Is it time to look afresh at the Orange Order?

Is it time to look afresh at the Orange Order?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Thursday 4, October, 2018

LAST MONTH, just yards from the offices of a major Scottish newspaper, a Glasgow hotel was hosting a curious event. It was an open day for a civic organisation that has one of the most un-enviable media profiles in Scotland. This summer, after a cleric was assaulted while one of its marches was dispersing, there was outrage. Calls for banning not just its marches but outlawing the organisation itself attracted significant amounts of backing in an opinion poll.   

By now most Scottish readers will have guessed I am referring to the Orange Order. This Protestant fraternal body is seen as archaic and offensive by many in the media. Orange office holders patiently submit themselves to interviews knowing there is a good chance that a word out of place or a defensive stance will result in a story that the Orange Order is an obsolete force that has no place in modern life. 

Orange processions and marches take place in remembrance of Scotland’s much depleted Protestant traditions. The literature on display at the open day underscored these. Exhibits showed the deep regard for the monarchy and the commitment for keeping undivided Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Wait, I hear some alert readers ask what about the elephant in the room, Orangeism’s historically deep-seated aversion to Roman Catholicism?  At least at this gathering, ‘No Popery’ was conspicuous by its absence. The order’s statutes in Scotland say little these days about the Church of Rome. It’s monthly publication The Orange Torch does not bang on about Catholic schools being subsidised by tax-payers.  

Arguably the much-publicised troubles of the Catholic Church give Orange speakers endless opportunities to inveigh against this faith. But Orangemen and women refuse to rise to the occasion. It is secularists who usually crow over the various abuse scandals that have beset Catholicism as well as the splits now going all the way to the Vatican about whether to follow the Protestant churches and preach a progressive gospel or remain wedded to the Ten Commandments. 

A rare Catholic journalist like Kevin McKenna derides the Unionism of the Order but writes respectfully about its fidelity to core Christian principles. He is unusual in a profession where the ability to show curiosity and detachment towards features of life that lie outside the comfort zone of media liberals is fast receding.

A good story could have been had that Saturday in the plush Glasgow hotel if the ladies and gentlemen of the press had  mingled  with the relaxed and good-natured folk who had come to hear talks, while many were there just to renew acquaintances . A willingness to change and adapt was in the air. A new Grand master, Jim McHarg (pictured) is keen to modernise things where this can be justified. He has the backing of colleagues who wish the body to primarily be a positive force for Protestantism rather than a body bound up with controversies in Northern Ireland or religious rivalry in Scotland itself. 

The retreat of Protestantism from everyday life, due to the decline of bodies like the Boys Brigade and the failure of liberal ministers to retain sizeable congregations, means that the burden increasingly falls on the Orange Order to keep the faith alive – especially in working-class communities. 400-500 lodge meetings still occur each month from Dumfries to Peterhead. Passing on scriptural knowledge to young people is an important feature of Lodge life. This emerged in a lively talk given by an enthusiast, Derek Menzies, the 40-year-old head of his county lodge who has already spent almost half a lifetime in a body which still has a real community presence in the small West Lothian town where he lives. 

For those suspicious of the Orange crowd, lodge meetings used to be laced with mystery and some menace. But for Menzies the order was one of the last places where, in a shallow and exhibitionist Scotland, Christian values of solidarity, friendship and concern for the less fortunate still counted for a lot. 

Confirmation of its role as a source for community cohesion was provided by Michael Rosie, an Edinburgh university sociologist. He has spent years exhaustively researching the order. It has not undermined his own secularism or broadly pro-independence outlook. But he has come to respect the role of the Order in providing an opportunity for working-class men to exercise leadership roles. He pointed out in his talk that council officials and police had expressed respect for the professional way in which the Order was now able to steward its own gatherings usually with the minimum of disruption.            

Women are likely to play an increasing role in the Order’s affairs as time goes on. This would enable Scottish Orangeism to fall into line with trends already visible in places like New Zealand where the Grand Master is a woman. If the Order has been slow to change it may be due to the trauma associated with he decades of conflict in nearby Ulster that only abated in the mid-1990s and has probably not entirely run its course.  This conflict had an inter-religious dimension and it perhaps explains why there is still a bar on Orange members attending Catholic religious services even if it is weddings or funerals.  

But change is in the air. Such prohibitions may well not exist for much longer. The order is a democratic body and the approval of members is needed for rules to be altered. But the increasingly fractious Roman Catholic faith no longer preoccupies the Orange world.  Jim McHarg has sought to mend fences after Canon White was harassed outside his church in July.   He is keen to emphasise that the man arrested had played no part in the march and he has reached out to the Canon who is reluctant to meet Orange officials. 

In the hope of initiating dialogue he contacted each one of those who had written press articles critical of the Order in the aftermath of  the incident. When I spoke to him he was candid about there being room for the Order to adapt to new challenges but proud of a heritage which, shorn of controversies, still contains pathways enabling ordinary men and women not only to publicly affirm their faith but to do a lot of good work in private, above all in the charity field. 

As a Catholic academic who has watched the Orange order’s role evolve over the space of forty years I was invited to offer my own perspective. I tried to avoid sycophancy or undue censoriousness. I remarked that in a Europe where ordinary people were rightfully suspicious of elites who had grown remote from voters and took controversial actions which sometimes threatened their welfare, a body known for its vigilance in defence of core British values  was perhaps not so obsolete.  I went in to say that,

“You do not deserve uncritical respect or praise. Nobody does. But nor should you be demonised or your identity be erased and the values you uphold be jettisoned from Scottish public life.”

As long as Britain remains a human rights-focussed society, it won’t be easy to drive the Orange Order off Scotland’s streets.  But in a publicity-conscious age this two-centuries-old body has room to work on its image and try and make friends even among Christians who belong outside the Protestant tradition.

Thus it is good to see a member if Scotland’s third sector showing the transparency and self-effacement which is not always associated with civic bodies these days. Perhaps in time journalists too will see the worth in varying the tone of their stories about Orangeism. Some may even acknowledge that it is a far from unhealthy expression of the working-class culture which the media nowadays largely refuses to engage with. 

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who has written 15 single-authored books, one of which ‘Scotland Now: A Warning to the World’  was published in 2015. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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