Doctrine and Decline? Irish Churches and the Conservative Turn

This would be a very good time to train as a humanist celebrant in Ireland. Who else is going to marry and bury the queers and the Yes voters and those living in sin?

It’s interesting that at a time when many ordinary Catholics and Protestants are developing more nuanced religious beliefs and practices, some in the institutional churches are careering the other way. Denying full membership. Refusing to baptise kids. Hoking around people’s facebook pages to decide if they’re doctrinally sound enough to marry in a church.

Obviously churches get to set their own rules. Or keep the old rules. It’s certainly not for nosey parkers on the outside to weigh in.

But I can’t help wondering what will become of it all? Will digging in shore up a convinced religious minority, and ultimately be better for churches’ survival? Or might churches alienate so many members that they lose their place in society? And what becomes of ordinary believers in the meantime?

The sociology of religion literature tells us that it’s sometimes pretty good for religions to double down. Christian Smith’s huge study of American evangelicalism, for example, found the tradition was thriving because of, not in spite of, its confrontation with modern pluralism. Rather than blending in, it did well out of being counter-cultural.

But this was 20 years ago. More recent studies show a rapid increase in those with no religion in the US, and that even conservative churches are now having problems holding on to younger people.

Which brings us to the question. To what degree are churches in Ireland shoring up conservative teachings? And will this weaken them or make them stronger?


Some quick data points before trying to answer.

Northern Ireland is secularising. 9% said they had no religion in 1998. This rose to 19% by 2017. 15% said they were religiously unaffiliated in the Republic of Ireland in 2018.

81% of Catholics in the north said they attended mass regularly (at least monthly) in 1998, falling to 52% in 2017. A rapid decline. The figure is even lower – 34% – in the Republic of Ireland.

Amongst Protestants in Northern Ireland, 52% attended church regularly in 1998, dropping to 43% in 2017. So decline is less rapid. But there’s a lower baseline. Also of note, is a very dedicated core of evangelical Christians (21% of all Protestants in 2004).


So, let’s take the Catholic Church for starters. Are they shoring up conservatism? Is this helping or hindering their strength?

It seems to me that elements of the Church hierarchy here are trying to double down theologically. But that it doesn’t really seem to be working.

The 8th referendum is a pretty good lens to examine this through.

On one hand, many priests were reluctant to preach a pro-life message from the pulpit. Fully aware of rapid social change in Ireland, and the Church’s tattered reputation, some felt that intervention may further damage their relationship with the people. Possibly even damage the pro-life cause. Many possibly intuited which way the wind was blowing, or appreciated the nuance from a pastoral point of view, and didn’t want to lay down the law.

Other priests took a different line. They preached a hard pro-life message and threatened Yes voters with excommunication. This galvanised the faithful. But it also led to mass walkouts. That’s people walking out of mass. But also a mass scale, according to twitter reports. Mass mass walkouts.

The Bishops, perhaps a little more removed from the people, issued the usual moral warnings and voting instructions. Seemingly oblivious to the scandals that not only follow the Church around, but were breaking afresh throughout the campaign.

While this may have cemented the faith of the few, the many went ahead and made up their own minds. As was evidenced in the landslide vote to repeal the 8th amendment and open the door for abortion liberalisation. 68% of yes voters were Catholics.

The severing of church from state in Ireland is now snowballing quite quickly. There is likely to be a referendum to take blasphemy laws out of the Irish constitution in October 2018, and to remove the section on a woman’s place being in the home. There’s a push towards multi-denominational education, and serious criticism of religious involvement in health-care. They’ll not be easily disentangled. But this seems where things are headed.

At the same time though, many Catholics don’t want to cut ties with the Church completely. Grace Davie famously described people in modern Britain as ‘believing without belonging’. In contrast, Michael Kelly on the Irish Times Politics Podcast a few weeks ago noted that ‘belonging without believing’ might be a better way to describe Irish Catholics. The Church is still a big part of life, especially in rural areas. Their contribution to the charity sector is invaluable. And as RTÉ’s brilliant documentary Mairead’s First Communion shows, there are plenty of reasons why even quite secular Catholics feel drawn to the Church as a source of community.

Years ago, a QUB student of mine, Frances King, did her PhD on religious artefacts in people’s homes. It was a beautiful piece of work. Her oldest Catholic interviewee had a statue of Mary in her hallway that “had the nose kissed off her”. Her middle-aged participants had smaller religious symbols around their homes, a prayer card here and there. But they kept the big Sacred Heart pictures in the attic. People didn’t want to throw them out, because they still meant something. But they weren’t on display. The youngest people she visited didn’t have many religious bits and bobs around. If they did, it was candles, small angels, things they attached meaning to, but that weren’t Catholic things.

What does this tell us? Pretty much what Gladys Ganiel found in her research for Transforming Post-Catholic Ireland. That whilst Catholic monopoly is over, a lot of faith remains. But it’s new types of faith. Often expressed outside religious institutions. Or inside the Church, but in a more individualised way. It’s this kind of lay religion, she says, that just may keep the faith alive.

Providing the Church can find enough priests to keep the ball rolling, that is. And providing the millennials hang in – which is far from a certainty.

So despite recent attempts by some in the Catholic Church to shore up Canon law in Ireland, it looks like a gradual accommodation with the people is what’s happening on the ground. There’s flexibility over dogma – something which Patsy McGarry argues is embedded within Catholic catechism itself. Whether this leads to further secularisation, a lay revival or simply the maintenance of cultural Catholicism, remains to be seen. For now, it seems to be a mixture of all three.


Protestantism is experiencing similar internal tensions. There’s an institutional tightening in some quarters. But also loosening on the ground.

The local Protestant theological colleges, especially Union Presbyterian College, have had the reputation of being on a conservative trajectory for a while now. It’s been years since the last woman was admitted to training for the Ministry there. And there’s been theological constriction. The topical example is of course the Presbyterian Church of Ireland’s recent decision to bar LGBTQ people in relationships from being full (communicant) members of the church, and refusing to baptise their kids.

The Church maintains that everyone is still very welcome to attend. But sadly no amount of welcoming words can soften the blow that “love the sinner, hate the sin” delivers in practice.

A Presbyterian friend said to me last week, “we have not changed, it’s society that has changed.” So to many, this is simply a clarification of a doctrine rather than anything new. But because so many ordinary Presbyterians’ ideas were shifting over recent years, it can’t help but feel to others like a bird being put back in its cage.

The decision to loosen links with the Scottish Presbyterians is also fascinating. A religious tradition, so rich with dissent and individual conscience, now hunkering down around a monolithic reading of Scripture and disallowing a diversity of views. John Alderdice, leaving the Presbyterian Church after 30 years as an elder, said that it now resembled the Free Presbyterian Church. And that it “is no longer the spiritual heir of the Protestant martyrs of the 16th century, and is instead becoming more like a present-day representation of those who lit the fires that burnt them.”

Harsh words perhaps. But ones that many conservative evangelicals (a wider group which includes a lot of Presbyterians, and other Bible-believing Protestants) may take in their stride. This is a group which is used to feeling embattled in a secular society. Many are proud to be counter-cultural. Indeed, it’s their duty to challenge secular liberalism. Many may think homosexuality is a sin. They may not be comfortable with women elders. They may believe abortion is always wrong. And that’s that.

But is it becoming a problem that these teachings jar with many ordinary believers’ daily lives?

Naomi Long, for example, spoke movingly on Talkback recently about not having children, and now feeling that her marriage was somehow inferior because it didn’t fit the Presbyterian Church’s increasingly traditional definition of family.

Other Christians, exploring nuances around abortion, are finding it difficult to speak freely. Despite the fact that their personal experiences mean they cannot do anything other than question unbending doctrine.

Many church members are LGBTQ. Many have LGBTQ kids. Lesley and Tony MacAuley, long-standing members of the Presbyterian Church whose daughter is in a relationship with a woman, and can now no longer be a full member, announced they are leaving. Radio phone-lines are jammed with people who feel the same way. Others are vowing to stay to quietly fight on. For now…

Maybe in the past all this would have been brushed all of this under the carpet. Some people carried painful secrets around their whole lives. Some were denied, and denied themselves, the chance of a loving relationship. Some still do. Some were crushed by shame. Some killed themselves. Some simply walked away from churches. And others found churches that accepted them. If you want to hear a range of voices of LGBTQ Christians (Protestant and Catholic), and their experiences of churches in Northern Ireland, have a look at these interviews that Gail McConnell and I collected in 2011. All of this in there, in people’s own words.

Because this is the thing. Society has changed. People talk about this stuff now. The culture of silence and shame have been punctured. People of faith know that other options are available, where questioning and inclusion are encouraged.

Indeed the Corrymeela community’s response to the Presbyterian Assembly was, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people – whether single or in relationships; with our families; with our friends; with our faith, doubts, experiences and insights – are a gift of God to our society.”

There are movements within all mainstream Protestant churches now, and many independent faith communities, who agree. It will be interesting to see where people ultimately choose to take their faith, and in what numbers.

Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick, who was a Professor at Union Theological College (until last week, when he was suspended for questioning the College), said on the View in June that the Presbyterian Church is currently losing 3900 members per year. If current trends continue, he pointed out, this leaves “55 more years until the last Presbyterian switches the lights off”. Trainee ministers are also running out.

The Church of Ireland and Methodist Church are on similar trajectories. Gladys Ganiel, here on Slugger, draws attention to Linda Woodhead’s recent book, That Was The Church That Was, about how the Church of England’s decision to follow a conservative position on social issues, out of step with many members’ evolving personal beliefs, has lead to their steep decline.

I asked my Presbyterian friend if she was worried about declining numbers. She said yes of course, but that her hands were tied. The truth is the truth. All she can do is hold fast to that truth. Come what may.

And indeed some smaller conservative denominations will thrive in this environment. Gladys Ganiel and I talked to plenty of evangelicals whose faith was deepening in 2000s Northern Ireland, in response to accelerated social and political change. We also talked to people who were converting into evangelicalism for the first time, who were actively choosing to eschew the liberal mainstream and live within new religiously conservative boundaries. So a stronger, clarified theology may actually be beneficial for some people and some churches.

But will doubling down strengthen mainstream religion, like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland? Or irrevocably weaken it? Will those pushed over the pastoral cliff now simply find a spiritual home elsewhere? While those that remain secure their survival as a smaller, dedicated remnant – joining forces perhaps with other conservative evangelicals?

More widely, will the positive roles the Catholic and Protestant churches play in community and charity ensure their ongoing place in society? Or in twenty years, will we see that doctrinal and pastoral flexibility would also have been needed to halt terminal decline?

I really don’t know. But what I do know is that there’s a flood of people on every other page of the internet here, breaking their hearts, walking away, digging in, losing old friends – on all sides of the debates, trying to find out what faith can mean in 2018. They’re asking very good questions. The churches in Ireland are slowly clarifying the range of institutional answers. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if these are accepted or rejected.

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