A quick observation about the devastating, unfolding story around the loss of Wrightbus jobs in Ballymena and the interwoven fortunes of Green Pastures Church.
Look carefully at the wider issue and you’ll see one of the significant downsides to a church gathering a vast amount of money, power and influence: it becomes too big for some, even on a subconscious level, to criticise. This means defensive barriers begin to be erected as almost reflex action.
Let’s treat Wrightbus and Green Pastures as, essentially, the same news subject.
Exhibit 1 is this staggeringly muted Tweet from the normally verbose and histrionically-inclined Jim Allister. That the loss of 1,300 jobs isn’t enough to spark the traditional I’ll-be-demanding-answers-about-this-grubby-mess from Jim is almost a historic event in itself.
Exhibit 2 is the BelTel’s multiple turns at covering of the story from the point of view of the Wrightbus family.
Other coverage has been published in the newspaper, but the BelTel’s form for giving plenty of prominent, image-boosting column inches to the first person view of embattled rugby stars, scandal-hit politicians from the ‘right circles’, church/ business leaders under pressure and Christian bakery owners is, as always, so obvious a GCSE student could pull together a case study on a bus to school.
It has, of course, continued in this case.
Meanwhile – Exhibit 3 – Green Pastures’ own public response has included a few vague, tone-deaf lines on Facebook. There’s more than a hint of a shrugged-off ‘we’ll throw something together…there are plenty of people out there who’ll do the work of defending us’.
On the same subject, there’s nothing wrong with Green Pastures posting a photo of a smiling William Wright on Monday, but the timing and decision to do to hints at a lack of the sense of the optics of doing so on such a scale that it could only be explained by the organisation not giving much thought to how it is perceived because, in the corridors of power, it often doesn’t have to.
Why is this? Well, watch out for reactions to criticisms of Green Pastures Church and you’ll see signs from many quarters of an instant, deep-seated instinct to wagon-circle.
I had multiple experiences of this culture in my Ballymena youth: many churches were considered to be beyond even reasonable criticism and were tip-toed around, especially by some business owners would could cause commercial damage by joining in a debate over even minor town management matters where there was a risk of not appearing to show any less than 100% support at all times on all matters.
Add to this the fact that, particularly in Ballymena, supporting some churches involves buying into a heady mix of social and political views which can be often merged into one unshakeable unit of expected compliance. But it can be good for business.
This culture in the town is breaking down in 2019, as we can clearly see with online criticism in the extreme example of Green Pastures. But standing up to a church is still a frightening step for many and, in my experience, it is likely to remain commercially dubious decision for someone involved a Ballymena business of any size to consider.
In short: blind faith in a deity is a personal view. Blind faith in a church, where it reaches into the structures and people there to oversee our lives (including our society’s legislation), has implications for all of us. This clearly includes an impact on how that church is scrutinised when fair and unavoidable questions need to be asked.
Healthy scrutiny of a religious organisation does not need to be anti-faith or anti-religion, however in many cases one of the last lines of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons – if you’ll excuse the source – rings true. It has the (newly elected) Pope say to Professor Robert Langdon “religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed”.
This means, subconsciously or otherwise, no earthly group should get the free pass of blind faith when it comes to examining their impact on the wider community.
Conor Johnston writes about subjects including mental health, culture, identity and media.
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