Sunday, July 05, 2009

Book Review: Drumcree

The name of a parish church sitting on a hill outside Portadown has become famous across the world, and became one of the landmarks of the post-ceasefire Northern Ireland. Drumcree is famous because the Portadown District of the Orange Order attends Morning Prayer on the first Sunday in July, and that was as far as they were allowed for some years, being blocked and banned from their traditional route back to the County Armagh town via the Garvaghy Road.

The first Drumcree dispute was in 1995, with the stand off lasting for several days, until the parade was permitted on 11th July. During the stand off, main roads across Northern Ireland were blocked, and there was the threat of electricity supplies being turned off at Ballylumford. Something similar happened in 1996, with a stand off until the 11th. In 1997, the parade was immediately permitted following the church service, although trouble later flared in nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. Since 1998, the Orangemen have been prevented from returning along the Garvaghy Road, and the district is still symbolically remaining 'on the hill' at Drumcree. Indeed, today is 'Drumcree Sunday.'

As well as the Orange aspect of things, the political negotiations involved have been continuing, both through and despite the Parades Commission. Most recently, the First Minister has offered to meet both the Portadown District and the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition. Away from these aspects of the dispute, however, there have also been pressures brought on the parish and rector of Drumcree by the Church of Ireland General Synod, and also by the former Archbishop of Dublin, Walton Empey.

Synod resolutions were passed calling on the Rector, John Pickering, to ban Orangemen from attending morning worship, thus (by their logic) removing the problem. Empey even went as far as to suggest that John Pickering could be sacked if he refused to obey the Synod, which was manifestly not true.

Much ink has been spilled and many books written about the Orange Order, and in particular, the Drumcree standoff. Recently released, however, is the insider view, from the pen of the Rector himself, following his retirement in September 2007. John kept scrupulous notes and notebooks as well as press cuttings from the years of dispute, and has collected them together to tell the story of Drumcree from his perspective. As well as the news events, the book opens us to life in a rectory, and the normal highs and lows of parish ministry. John then takes some time to reflect on the key issues at hand - those of Civil Freedom, Religious Freedom, The Church of Ireland, the media, and his own role in the situation.

Certainly not an easy place for parish ministry, with the focus of the world's media, and no support from a sizeable proportion of the wider Church of Ireland. Yet John displays grace and humility as he recalls the events, and reveals his principled stand rooted in God's faithfulness. By listening to him, we may even see a way forward for the future.

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