The Iris Robinson Scandal and Evangelical Culture in Northern Ireland: Rejecting or Redeeming the ‘Sinner’?

image Today’s Sunday Sequence programme on BBC Radio Ulster featured a segment by Malachi O’Doherty on the effect of the Iris Robinson scandal on evangelical culture in Northern Ireland. Amongst others, O’Doherty interviewed Dr Claire Mitchell of Queen’s University Belfast, a collaborator in my own research on evangelicalism.

Dr Mitchell’s comments highlighted a significant tension within evangelicalism. On the one hand there can be a tendency to reject people who do not conform to strictly-defined standards, especially around issues of sexual morality such as homosexuality, sex before marriage, single mothers, and yes – adultery.

In our research, we interviewed a number of people who had left evangelicalism. Many of these had been badly hurt by the way their evangelical churches had reacted to their perceived ‘sins.’ In some cases, people even confessed their sins to other evangelicals, but felt that they were judged and never really accepted back into full communion with their churches. Some people picked up on a certain hypocrisy within evangelicalism, where ‘leaders’ who sinned were not held accountable but where people like themselves were shunned.

Other people we spoke with simply detected a rejecting attitude, like a single mother who took her child to church one Christmas, only to hear the congregation sing a hymn about ‘all the poor single parent children who Santa wasn’t coming to visit.’ She said this made her feel ‘awful’ and ‘very small.’

On the other hand, Dr Mitchell told O’Doherty that although Mrs. Robinson’s political career is effectively over, she still has a chance at religious redemption. Dr Mitchell also said that the tools of Northern Ireland’s evangelical culture may even be able to help her achieve this.

Dr Mitchell talked about how many of the people we interviewed for our research were on religious ‘journeys,’ with ups and downs, periods of darkness and doubt, times when they felt abandoned and far from God, but also times when they believed themselves to be forgiven and redeemed.

Rather than leaving evangelicalism, these people embraced this roller-coaster ride of faith and said they were the better for it – God had brought them safely out the other side. In this process, they were helped by their spouses, their children, their extended families, and people in their evangelical churches. Many said that they felt God’s presence or heard God’s voice during their trials. They took comfort in the love of an interventionist God.

Another commentator in O’Doherty’s segment, journalist Fionola Meredith, noted that there’s nothing evangelicals in Ulster like better than a repentant sinner. And indeed, Mrs. Robinson has publicly said that she is sorry, and has said that her husband and her God have forgiven her. This could be her first step in a journey of personal religious redemption.

Dr Mitchell’s comments about the competing tendencies within evangelicalism to both reject and redeem those have ‘sinned’ are not easily resolved, but they give us some insight into both the harshness and the healing that this expression of Christianity can offer.

(Photo from BBC website)

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