A Protestant Club in 21st Century Scotland

Let me begin this article on Rangers and Protestantism in an unorthodox manner-by making a confession. I have been surprised by the number of contributions that have dealt with this difficult theme, either in part or by tackling it head on. Articles by Iain Leiper, G.M. Semple, Alan Bairner and Harry Reid all fall into the latter category while Graham Walker’s article may be considered as representative of the former. If the weight of articles and the earnest nature of the responses are anything to go by, then I have underestimated the importance that many people still attach to this issue. It continues to be central when I had probably dismissed it as peripheral or, at best, a staging post for more important themes such as unionism. It is vibrant when sometimes it has seemed like little more than a role we had to perform as part of our rivalry with Celtic. This article hopes to survey the debate to date and hopefully suggest some ways to take things forward.

Harry Reid’s article left me with a sense of melancholy on first reading. He explored the contrast between the image and values he associated with the club in the past and its contemporary low standing. He said, ‘Rangers had standards and dignity, a sense of pride and self-belief: they were a decent club representing something resolute-aye ready-in the Scottish character and their supporters were honourable people.’ Rangers, he argued, had once stood for all that was best in Scottish Protestantism. Reid was of the opinion that capable and experienced Rangers individuals-who had possibly found success as a result of their embrace of these ideals-had failed to offer their services to the club in its hour of utmost need. This is either a powerful indictment of these individuals or else an indictment of a club and support that no longer lived up to the best of its traditions.

A number of those who posted in response lamented what they saw as the Church of Scotland’s retreat into an ivory tower and its perceived concern with promoting a middle-class agenda that meant little to those shaped by a robust, popular working-class variety of Protestantism. There was also disappointment that the Church of Scotland had not entered into the sectarianism debate to defend Rangers fans in the way that the Catholic Church was seen to have defended Celtic fans. This, however, overlooks the Kirk’s seeming inability to articulate a cohesive set of values or ideals never mind defend what is, in effect, a very loosely connected group. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the kirk has felt marginalised since the advent of devolution. This was symbolised by the fact that the new Scottish Parliament met in the General Assembly in the early years of its existence. The Church of Scotland used to speak for the nation but now seems reluctant to speak for itself never mind the interests of Rangers Football Club and its supporters. It might also be suggested that the non-hierarchical nature of Presbyterianism doesn’t serve it well in an era when a recognised figurehead is an asset in dealing with the incessant demands of the media. Another explanation was offered by a Church of Scotland minister who suggested that there was a reluctance to speak on behalf of Protestantism in general given its fragmentary nature. These are all possible factors to explain what many see as the kirk’s retreat from public debate. But we might also want to ask how easy we have made it for the Kirk to come to our defence and whether this is something we should desire in the first place. Is an institution that feels it is to be on the back foot likely to come to the aid of a similarly beleaguered group that regularly attracts controversy and condemnation?

What is remarkable is that these are not new arguments or sources of complaint-they have existed for several decades now. Back in the 1970s, some fans considered it a betrayal when the Church of Scotland criticised Rangers for not signing Catholics. In 1974 the Glasgow Presbytery challenged the club to clarify its signing policy and the Church of Scotland journal The Bush criticised Rangers for being sectarian in 1978. The Reverend James Currie defended the club and claimed the Church’s stance was a manifestation of a new middle-class outlook. These points appeared in a chapter in the book Sermons and Battle Hymns: Protestant Popular Culture in Modern Scotland written in 1990. Even then Rangers supporters were credited with a longstanding defensive mentality because of the perceived hostility of the media and wider society. We need to address this perpetual defensiveness but space does not permit it here. What I will say is that we have to be smart about the positions we choose to defend. Too much time and energy has been wasted in the defence of isolated outposts. The notion that the club is the last bastion for a Protestantism in retreat everywhere also contributes.  

It seems that many, including G.M. Semple, continue to see Protestantism as the common denominator and the adhesive that bonds us as a support. The importance he attached to the club’s Protestant heritage was evident and heartfelt. As far as I’m aware, no data exists on how different generations of Rangers fans feel about this issue. If I had to guess then I would say it has much more of an emotional significance for older fans. They are the ones who are more likely to have an attachment formed by actual sustained interaction with the Church. People of my own generation have had more exposure to a defensive and caricatured version of Protestantism as expressed Ibrox. On the other hand, Chris Graham stated his intention to pass on what he considered to be traditional Protestant values to his son. But there are a number of problems, not the least of which is the seemingly irreversible tide of secularisation that means that younger generations have had little sustained exposure to organised religion.

The biggest problem, however, is that in our case Protestantism has too often been expressed in negative ways and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this has done the serious damage to our reputation for a number of decades. If I am right about the generational factor then it is ironic, not to say sad, that the generations with a genuine attachment to the best of Protestantism were also the same generations that watched it sour on the terraces. Graham Walker, author of the chapter mentioned above, argued, ‘it might also be said that the Rangers supporters on the terracing developed a more crudely anti-Catholic repertoire in the 1960s with obscene chants about the Pope prominent.’ This development was unfortunate in itself and because of the changes in social and political attitudes that occurred during the 1960s and the outbreak of the Northern Ireland troubles in its final years. This seems to have hardened attitudes at both Ibrox and Celtic Park.

A sense of Protestant identity was expressed more readily in support of Ulster unionism although there were long standing links between the two as Iain Leiper argued in his article. This perhaps promoted Alan Bairner to say, ‘what did the Battle of the Boyne really matter to those of us brought up in the kirk?’ These attitudes would have been anathema to a kirk which was part of an establishment worried about Scotland catching the Ulster virus. Bairner also suggested the Presbyterianism of his Fife youth had more in common with the United Irishmen of the 1790s than that expressed by Rangers supporters. His article prompted John DC Gow to argue, ‘the truth is that much of the “Protestantism” that many Rangers fans profess, isn’t in any way associated with Christianity in the spiritual sense. It’s a form of Protestantism that has no real foundation except historical dates and obsessions.’

There are two options as I see it. First, the Rangers support takes a definitive post-Protestant turn and eradicates any attachment to Protestantism because it has been too readily expressed as anti-Catholicism. I would consider this extreme and clearly it would be a sad development for many fans. I’m not one of those who believe religion and politics should have nothing to do with football. They find outlets in other cultural mediums so I don’t see how we can reasonably expect football to be different. The weight of history is also considerable in our case. The second option is that imagination is allied with a greater degree of self-policing to find positive, new ways of expressing a sense of Protestant heritage and identity. This is clearly possible, just look at the way the Billy Boys has been removed. A number of contributors to the site offered a list of positive values and attitudes that they associated with Protestantism. One poster, who might be considered representative listed, ‘loyalty, restraint, hard work, stoicism and a willingness to step up to the plate.’ These are values that we commonly associate with the confident, successful Rangers of the Struth and Symon era. Those running the club and, to a certain extent, the support seem to have lost sight of these in the reckless pursuit of success and an increasingly damaging rivalry with Celtic. What I would suggest is the writing of some sort of fans’ charter that outlines what is expected of a Ranger in terms of values and behaviour. This could draw on the values expressed by a number of posters and often articulated by fans. What I am suggesting is that we make these more concrete and less abstract. Potentially it might help with self-policing and contribute to our rebuilding by drawing on the best of the past.