On Shifting Ground: A 4 Corners conversation with Susan McKay
by Naomi HIGGINS
5 February 2022
On Tuesday, Susan McKay, journalist and author, joined the 4 Corners Festival for a conversation about her new book, Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground. This book follows those who “are outside the unionist mainstream”, such as “students, artists and entrepreneurs as well as former policemen, paramilitaries and victims of the violence of the Troubles”. The 4 Corners Festival and McKay invited three individuals who were interviewed in her book, to discuss what it means to be a Protestant in a shifting era.
McKay’s previous book, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, was published shortly after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. With the publication of Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground in 2020, McKay saw much more optimism in her interviewees, who were much more open and willing to talk to her. She saw a blurring in the lines of unionist versus nationalist, as more people talked about being in mixed relationships as well as finding new concepts to rally behind, together, such as feminism, LGTB+, and racial injustices.
The first panelist invited to speak was church youth worker Anton Thompson McCormick. As someone who identifies with the LGBT+ community, McCormick has had a set of challenges overcoming what he sees as flaws in Protestant teachings and acceptance. While McCormick still regrets “that churches still insist that a ‘scattering of’ versus ‘stand between’ him and a full embrace of these strangers”, he has seen “shifting ground”. McCormick has seen an acceptance in the Presbyterian faith, as he has recently begun running non-faith LGBT+ groups at chruch, allowing for a “changing area for trans young people who are still working things out”. McCormick seems excited about Protestant history moving forward, with the help of feminists, queers, and activists alike.
Novelist Jan Carson took to the stage next. Carson grew up in a rural Presbyterian community in Northern Ireland. In her latest book, The Raptures, she reflects through fictional storytelling what it was like to be a rural Presbyterian in the 1990s. The journey of the novel wrestles through three themes of Protestantism — the miraculous, the miracle, and the mystical. Carson’s protagonist, who is very much a reflection of her, felt the mystery of her faith was constantly sucked out, and as an artistic, creative woman this created confusion surrounding faith. Four years ago, Carson went on to become a community arts facilitator at Turf Lodge. For six weeks she worked alongside Catholics and Protestants, recreating classical films. Soon the dialogue began to flow and questions were raised — “Why do you lot do that?”, “What do you do at a wedding or a funeral?”, “Why are there so many denominations of you lot?”, “What does it mean to be a Protestant in Northern Ireland?”These questions helped Carson explore her own religion in a new light. The Raptures took Carson 15 years to write, and she said that when she finished it the first time it read incredibly angry, which was not how she wanted to depict the life of a rural Presbyterian. In Carson’s “shifting ground” of being a Northern Irish Protestant, she proclaims herself to be a female leader with a creative voice that will constantly burn to create art and dig deeper into faith.
The final speaker was poet Scott McKendry, who spoke about social class and politics in Northern Ireland. He sees the “shifting ground” in Northern Ireland happening in a simple way, where everyone is slowly working to the same version of normal. He is cautious of what constitutional change would mean for working class communities, who face problems in education, for example. McKendry sees “hope when you zoom in and watch what is actually going on, but when you zoom out and see what is actually going on in the politics it is extremely depressing.”
To conclude, Reverend Dr Heather Morris, General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Ireland, took a few minutes to reflect on “how churches might respond to issues raised by the book”. Rev explored how uncomfortable shifting ground truly is. It is not easy, as Scott McKendry pointed out, with problems and fears associated across social classes, and with Jan Carson saying, “For some this change is good news, for others it is not.” Rev Morris said “changing ground” is not easy for her or the church, but she is aware the church has a lot to answer for and offered her own apology to the way that those in LGBT+ community have been hurt by it. Rev Morris concluded with, “The old binaries are blurring and that is what four corners is all about… We do not want to be bound by ‘us and them’”, we want to end “where shifting ground becomes common ground”, where we find “what voices are missing” and “what voices are not being heard”, and create a “colorful coalition of differing friends who differ on things and are up for grappling”.
A video recording of the event is available online. The 4 Corners Festival runs from 30 January through 6 February 2022.