Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Clinton and then controversy

It was an early start on Monday morning as I left the house shortly after 7.00 am to be in Stormont Castle by 8.00 for a meeting at 9.00 with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.  She met First Minister Peter Robinson and his DUP executive colleagues in the executive office and then met Sinn Fein executive members before addressing members of the Assembly in the chamber.

The early part of the afternoon was taken up with departmental papers, a meeting with some American visitors from Milwaukee, and a photoshoot with children from Glengormley Integrated School and members of the Belfast Giants.  Afterwards one of the ice hockey players gave me a team shirt as a memento of the occasion.

Later in the afternoon there was a debate on a Sinn Fein motion condemning me for having stated, in response to a question from a journalist, that as a traditional evangelical Protestant, I would not attend a service in a Roman Catholic church.  They claimed that this was contrary to the responsibilities of a government minister and inconsistent with an 'inclusive society'.  At the end of the debate the Sinn Fein motion was defeated by 41 votes to 35.

I took the opportunity during the debate to say that I had no difficulty attending a cultural or community event in a Roman Catholic church and had already done so but that I could not, in conscience, attend a service of Roman Catholic worship.  By way of explanation I referred to the theological and doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

This is a matter of civil and religious liberty and indeed freedom of conscience.  The right to freedom of conscience is a basic human right but the motion sought to deny that right to government ministers who are traditional evangelical Protestants.

There is in fact a clear historical precedent for what Sinn Fein were seeking to do and that was the Test Act, which was introduced in Ireland in 1704, shortly after the death of King William III.  This act required anyone holding public office to attend communion in the Church of Ireland.  As such it discriminated against Dissenting Protestants and Roman Catholics and Dissenters who were members of the corporations in Belfast, Londonderry and other towns were removed from office.  This situation continued for many years but eventually the Test Act was abolished and the principle of religious liberty prevailed.  The Sinn Fein motion was an attempt to introduce a new 'test' and thereby discriminate against evangelical Protestants.

The Sinn Fein motion referred to an 'inclusive society' but they were actually seeking to exclude from ministerial office anyone who was an evangelical Protestant.  There is something bizarre about an 'inclusion' that seeks to exclude.

There are those for whom matters of Christian doctrine mean nothing at all.  However, as a Christian, saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, matters such as redemption, salvation and grace, are of immense importance.

The day ended with another evening meeting and I got home around 9.30 pm, after a 14-hour working day.

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