Switchers' schism a divine Irish mystery
The row over 'polyester Protestants' reveals the bizarre nature of our nation's religious life, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
There are times when the only honest response is to throw up your hands in bewilderment and admit that you haven't the faintest notion what's going on.
That's very much how it was all last week with the ongoing row about so-called "polyester Protestants". What decade is this again? The Fifties? Who even talks like that any more?
The answer, at least according to Church of Ireland prelate Michael Jackson, is: Plenty of members of his own church. Writing in the Irish Times recently, the archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough even claimed that there was a "cultural apartheid" still at work in Ireland and that too many Protestants were dismissive of Catholics, more dismissive still of former Catholics who joined the Anglican church, and unkind to fellow Protestants who married outside the faith.
Suddenly those nice Protestants don't look so charming anymore. Visions of a militant wing of the Church of Ireland, hunting down apostates, swim into view. They're the new IRA: Irish Revolutionary Anglicans. Seizing power in Ireland with a vicarage tea party in one hand and a bring-and-buy sale in the other. No surrender to polyester. They'll be starting internecine feuds with the Baptists next.
It's almost tempting, in fact, to suggest that this picture is so removed from reality that the Fermanagh-born Jackson must be mixing up his native Northern Ireland, where sectarianism remains the one sport followed enthusiastically by both traditions, with the more sedate 26 counties, where that sort of open hostility between Christian factions hasn't been in vogue for decades.
I certainly have no personal experience of such attitudes south of the border. In the North, my children went to a Catholic primary school. Down here they went to a Church of Ireland one. Nothing was ever made of my own Catholic background, or the fact that they, not being baptised at all, belonged to no faith whatsoever.
The subject of religion never came up in the playground. Or anywhere else. Families were a mix of Protestants, Catholics, bit-of-both, others, none of the above. Either the Protestants I know must be very mild-mannered, or they've been keeping their bigotry well-hidden. As for Catholics down here, they're surely too busy fighting with their own church to have energy left over for despising anyone else's.
Nonetheless, it would be patronising to suggest the archbishop doesn't know what he's talking about – though that didn't stop many indignant Protestants writing to the Irish Times last week to do just that. If Michael Jackson insists there's still a disdainful attitude towards "polyester Protestants" within the Anglican tradition, we'll just have to assume that he's seen and heard it with his own eyes and ears.
If so, it's a depressing indictment of those who feel this way that they're still allowing prejudices long past the sell-by date to poison their thinking. Unless, that is, the real cause of tension is not religion at all, but snobbery?
Some certainly seemed to be suggesting last week that any disdain for lapsed Catholics drifting into Protestant denominations out of a lack of sympathy with their own church's views on homosexuality, the ordination of women, and so on, really comes down to middle-class Protestants in higher-end housing not wanting their refined little world messed up by Christianity's answer to the Bash Street Kids.
Even that doesn't seem to make much sense, though. Most of the switchers from Catholicism to Anglicanism tend to be the ones in high-end housing, with children in private schools, themselves. They know what fork and spoon to use. They read the Irish Times. They play rugby. They holiday in Tuscany. They'd fit in fine. They wouldn't ruin the neighbourhood.
Working-class Catholics, by contrast, have either abandoned the church altogether, or stuck with it through thick and thin. Mere snobbery is no explanation.
Perhaps the real mistake is in trying to make sense of it at all. If you're outside the tent of any particular religion, understanding the strange goings on beneath the canvas must always be an impossibility. Other people's religious sensibilities are as bizarre as their political preferences.
More so, because tastes in religion, even more than politics, so often come down to temperament rather than logic, inclination instead of argument. Within those distinct groups, tensions can run very high for reasons that are not immediately apparent to outsiders.
Much hatred, little room.
It is worth noting, however, that the few examples of open disdain towards members of the same church last week came not from Protestants contemptuous of their polyester brethren, but from Catholics irritated by those leaving Rome for a new home.
One letter in the Irish Times even hoped that rebel priest Fr Tony Flannery would set up his own sect so that Catholics who weren't really Catholics at all would go forth and multiply there. That way, it said, "the Olivia O'Learys of Ireland would have somewhere more welcoming to go on Sunday between Sunday Miscellany and The Marian Finucane Show." What on earth was that all about? What had O'Leary done to suddenly become the public face of dissatisfied liberal Catholics?
Again, it felt like being in a town where everyone speaks a different language and you don't even have a dictionary on hand to translate and understand the wild passions which seem to be erupting over nothing.
Never more so than when a former Dean of St Patrick's (another Northerner, interestingly) wrote to the Irish Times in defence of his archbishop and said that it was time for Protestants to "have done with religious segregation and participate fully in public and political life".
I'm lost. Isn't that what they're doing anyway? You know, out here in the real world? I'm certainly struggling to identify any of these Protestants apparently keeping their heads down, staying schtum, for fear of not being accepted into Irish life.
I'd say such Protestants were a figment of the imagination, were it not for the fact I now realise the religious life of this great nation of ours is as mysterious and beyond understanding as quantum physics.
Perhaps we just all need to get out a bit more? It's worth a shot.