Northern Ireland religion is a hot potato. In one sense religious affiliation has been a prime cause of the island’s troubled history. Once uniformly Catholic, when the English Protestants conquered the island they introduced religious polyphony. First came the English soldiers, settlers, lords, government officials, etc who belonged mostly to the Church of England. They formed the Church of Ireland which belongs to the same Anglican tradition as the Church of England. Then came the Scottish settlers, settling mostly in Ulster. They were mostly Presbyterians. The Baptists also came mostly from England while Methodists hail from the intense evangelizing work of John Wesley who travelled often to Ireland. More recent arrivals are the Adventists, the different Pentecostal groups, the Free Presbyterians who broke off from the Presbyterian Church in 1951, the church of the Nazarene and so on.
The general guideline is that Catholics want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland while Protestants prefer it to remain part of the United Kingdom. Some would settle for independence. Some churches are politically active while others take less or no interest in politics. Northern Ireland religion has been blamed for much of the troubled history and maybe rightly so. But at the same time, churches and clergy from both lines of the divide have been leading the way for reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants.
Here I do not want to discuss the political side of the Northern Ireland religion issue. This will be discussed in the relevant history pages of this website (when I get the chance to write them). What I want to concentrate here is the spiritual and social aspects of religion.
For most of my life my family and I lived in Greece. Though Greece has a strong Christian tradition spanning 20 centuries, and people in general have a belief in God, the truth is that their faith is often vague and uninformed. Few attend church regularly and even fewer read or know the Bible. From Greece we moved to England. England also has a long Christian tradition. But faith matters do not seem to be high on people’s minds nowadays. Shopping malls are full on weekends and churches are becoming emptier by the week.
Northern Ireland is a different story. A large percentage of the population attends church regularly. Small towns have many churches, and usually most are full. People are also better acquainted with their Bibles than in other parts of the UK or of Europe for that matter. If you walk down the road of a sizeable town, chances are you will see a Christian bookstore. When you meet people and discuss about anything, chances are they will part ways with a blessing. If you turn on your radio, chances are you will come across Christian stations. And when you drive around the country you will see plenty of sings on trees, house yards, church walls and so on, with Christian messages or Bible texts.
As a general guideline, do not start religious conversations with people you do not know because you do not know how much politics is entwined with religion in their mind and you might be misunderstood. Or at least be cautious on how you broach the topic. But I discovered that in the right context you can have very fulfilling discussions and chances are people will know what they are talking about.
So, Northern Ireland religion, what is the verdict? Many see it as a source of trouble. It partly is. As a family we are practicing Christians and have found the strong religious commitment a welcome change from the increasing secularism of most of the rest of Europe. If you go to Northern Ireland as a tourist who has no Christian interest, then you can simply overlook the strong Christian elements that abound. Or, better still, you might decide to take an interest. But if you are a Christian, I am sure you will enjoy getting the chance to discover the deep Christian roots of this part of the world; roots that not only go far back in time, but that are still alive and strong.
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