This afternoon I witnessed a large, happy and colourful parade, with thousands of marchers, hundreds of placards, and lots of floats. A lot of rainbows, some tight shorts, but nothing lewd. A lot of council staff with wheelie bins to collect litter and bottles - but compared with the Twelfth they looked underwhelmed. Didn't spot any alcohol being consumed in or around the actual parade.
At least one church group marched in the parade, while another stood at the side on High Street to cheer on those marching.
Local bars, Nandos (complete with a chicken), help lines and trade unions were well represented.
Most local political parties were represented in the parade, with the exception of DUP and TUV. Somehow Sinn Fein
I could only spot one placard aimed at a politician: “Give Poots the Boot” said a lonely Socialist Worker poster (referring to the controversial ban on blood donations from gay members of the public) with “Bigot” written across a picture of Health Minister Edwin Poots.
A small group of men stood in Waring Street with their backs turned to the parade. The ‘official’ parade protest group were penned inside two rings of steel barriers outside Belfast City Hall, insulated from the parade by crowds standing along the footpath. I counted twenty five people standing in the protest area.
Lots of other folk will have tweeted about the parade, the atmosphere and the music in Custom House Square. But on the fringe of the parade I was intrigued by the contrasting Christian presence – one in support, the other in opposition.
The organiser from Templepatrick Reformed Church (who registered the protest with the Parades Commission) wasn’t in the area, so instead I spoke to two ministers: Mark Fitzpatrick (right) from Arann Reformed Baptist church in Dublin, and Paul Downling (left) from Whiteabbey Congregational church.
[Mark] We’re here primarily today because we believe that as ministers of the Gospel and as Christians we believe that we are responsible to proclaim the truth of God’s Word, especially when we see what’s happening today which is an affront not only to God’s law but God’s character … It’s not that we’re against homosexuals, it’s that we’re against the law of God being denied and openly rejected in this way.
[Alan] Is the law of God being denied today by a parade?
[Mark] It is in the sense that God hate’s sin. And God hates men rejoicing in sin even more. In fact the Bible says that God hates pride, interestingly enough. So if God hates pride, wrong pride – there’s obviously good pride to have, but this is a wrong type of pride – where men boast and glory in wrong. Well then ministers of the Gospel especially, but all Christians, must take a stand against such thing.
There was a time when people done this thing in private and the reason they done it was partly they knew it was wrong. Well know what’s happening in society, even the knowledge of wrong has gone, and even the knowledge of sin has fallen down.
[Alan] How do you think those that are either in the crowds or are parading behind us, how are they picking up your message, how are you talking to them today?
[Mark] Very hard to say. I think many people will see us purely as bigots. Many people will see us as people who have issues ourselves.
[Alan] Many of them won’t even see you, you’re quite far back from the crowd and the parade.
[Mark] It’s important to say that it’s not our main priority to try and speak to one issue. Our main goal is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, to preach the word of God. If I thought that by doing this we stopped just a few people from committing homosexual acts or whatever that would not be enough for us. We want to see people saved. We want to see people come into a relationship with God, come to know the peace that only Christ can bring.
[Alan] You [Mark] have come from Dublin up to this. You [Paul] have come from Whiteabbey, slightly closer. Would you not have had more success standing on the streets – in terms of reaching people with the Gospel – standing on the street where you weren’t fenced off from the public as they went past.
[Paul] That was never really our idea as far as I know. I think the police put the barriers up because the truth of the matter is really that any kind of Christian witness that the people that attend this type of parade are very aggressive towards the Christians and there’s been people attacked in the past.
[Alan] There is a Christian witness in the parade. A church group walked past about twenty minutes ago and there’s another group outside a church, just at the start. You’re not the only Christian witness. They weren’t getting attacked.
[Paul] The definition of the word Christian. That’s like the liberal Islam people that don’t believe their holy book when you’ve got liberal Christians that don’t believe the Bible. Your definition of your word Christian. Christian means a follower of Jesus, which means you actually believe what he said and do what he says.
[Alan] To be fair to the people not here, you’re coming from Whiteabbey Congregational Church, those guys are St George’s Anglican, Church of Ireland, most people would call Christian.
[Mark] We would say that the Anglican Church in general has a history, a recent history, of not following the Word of God in many places. So this is only one example of the Anglican Church rejecting God’s Word. So it’s one thing as our brother Paul said to call yourself a Christian, but if you’re going to be – if I can use a modern language – if you’re going to be in the club you have to obey the rules of the club, and we believe that the Bible is the rulebook of being a Christian. And to call yourself a Christian and follow God’s Word [as a gay] is an oxymoron and it makes no sense to us.
[Alan] Are there other things you protest at, other than Gay Pride. Other events?
[Paul] Obviously this one is very big at the moment. For example, if any breaking of God’s law was promoted we would take a stand.
[Alan] Do you stand outside restaurants saying that people are greedy if they come out and they’re overweight?
[Paul] That’s a good questions (laughs) …
[Alan] I’m not looking at anybody’s waistline because mine would be not quite as big as yours …
[Paul] I’m glad it’s radio and not TV at the moment … All sin, one of the things we said today, all sin is equally heinous in the sight of God. But you don’t see a big parade of fat people boasting in their fatness. I’m a bit overweight myself. I don’t want to have a fat parade next week. Neither would I want to see a group of adulterous walking down the road in Adultery Pride or Stealers Pride.
[Alan] One of the reasons Pride would say they march is not about just being out and proud but actually about the fact that society discriminates and this is a chance to remind society that gays exist. If that discrimination and inequality wasn’t there they might not need a parade. There are two sides to it.
[Paul] I’m making a clear judgement here. I don’t believe that – and I don’t know all these people here so I can’t make a general judgement - but there are some people here today in this parade who don’t just want equality, they want to suppress the norms that have been around for generations. They want to suppress normal heterosexual families, they don’t just want equality. They’re allowed to do what they want to do. Why do they have to have a parade? They’ve already got legislation to do what they want to do. I believe it’s more than that. Now that’s a personal judgement, I admit that, but I believe it’s more than just equality.
Can I just say lastly, man’s greatest need is not to change his actions but to be accepted in the sight of a Holy God. That’s man greatest need.
[Alan] A final thing. Dublin, Whiteabbey, you’ve got a lot of different areas. Are there many people from Belfast here today?
[Paul] Oh yes, a good few.
[Mark] There’s quite a lot of different churches represented here. Obviously not everyone wants to come as you don’t want to bring your children to see people going on floats in their underwear …
[Alan] Not much worse than the beach … in fact I’ve seen a lot worse on a beach.
[Mark] It’s not the beach, and it’s not a swimming pool. You dress for an occasion. You don’t walk around … If I was to do that on a normal day I’d be arrested by the police in a city centre. There’s obviously something wrong when people want to walk around the city centre in their underwear. They’re not on a beach, not on a swimming pool.
[Alan] Thank you very much for your …
At this point another protester who had been hovering listening to the interview decided to join in.
[Another man] Can I say there that when that parade went past there were people giving the fingers and different signs to the Christians standing here. If that parade was any other parade, and done that, the media would have a field day on them for being offensive to people. The Parades Commission would look into it, and something would be done about it.
Personally, standing at the corner for around ten minutes as the parade came up Donegall Place and turned past the City Hall, I witnessed no offensive gestures from the parade or supporting crowd. A policeman commented that it was a bit like a football match that out of thousands of people attending there were always a few idiots but they didn’t represent the majority.
[The other man] My personal gripe is here today this is called Gay Pride. What is a gay person’s rights? It’s all about a sexual act. So if it’s all about a sexual act and their sexual preference, if someone wants to have sex with an animal are they going to get government funding to come here to parade with animals or be like Holland and be married to an animal and come through the middle of the town. Is this going to be next?
Leaflets were being handed out for SPUC (the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children) suggesting that “defending marriage defends unborn children”.
Real marriage recognises the difference between men and woman. Legalised same-sex marriage will increase confusion about what it means to be a man or a woman and removes natural conception from the idea of marriage. Acceptance of same-sex marriage will impact countless aspects of our lives, eg schools will have to teach children about same-sex marriage.
We must protect real marriage because it protects children in the womb. Statistics show that unborn babies are four or five times more likely to be aborted outside of real marriage.
Children do better conceived and brought up in real marriage. Research shows overwhelmingly that overall, children do better in terms of health, happiness and education when brought up by their married, biological opposite-sex patents.
A very mixed set of messages.
In contrast, one of the other Christian witnesses at this year’s Belfast Pride parade was a group from Changing Attitudes Ireland and Faith & Pride who stood outside St George’s Church on High Street to show positive support to those in the march.
I spoke to Gerry Lynch.
[Gerry] Every year there are one or who anti-gay demonstrations by fundamentalist Christians and that’s all that most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people see of Christianity is people judging them and wanting to send them to hell for being gay. Now Christians have been marching – identified as Christians on the parade – for at least five years. The parade’s now so big that most people on the parade don’t see that. You don’t see other people on the parade when you’re actually marching on it. So we waited here outside St George’s church – which is a gay affirming church, I’m one of the church wardens as an openly gay man – and show people that there are Christians who support gay people. The response we had here was really exceptional.
[Alan] What type of message do you think the paraders got as they walked past your group of banners?
[Gerry] The number of people on the parade who shouted over “thank you for doing this”. A lot of gay people have very strong Christian faith, Northern Ireland is a very Christian country, and gay people are no exception to that. A lot of gay people feel excluded and rejected by their churches, and excluded and rejected by Christians in general. So I think it was very important that we were here today and people really appreciated it. We got incredibly positive feedback. At the end of the parade where it always dies out a wee bit at the end, it was all quiet as the parade went down High Street, and then going past here then people started cheering and waving at us.
[Alan] There’s another Christian group outside the City Hall. I talked to them earlier. They were very worried that pride was something that was sinful, they were very worried that homosexuality in their eyes was something that was sinful and they were very worried that this was going to lead to people wanting to have marriage to animals and all kinds of stuff. Does this concern you?
[Gerry] It does in a sense as we’ll probably have to wait ten years longer to have equal marriage in Northern Ireland than any other part of the UK or Ireland. We’ll be ten years behind because of people like that, and their bigotry and their hatemongering and that’s all it is. To compare my relationship of 15 years which we have now got married, we’ve had a religious marriage, we’re both devout practicing church members, for people to compare my relationship with the man I love and have given my life to to someone marrying a horse or a dog is so gratuitously offensive I can’t even think of words for it.
They also talk a lot of nonsense about the Bible. They don’t seem to know their Bible very well. I went would for a [look at] that protest in the break in our parade. They’re carrying a sign saying “Biblical marriage = 1 man + 1 woman” with a quote from Genesis. Well I’m sorry, most of the great patriarchs from Genesis – Abraham and the rest of them – were married to multiple women. So this is the great irony of these people. They say they’re standing up for Biblical values, and if we get married the next thing there’ll be polygamy. Well, I’m sorry, the Bible approves of polygamy in many places.
[Alan] There were two Belfast churches, one marching, one was standing here in support of the parade, whereas it was folk from Templepatrick who organised [the protest where] I talked to people from Whiteabbey and Dublin who were in it. It wasn’t Belfast Christians who were out in large numbers – there may have been some – but there weren’t that many protesting.
[Gerry] Belfast has become in many ways a very liberal city over the past ten or fifteen years, and has changed tremendously. I’m born and bred and live in the inner city here in Belfast. I live in a very poor, very single identity republican community, and some of my middle class friends imagine that there’s a lot of homophobia there. Really there isn’t. People have moved on. I live in the New Lodge. The New Lodge Arts Project were down here marching in the parade with a load of kids and obviously parents in the New Lodge don’t mind their kids going on a Pride parade. In fact they think it’s probably a very good thing for them. So I think Belfast has moved on tremendously and it’s become a very tolerant and open place. One of the reasons I like living here.
Thanks to both groups of Christians for being willing to be interviewed this afternoon.
Update - UTV's coverage: