Thursday, 30 August 2012

Caleb Foundation

Mary and I spent the day in Enniskillen and we enjoyed an excellent tour of Castlecoole House, a National Trust property which is well worth a visit.  The Earls of Belmore are descended from a family called Corry which came from Scotland to Ulster in the 17th century.
On the way down we stopped off at the Killymaddy tourist centre for a piece of their finest apple tart and as a break in the journey.  Getting out of the car the first people we met were a man and his wife who came over to speak.  It turned out that they are members of Ballyclare Evangelical Presbyterian Church and he also preaches in various homes and mission halls.  I couldn't recall meeting him before but I recognised his wife who used to run a women's meeting in a Presbyterian church in North Belfast.  I had preached a number of times at the meeting and we exchanged reminiscences about people we knew.  They also told me their daughter is the principal of a primary school in North Belfast, which I hadn't known. 
The conversation ended and after our break we completed the drive up to Enniskillen.  Again we got out of the car and the first people we met this time were the principal and vice-principal of an educational college..  The woman came over first and reminded me that we had met at a church in Belfast and that quite a number of years ago her father had been the Scottish organiser for an evangelical Christian organisation at the same time when I was the Northern Ireland organiser.  The principal then explained that he had met me some years ago when I preached at a Sunday night gospel meeting in Omagh.  I also know his brother through politics.  Again we exchanged reminiscences about people we knew through those gospel meetings and church services.
Those two converstaions reminded me of what a small place Northern Ireland is and also that we still have a very strong evangelical Christian community in Ulster.  Our society has become more secular but there is still a strong Christian presence, with many vibrant evangelical churches, mission halls, gospel halls and gospel meetings.
Ironically, not long after that I got a telephone call from a journalist at the Belfast Telegraph, who asked if I was a 'supporter' of Caleb.  She actually mispronounced the name but I knew she was referring to the Caleb Foundation.  She said that the paper was running an article about Caleb tomorrow and said that they had identified me as a 'supporter'.
At this point I should explain that the name Caleb is taken from a character in the Old Testament and that the Caleb Foundation is an evangelical Christian committee with members drawn from a range of evangelical denominations, including pastors and leaders from the Elim Pentecostal Church, Congregational Union, Baptist Union, Free Presbyterian Church, Fellowship of Independent Methodist Churches, Church of the Nazarene, Reformed Presbyterian Church and Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  These churches have their differences in that some are Calvinistic in doctrine and some are Wesleyan, some hold to infant baptism while other hold to believers' baptism, and the Reformed Presbyterians sing only psalms.   However they all hold to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, including the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, the sacrificial death of Christ as the basis for our salvation, salvation by the grace of God through faith in Christ etc.  This is their common bond.  I attend a Congregational church on Sunday morning and play the organ in an Independent Methodist Church in the evening but down through the years I have spoken in churches across all of these denominations.

Evangelical Protestantism takes many forms and the above are certainly not the only denominations or churches that fall into this category - we also have pentecostal churches such as the Apostolic Church and Assemblies of God, and others, including totally independent congregations.  Some are larger than others and some have more congregations than others but together they constitute a significant community.  You cannot even estimate the size of that community by adding up their official memberships because membership in these denominations is only open to born-again believers.  There are other folk who attend their services and yet are not members - they are sometimes described as adherents.  For that reason their attendances are other larger than their official membership.  This is very different from some other denominations where a congregation might claim 200 or 300 families and yet have only 50 people at a morning service.  Moreover there are many people in other denominations who would share most if not all of the core doctrines and principles upheld by Caleb.
It is impossible to provide an accurate figure and I will look with interest at any figure given in the Belfast Telegraph tomorrow, but across Northern Ireland the evangelical community must include several hundred thousand people.
I halted the conversation and telephoned the Caleb organiser.  It turned out that indeed the Belfast Telegraph journalist Liam Clarke had interviewed him yesterday for an article that is due to appear tomorrow.  Along with a number of other people I am a Facebook 'friend' on the Caleb Facebook page and so Liam had asked another journalist to ring up and ask me and some others if we were 'supporters' of Caleb.
She seemed fixated on the word 'supporter' but I don't like people putting words into my mouth and so I set out my position as: 'The Caleb Foundation is representative of many evangelical Christian churches in Northern Ireland and as an evangelical Christian I appreciate the work they do in representing that broad interdenominational community.'
The journalist then asked if I thought it right that a minister should be Facebook friend of Caleb.  I found the question both bizarre and offensive.  Do we not live in a free society?    Am I not entitled to have and hold my faith?  I have never made a secret of it and when people vote for me they know who I am.  In fact I asked her if the Belfast Telegraph was now advocating some form of religious discrimination.  Our forefathers fought for civil and religious liberty and it is my right to attend the church or churches I choose, to join the religious socieities I choose to join, and to support those Christian charities and missionary societies I choose to support.

It is worth recalling that some of the most progressive politicians and social reformers in British history were men such as Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce, both of whom were evangelical Protestants, indeed Shaftesbury was a leading figure in both the Evangelical Alliance and the Protestant Alliance.
However back to the present and one thing that strikes me from this exchange is that certain sections of the media in Ulster seem to take a particularly aggressive and intrusive interest in the religious views of politicians who are Protestants ... but no-one else.  I actually asked the jouranlist if they were exploring the religious views of nationalist politicians to see if they subscribed to all the doctrines and views of the Roman Catholic Church. 
The answer was clearly no.  Yet the religious views of evangelical Protestants are scrutinised ad nauseam, often in an ill-informed and inaccurate way.  Should not our media seek to be impartial?
We might ask why this agressive and intrusive interest is focused on evangelical Protestants alone ... but that is a matter for another post.


  1. It's refreshing to hear that despite the aggressive secularism that permeates western media nowadays - and is becoming more apparent in our own media & press in NI - there is a body of born-again believers in Northern Ireland who are faithfully following the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for sharing Nelson.

    The perception seems to be that Northern Ireland is more religious or evangelical if you like, than other parts in the UK where secularism is on the rise coupled with the spread of liberalism in lots of churches (England particularly comes to mind).

    May believers (in NI government & elsewhere) stay faithful to the word of God & faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Believers 'war not against flesh & blood but against the powers of darkness & false ideologies & doctrines of demons which man so freely subscribes to & propagates...'

    These dark principalities seek to tear down & blaspheme the knowledge and truth of Christ Crucified & Risen.

    I'm thankful we're not as far gone down that slippery slope of liberal Christianity than other parts of the UK & thankful that those who have put their trust in Christ alone for salvation, who are in NI government, remain faithful to Him.

    May not only just the perception be that Northern Ireland is more evangelical than other parts of the UK but may it ever be a reality and may Christ & His glorious gospel be treasured & freely proclaimed with conviction & boldness in this province always!

  2. Your silence on the violence in North Belfast makes sense Nelson.
    Its a fine display of bigotry and sectarianism and your condemnation is always selective.