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Where is our Protestant identity?


“Rangers have been subject to much unfair condemnation over the last few years, but there is no doubt some of the criticism has been valid. One of the important parts of ‘The Rangers Standard’ project will be tough questions about Rangers and fan culture. These questions will no doubt lead to criticism and some might feel that their core values are being challenged, but if we become too frightened to ask questions about our history and culture then we will sleepwalk into oblivion.”

This paragraph is a straight lift from John DC Gow’s excellent article ‘Reclaiming the Rangers’. We do indeed need to ask some very tough questions and I would like to set the ball rolling.

Those who mix with the Rangers support or frequent message boards will have become accustomed to phrases such as “Rangers Protestant Identity” or “Rangers Protestant traditions and heritage”. But what do people actually mean when they use such phrases and how are traditions, identity and heritage manifested amongst our support?

Forgive me for quoting from John's article again but the following is such a watershed statement that I deem it essential to repeat and explore:

“The problem is that much of the language and symbolism attached to the fanbase needs to catch up to the actual beliefs of most fans”

I would also ask how such language and symbolism relates to a Protestant identity?

As a Church of Scotland elder and Youth Minister I have to say that in following Rangers for over 40 years, I have seen or heard little at matches which is repeated on a Sunday within my church. And whilst a rousing chorus of The Sash or Derry's Walls may well wake up some of our sleeping congregation, I doubt very much if I will see them on our hymn sheet any time soon. So where is the anomaly?

I believe much of the problem lies in what I would describe as the reactive nature surrounding the formation of our identity. History shows that the formation of our club had nothing to do with religion, just a passion for the game itself. What appears to have been the catalyst to change was the formation of Celtic FC and its strong association with Catholicism and its expression of Irish identity.

As many historical commentators point out, this had the effect of instilling in the Protestant population of the West of Scotland and beyond the need for a football club which similarly reflected their culture, beliefs and identity. Rangers became that club but not because of any existing Protestant identity. As Professor Graham Walker has suggested, it probably had more to do with the transport links which existed at that time and these favoured Rangers over Queen’s Park or Clyde.

Given the historical backdrop of the Home Rule issue in Ireland, the establishment of Harland & Wolff in Govan in 1912 and the fact that Celtic Directors were publicly speaking out in support of Irish nationalism, it is apparent that the ingredients to effect considerable polarisation of beliefs between supporters of Rangers and Celtic were very much in place. Also to be added to the mix is the strong historical bond linking the Protestant peoples of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Of course neither unionism nor Irish nationalism can lay claim to exclusive support within the Protestant or Catholic communities, either in Scotland or Northern Ireland, however history from that period does tend to suggest that they were very much intertwined.

In this highly charged atmosphere, could it be that any Protestant identity Rangers were fostering became secondary to a more obvious loyalist culture amongst our support which was, in turn, a reaction to what was seen as the advance of Irish nationalism in Scottish society? A support where the Union Flag and a large loyalist song repertoire are very much in evidence, would tend to suggest that the expression of loyalism is very much to the fore, which begs the question where is our Protestant heritage and identity in all of this?

Alasdair McKillop, in his article on Rangers and the monarchy, mentions the overlap between Unionism, Britishness, the Monarchy and Protestantism.  There is of course an undeniable connection between all 4, but how many in this day and age would tick the box marked “all of the above”?  Has the symbolism and language of Protestantism become something of a sleeping partner in all of this? Neither our language nor our symbolism really reflects anything which could be called exclusively “Protestant”. Or is it as simple as a belief or misunderstanding that a pre-requisite to being Pro-British, unionist or royalist...one must first be a Protestant, and that the language and symbolism we use as a support presumes a Protestant default position?

I use the word “misunderstanding” because I have met Rangers supporters who were atheists, nationalist and royalists, as well as a number of other variations on that formula. This serves to demonstrate in this day and age that attempts by some (both inside and outside the Rangers support) to stereotype our support as exclusively Protestant, Pro-Monarchy, Unionist and Pro-British are totally erroneous.

Furthermore what are the actual beliefs of our fans? In a society which is becoming increasingly secular in nature, it would be folly to suggest that our support would be any less representative of that view. Where it becomes clouded, however, is when you speak to fellow Rangers supporters who declare themselves to be atheists but who still express a desire to defend Rangers Protestant heritage and traditions.

Is it quite simply a belief that singing songs from loyalist culture are in fact merely an extension and expression of Protestantism?

Then there is the stick with which Rangers are often beaten – our almost exclusive signing policy during the last century. Some point to this policy as evidence of Rangers Protestant identity. While its consequence was certainly to throw onto the field 11 young men who were non-Catholic, I remain to be convinced that such exclusion was meant to contribute towards the establishment a Protestant identity.

This issue needs to be re-examined, as Graham Walker argued, and also re-directed towards others.

The evidence of Rangers Protestant identity may not be apparent in song or symbolism but it is, I believe, nonetheless present within our support. It manifests itself, perhaps fittingly, in an unassuming yet important manner. In fact it sits so silently in the background that many may be unaware of its presence. But it’s there.

It would be inaccurate to say that the likes of Jorg Albertz, Lorenzo Amoruso, Sone Aluko, were merely accepted by the Rangers support. They have been elevated to hero status regardless of their religious background. Tolerance and acceptance of others characterise the Protestant faith, and I would respectfully suggest that they also characterise the Rangers support.

But let us also add the names Mo Johnston, Nacho Novo and Neil McCann to the pot.  All were Catholic players who became heroes in the eyes of the Rangers support but who saw both themselves and their families subjected to threats and abuse as a consequence of their signing for and service to Rangers.

Contrast the aforementioned with Alfie Conn, Steven Pressley and Mark Brown. I don't recall any of these players fearing for their safety, or that of their family. I can imagine any of these three happily taking a seat in the Ibrox stands without a murmur of discontent or abuse from the Rangers support. Can the same be said for Mo, Nacho or Neil taking a seat at Parkhead?

I highlight this not to be petulant or churlish but because I believe it reflects a very positive manifestation of the Protestant ethos amongst the Rangers support.

I've used this article to ask a lot of questions, many of which remain unanswered. But I hope I have achieved one thing and that is to set the ball rolling.