunday, though up to 100 attend the monthly family service. Church attendances are down throughout the city. Anglicans are struggling to fill their pews and only one in five of the archdiocese's half a million Catholics attends Mass.

At the city's magnificent Anglican cathedral recently, the Church of England looked in rude spiritual health as 150 children and adults, watched by hundreds of friends and relatives, were confirmed into the faith, following a similar number the previous night.

But Dr Sheppard, busy signing autographs afterwards, admitted that many of them would not become active church members.

Bishop Henshall, quoting George Bernard Shaw, said it was 'invincible ignorance' to suggest the Church's involvement in social issues had driven believers away from the Church.

He blamed Liverpool's declining population _ from 750,000 to 450,000 _ and changes in the nature of Sunday, for the empty pews.

'Sunday football has replaced Sunday School,' said one church-goer.

'People are more apathetic these days,' said another. 'They would rather go to Asda than go to church'.

There was a widespread view that the success of the city's football clubs had helped to create a new religion: football. The Anglican cathedral almost seems to acknowledge this. Among the Bibles, religious posters and keyrings, its shop also sells Liverpool FC pennants.