Back to Basics

The Orange Order: Go Forward by Going Back

Rev. Brian Kennaway • 10 November 2004

The recent article by Dr. John Coulter (The Blanket 4 November 2004) on the Orange Order was both challenging and incisive. While I appreciate what John was attempting to get us to think through, that the Orange Order needs to change in such a fast changing world, there are a number of issues which require some clarification. Coming from the dissenting tradition, like John, I happily respond in the Journal of Dissent.

John has obviously greatly overestimated the strength of membership and he has also made an incorrect assumption on the delegates to the Ulster Unionist Council. There are not “150 delegates”, but “up to 122”, who, according to the Constitution of the Ulster Unionist Party, are elected “on a County basis according to membership”. These are delegated by seven of the eight County Lodges within the Institution. Not all County Lodges take up their full quota. This is important in the light of the present on-going discussion at Grand Lodge Level – where of course it should not be discussed, as the relationship is between the counties and the Ulster Unionist Council.

It is right that John should call on the Orange Order to “abandon its political activity”, but he, like many commentators makes the false assumption that the “the Order has been at odds with the pro-Agreement thinking of the UUC”. The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland NEVER came out against the Belfast Agreement, and when it had the opportunity to do so, it refused – this was reported in the Belfast Telegraph on 16th April 1998. The leadership may have come out against the Agreement but the leadership is not the Institution.

However, the main thrust of Dr. Coulter’s argument that the Order needs to change, is self evident in today’s world. John calls on the Order to “revamp the spiritual qualifications”. Perhaps he should have used the word “restore”, rather than “revamp”. What is not generally known is that the original qualifications, drawn up on the instructions of the first meeting of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, in Dublin on the 9th April 1798, do not make any reference to “Roman Catholics”, either as individuals or as a church. The two references to the Roman Catholic Church entered the Qualifications as a result of the political turmoil experienced in Ireland in 1849 and later in 1885.

The Orange Order can go forward by going back. This language should not be strange to an organisation whose membership is pledged “to support and defend. . . the Protestant Religion”. What the Orange Institution needs is a REFORMATION in the same pattern as the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. The burning desire of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century was to get back to the simplicity of New Testament Christianity – the Christianity of the Apostles. The only authentic record of Christianity in the days of the Apostles is to be found in the Bible – Word of God. The watchword of the Reformers was therefore Sola Scriptura – The Scriptures Alone. The scriptures alone are to be the guiding principle in the life both of the church and individual. This is expressed in the Qualifications of an Orangeman – “he should honour and diligently study the Holy Scriptures and make them the rule of his faith and practice”. What the Institution needs is to get back to the original and authentic Qualifications of 1798.

It is ironical that the GAA can abandon its offensive Rule 21, a product of the political conflict of the 1920’s. Can the Orange Order not abandon their additions to the Qualifications, a product of the political conflict of the previous century?

I could not help but think that Dr. Coulter was either, writing ‘tongue in cheek’ or ‘flying a kite’, when he suggested the Qualifications, which he acknowledges are “theologically Salvationist in ethos”, should be “reinforced using the New Testament teaching of Christ. . . ”, or that the Order should consist of exclusively “born again Christians”. Not only was this never the historical position of Orangeism, but I wonder what his estimate of the numerical strength would be if this were to be implemented. I suspect the numbers would not justify its existence.

The real challenge facing the Order is the huge gap which obviously exists between the high moral standards expressed in the Qualifications, and the public expression of those standards by some of the membership. The real “spiritual dilemma” facing the Order is that it is not “an evangelically motivated Order”, and the leadership are unwilling to implement their own professed standards.

This article appeared in The Blanket on 10th November 2004