Are the Baptists a fanatical fundamentalist cult, or a true Christian denomination of Bible-believing brethren?
That’s the key question which still has to be addressed as a result of ITV’s latest crime drama, The Secret, starring one of television’s best actors, the great Jimmy Nesbitt.
The Secret reveals the sordid tale of how dentist Colin Howell and his Sunday School teacher lover Hazel Buchanan conspired to murder their respective spouses Lesley Howell and Trevor Buchanan.
While this drama is based on real-life events amid the North West’s Christian Bible belt, and anyone who has followed the court case or read journalist Deric Henderson’s superb spell-binding account of the tale, knows how the four-part series finishes, one key question will remain unanswered – how will the Baptist denomination come out of this in terms of its overall image?
Already some scenes have raised eyebrows as to how the Baptists are represented. Jimmy’s character Howell is seen as a worship leader in a church service with people waving their hands in the air.
Hand-waving as part of Christian worship is largely seen as a phenomenon of Pentecostal churches – not Baptist ones. I’ve worshipped at a number of Baptist churches and I’ve never seen anyone raise their hands during the praise time.
At the centre of the real events is the Coleraine Baptist Church where Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan really met.
Although both are now serving lengthy jail terms, the jury is still out on the impact which this highly charged drama will have on the overall Baptist denomination in Ireland.
I was raised a traditional Irish Presbyterian – I’m in fact a preacher’s kid! – and I’m married to a former Baptist pastor’s daughter.
I was married in a Baptist church; a leading Irish Baptist pastor officiated at my wedding, and when I was baptised as an adult, it was in a very spiritually emotional ceremony in a Baptist church.
So at first sight, it might seem I’m acting as a spin doctor to suggest that not every man and woman who attends a Baptist church has the potential to become the next Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan.
What will be in no doubt is that the Baptist denomination will have to embark on a massive public relations campaign to convince an increasingly secular society that its churches are not havens for adultery and killing plots.
My own spiritual journey with the Baptist denomination has been a theological roller coaster ride.
I’ve encountered some of the most Godly, caring and compassionate souls the Lord ever put on this land, along with some of the most fanatical bigots ever spewed onto this earth. Although I should, of course, emphasise that the Baptists are not the only Christian denomination, or even religious faith, which contains its fair share of fanatics or bigots. That accusing finger can be pointed at most and many religions across the globe.
On the positive side, I recall the tremendous spiritual sermons I’ve listened too from Baptist pastors and evangelists. Their Bible studies were equally challenging as an evangelical Christian.
It was a Baptist pastor and members of his flock who were my rock emotionally, spiritually and practically when I had to come to terms with my youngest son’s full-blown autism. I could have so easily blamed God for my son’s severe autism, abandoned my faith and sought solace as a God-hating atheist.
But those Baptist brethren and sisters rallied to my side and became an invaluable crutch through those terrible early years. The seeds of comfort which they sowed in my life have remained with me ever since.
Even in the murder and mayhem which The Secret will unveil, I wish viewers could see the true pastoral and Christ-like side of the Baptist denomination.
However, there is a dark side to the Baptist denomination; a dark side which can give the clear perception you are dealing with a fanatical cult.
I recall applying for membership of a Baptist Church. I had to be formally interviewed by church representatives to see if I was ‘suitable’ to enter their exclusive flock.
The ‘interview’ left me feeling I had endured an interrogation by some kind of theological Gestapo. Ironically, in spite of my staunch Irish Presbyterian upbringing, I passed the test!
But when the crunch came, I was refused the so-called ‘Right Hand of Fellowship’, the name given to the initiation ceremony to ‘swear you into’ some Baptist churches.
The reason was that I was married to a woman who does not wear a hat to church! When my horrendous ‘sin’ became public knowledge among the Baptist fraternity, I was shunned by some members; one even dashing across a road and nearly getting himself run over such was his rush to avoid me.
These particular Baptists had a reputation for telling young men to tone down the colours of their ties on the Sabbath, never to remove their jackets no matter how warm the church becomes, and staging orchestrated walk-outs if young people dared to worship God using acoustic guitars.
I probably didn’t help my case by referring to these types of ‘hat brigade folk’ as ‘fashion fascists’ during a radio interview with the late Barry Cowan.
But then again, debates on the role of women in the Christian Church as well as dress codes for women are not exclusive to the Baptist denomination.
Neither, I suppose, is the so-called Baptist evangelist who told me to my face that my son’s severe autism was a punishment from God and my child would never see heaven.
Funny enough, this specific Baptist evangelist suddenly changed his theological tune when I recalled the experience in a national newspaper!
As each episode as The Secret unfolds, I personally will focus on the great social evenings and genuine Christian fellowship events I attended in Baptist church halls, the stirring Gospel worship and the excellent Bible teaching.
However, I fear many in the secular public will not have a good view of the Baptist denomination specifically and the Christian faith in general as a result of what they will see and learn in The Secret.
Needless to say, I no longer worship at a Baptist church.
- Dr John Coulter is author of the ebook ‘An Saise Glas’ (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism, published by Amazon Kindle. Follow Dr Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter