1st February 2016, St Patrick’s

St Patrick’s Church is a place whose position on Donegall Street, along a Twelfth of July marching route, has made it no stranger to controversy. This recent history made the beautiful building a significant setting for Monday night’s event, Captured By A Vision, an evening to hear the words and stories of the Reverend Doctor Ken Newell, former Orange Order chaplain, turned peace activist.

Reverend Newell was introduced by his successor at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Reverend Steve Stockman, for whom St Patrick’s was also significant. He had written a poem for an event in St Patrick’s in 1998; it was entitled “Prayer for the four corners of Belfast”. From this poem, the 4 Corners Festival got its name.

Reverend Newell took us on a journey through a childhood moulded by Protestant culture, teenage years that led to membership of the Orange Order, study at Queens, where he made his first Catholic friend and later years that continued to shape him into an activist for peace. He told stories of the influence of friends and the Orange Order, of how sectarianism was shaped in his life through collective feelings of threat from Roman Catholicism and Irish Nationalism, of feelings of belonging and solidarity within the Order, of how an “enemy consciousness” was developed, particularly through events surrounded the twelfth.

And he told stories of how it started to change…

On his first Twelfth of July march, he recalled marching past St Patrick’s Church. As the bands took the volume up a notch, he looked through the open doors of the church and saw a group huddled in prayer. This moment was his first twinge of conscience. It was followed by much thought and examination of the complicated nature of “Orangeism”. During a year of study in Cambridge, Reverend Newell met a variety of people from all over the world, and even found himself in a Catholic Mass, where he examined his divided feelings; the pull of old loyalties and the eagerness to explore new horizons.

Reverend Newell and his wife spent three years in Timor. He told us of his guilt over leaving Ulster when, the day before they left, nine people were killed in the Smithfield bus station bomb. However, Timor led to a strong friendship developed with another missionary, a Catholic priest from Dundalk, through which he discovered “the only way to understand another person’s faith is through direct contact”.

Following his return to Belfast, another friendship ensued, with Father Gerry from Clonard Monastery, with whom he remained close friends until his death last November. During their years of friendship, they actively pursued peace, each attending the funerals of those killed by opposite sides in The Troubles. Reverend Newell remarked that both sets of grief were identical.

Rev Newell finished with a thought on the evening’s venue: a place that was there right at the start of his journey, where he now returned a different man. To his captive audience, he proclaimed the message “keep the doors open.”

Watch Rev Newell’s talk here. Read UTV’s coverage of the event here.

Words by Pip McCracken (@pipmccracken) | Photo by Kayla Rush