A cleric who was for many years at the centre of the most controversial loyal order dispute has given a passionate defence of the Royal Black Institution – after the Church of Ireland questioned its theology.
Rev John Pickering served as the rector at Drumcree Church of Ireland parish through the area’s most heated parading controversies of the 1980s and 1990s.
He was speaking after the Church of Ireland published a report which criticised the doctrines of the Royal Black Institution (RBI).
It said some RBI rituals and ceremonies “may be difficult to defend from a Christian basis” and that problems associated with the “privacy and secrecy of the RBI” raise questions about whether the denomination should host its services.
The report was written by a working group appointed by the Rt Rev Harold Miller after the RBI was blocked from Knocknamuckley church in Co Armagh on theological grounds by Rev Alan Kilpatrick.
He later resigned and now leads the CoI congregation ‘Hope Community Church’ in Portadown.
Rev Pickering said: “I was very anxious when I read the report. Church services are open to everyone because the worship of Almighty God is a God-given right and a human right.”
Asked if Rev Kilpatrick had blocked the corporate RBI service rather than individual RBI members, Rev Pickering replied: “That would be really a case of finding out what was in his mind.
“Nobody should be barred from attending a worship service whether they come as members of organisations or as individuals.”
Two top claims made in the report were that the RBI may confuse biblical material with other sources, which could mislead members, and that “some rituals and ceremonies may be difficult to defend from a Christian basis”, for example asking candidates to take oaths without foreknowledge of their content.
But Rev Pickering, who retired as a full-time minister in 2007, replied that he was not an RBI member and was not versed in such details.
“Who is perfect that goes in through the church doors?” he asked. “And if it is only for perfect people then why do we have confession of sins?”
He added: “If we were going to scrutinise everyone then who would we let in? People who attend church come in to hear what is right and good and their minds can be changed when they are in church. If someone is barred that could deprive them an opportunity to be corrected, to have their life changed and to enjoy transformation.”
Although candidates must be Orangemen to join the RBI the two are totally independent of each other, he added.
Rev John Pickering: Everyone is welcome at church services whether a loyal order member of not
Rev Pickering facilitated both the Orange Order and RBI in holding services while rector at Drumcree, he said.
Services dedicated to the loyal orders would be made “more relevant” just as would be done for harvest or Boys’ Brigade services, he said.
“The Orange or RBI chaplain would often have read some of the Bible or preach the sermon though normally I did the preaching.”
Such chaplains may be either ordained clergymen or lay-chaplains from the respective orders.
He has not thought of whether he will make any further representations on the controversy.
While the CoI report suggested setting up a committee to consider applications for the RBI to use churches, Rev Pickering said this issue “should not be raised at all” because Jesus Christ said the church should be “a house of prayer for all nations”.
He added: “A lot of RBI members will be disturbed and will wonder what is ahead. I have been hearing comment and expect that I will be hearing more.”
He noted there is “no intrinsic connection” between the Orange Order and the RBI.