When I moved back to Glasgow about eight years ago, one of the first things that I remember hearing from my flat was a sound that was both familiar and horrible at the same time. It was the sound of the fifes and drums of the Orange Order as they paraded through the streets. I had forgotten that this was still a reality on the streets of this city and rather shocked to hear it from my window.
Now few people sing Glasgow’s praises more loudly than I do but the regular Orange Walks are one of the things that I like least about this place.
For those from out of town, the Orange Walks are perceived by many to be sectarian demonstrations – on the one hand they affirm a certain protestant identity – one that I wouldn’t want to affirm for myself. On the other hand they are perceived by very many as being anti-Roman Catholic events which stir up trouble. This last weekend was one of the bigger parades and a young girl was injured by someone throwing a glass bottle. It is often said that it isn’t those parading themselves who cause the trouble – they are fairly well-disciplined – more those who follow the marches as supporters.
Many members of my own congregation were in the centre of the city last Saturday doing a history walk and a number of them said afterwards that they had never experienced anything like it. They felt frightened and appalled by what they saw. (They meant the Orange Walk, not Roger’s history walk….)
As sometimes happens at this time of the year, there is now a petition going around suggesting that the council should ban the Orange Walks in future. It is a fairly easy argument – the majority of the city’s citizens are fed up to the back teeth of this and neither want the city to be known for it nor do they want to pay to police it, therefore it should be banned.
Notwithstanding my own dislike of the Walks themselves, I find myself unable to sign a petition calling for them to be banned.
I think the reality of the Orange Walks is grim and unwelcome in the streets in which I live. I happen also to think that taking away freedom of assembly to silence those with whom we disagree is worse.
In a couple of week’s time, I will be taking to the streets in glad array to join Pride Glasgow’s march through the centre of the city affirming all that is good about LGBT people. There are, undoubtedly, those who would rather that parade did not take place. No doubt there are fewer people who want to stop such marches than there used to be but there are significant numbers of people who would rather not see me in a dog-collar larking around under a rainbow umbrella making it plain to all who encounter me that I want the good news that God loves everyone to be blatantly paraded in people’s faces.
Should that march not be allowed because others don’t want it to happen?
I can’t say that I think it should be banned on that basis. If I want the right to march in the face of opposition, I’ve no choice but to stand up for the rights of other people to do the same.
The truth is, people have the right to express views that others find noxious. Putting them on the streets where they can be held up to ridicule by others who equally have the right to express their opinions may ultimately be part of the way to deal with them.
In my view it is all too easy to sign a petition against something these days without thinking about one’s own personal involvement in the problem.
The root problem that makes the Orange Walks feel so horrible is the reality that we all know in Glasgow – that some people are deeply prejudiced against others because of their religion. And there are personal responsibilities that ought to weigh heavily upon those of us in this city who are religious whenever we hear the beating of those drums.
When I came back to Glasgow and heard the marches, my first instinct was to go that evening to a local Roman Catholic mass. Something told me I needed to attend, show solidarity, simply be there as a witness to something different from what was happening in the streets.
I regret the fact that I’ve not invited others to do the same during the Walking season since. When we hear that noise it should prompt us to respond.
Even thinking about it today, I was reminded me of an outstanding ecumenical meeting with a Roman Catholic fellow priest in the city that I’ll follow up and make sure happens.
There are other things that we should be much more organised about doing in the churches too.
- I prayed about the streets of the city on Sunday in our worship and I think a bit more public prayer and preaching against sectarianism wouldn’t go amiss.
- Individuals need sometimes to take risks and say surprising things to challenge the presumptions of a deeply engrained sectarian reality in this part of the world.
- There is a role for dioceses, presbyteries and other such bodies in providing appropriate anti-sectarian material for Christians to use during the marching season.
- If the ecumenical movement stands a chance of survival then difficult topics have to be faced within it. This should be urgent business for local and national ecumenical bodies which are in grave danger right now of becoming utterly irrelevant. The banality of much of what passes for local ecumenism is thankfully dying out as those promoting it get older. If there is to be anything in its place afterwards then tough topics need to be tackled by people in the churches who are decision makers. We need to remember that an ecumenism that doesn’t deal with sectarianism contributes to it.
Outside the life of the churches there is also much to do.
- Education authorities need to keep under constant review the question whether there is more that should be done in schools to directly tackle sectarianism.
- Public figures need support in making anti-sectarian statements and rather than what amounts to a news blackout, there needs to be much more of an effort to get anti-sectarian voices heard in the media. We need to make it deeply uncool to march in or support those parades.
- How these events are managed and policed needs constant review.
Those drums are supposed to prompt us to action.
We should make sure that they do.
Banning marches is far too easy and ultimately too dangerous.
People need to be free to hold and express views that I think are obnoxious.
When we hear those drums we should be prompted to do far more than sign a petition calling for them to be banned.