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Why Christians will have to learn to disagree about same-sex marriage

By Alf McCreary

As the general election grinds towards its final verdict, which may surprise the erstwhile confident Mrs May, the only certainty is that the local voters will split, as usual, along Orange and Green lines.

It's a pity that this is so, but our recent bruising election and our pygmy tit-for-tat politicians have almost institutionalised our sectarianism to the point where a leading US official in a previous White House administration has concluded sadly that we are more divided here than ever.

It is against this unfortunate background that well-meaning clergy have been advising us how to vote.

One Protestant minister has asked us to choose 'Christian' candidates, whatever that means in practice.

Of course we should vote for people with vision, integrity and a mission to improve all our lives. Unfortunately this does not always work out in practice, and some of the greatest Bible-thumpers are people who would not attract me to vote for them.

The Roman Catholic Church should be rather more street-wise after all it has been through, but recently the Irish hierarchy offered advice to voters which could be regarded as highly intrusive.

The Catholic Church did not bluntly state that voters should back anti-abortion candidates but their Jesuitical phrasing is saying the same thing. It asks voters: "How will you and your party protect and promote the value of every human life from conception to natural death?"

Of course clergy can advise voters to choose a candidate "according to conscience" but to refer to specific issues is to revert to the old Catholic Church ploy, never admitted openly, to interfere directly in politics.

At this moment of writing the Protestant churches have not offered any such direct advice. Maybe they are keeping their own counsel on the election, because they, too, have much on their agenda, including same-sex marriage.

Last month the Church of Ireland had an intense debate on this subject, after receiving a report that took four years to say very little, except that church people need to learn to differ graciously on such an emotional and complex issue. The Church of Ireland General Synod handed back this theological hot potato to their bishops for further guidance, and I don't envy these worthy men and one woman their task.

Only last week the Scots at their General Assembly seemed to move towards allowing its ministers to officiate at same-sex weddings in churches, but I am not so sure about that. Church politics are very subtle.

The Scots are further ahead than the rest and allow clergy in same-sex civic partnerships to act as ministers and deacons in those congregations which are happy that they do so.

However, in last week's General Assembly in Edinburgh, the Church of Scotland passed the issue to yet another committee which is due to report back next year. It seems that every time the supporters of same-sex marriage force the subject on to the annual agendas, it is steered back into the ecclesiastical long grass for further consideration.

The reality is that the major churches do not want to be forced to vote finally 'Yes' or 'No'... they know rightly that any decision to approve same-sex marriage will split their churches down the middle.

It is against this background that next week's Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast is almost certain to revisit this issue, and also its relations with other churches.

For the past two years the Irish Presbyterians have not allowed their Moderator to visit the Scottish General Assembly in protest against the Scots' more liberal views.

Hopefully this year the General Assembly in Belfast will be more polite to their Scottish colleagues by allowing the new Moderator to visit them.

The Irish Presbyterians have firmly held to the Church teaching that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, and they have every right to do so.

This is one subject on which Christians and non-Christians will have to learn to disagree in good faith. It is an important subject, and deserving of the greatest sensitivity towards those directly involved, but there are many other urgent issues in Church life which deserve just as much attention, if not more.

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