I got a phone call today (just after running a half-marathon in Derry's Waterside, about which more – maybe – anon), asking me to participate in a discussion tomorrow morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show. The topic? The Free Presbyterians’ planned protest against the Pope visiting Scotland this week.
Where to start? Maybe with the Free Ps’ complaint that the Pope has said that other Christian Churches aren’t really Churches. I think they have a point there. I know the Pope is the theologian but I don’t know a single Catholic who would say he or she thinks Protestant denominations don’t belong to real Churches. So I’m with them on that and not with the Pope. Although I speak as an ignorant yob, you understand, not a theologian.
But are those the reasons the Free Ps are protesting? Maybe it’s because they don’t like the idea of the Pope’s visit to Britain being funded out of the public exchequer. If they are, I’m kind of with them there too. The claim that the Pope is a head of state and entitled to have his visit funded by the people hosting him…I don’t know. Not totally convinced. The Free Ps could have a point. If that’s an objection of theirs. Which it might not be.
To be frank, I suspect the Free Ps – to be led, I’m told, by the Rev Ian Paisley – is that they and he see Catholics as doomed to burn in hell and the Pope as the Anti-Christ. That's the big motivator behind their preparations with the placards and megaphones. You’ll remember – or do you? - Mr Paisley in the European Parliament roaring his Anti-Christ objections at Pope John Paul's visit to that institution in the 1980s. Yes, the Big Man has changed in many respects since then, or at least done things most people thought he'd never do, but something tells me he hasn’t gone back on the Anti-Christ one. So which is worse, would you say: to suggest other Churches aren’t real Churches, or to pinpoint one Church and declare its followers are going to hell and that their leader is the devil himself?
While you’re pondering that one, let me tell you my opinion. If the Anti-Christ thing is the basic reason for Mr Paisley’s planned protest - and I'm convinced it is - then religious bigotry is alive and well. No question of the Christian doctrine of love moving the Big Man to accept that others are entitled to a religious view different from his. What's more, I believe that saying a particular faith group is on its way to hell and is led by a leader who is Beelzebub incarnate sounds suspiciously like incitement to religious hatred. Am I missing something?