Two Presbyterian churches caught up in a gender row over a woman preacher have decided to scrap a joint Christmas service which has been a tradition for more than 50 years, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The controversy first flared last Christmas when the Rev Stafford Carson of First Portadown told his colleague, the Rev Christina Bradley of Armagh Road, that he could not invite her to preach in his church “on grounds of conscience”.
The two ministers at the centre of the controversy have now issued a joint statement declaring that “we have agreed, for now, to hold our own Christmas Day services”.
They added: “Since the painful experience of last Christmas we have established an amicable and good working relationship. Together with our Kirk Sessions we are respectful of each other's views and are planning some joint congregational activities in the near future”.
It is understood that the joint activities will not necessarily involve shared worship.
The two churches have shared a Christmas Day service for over 50 years, but the arrangement lapsed last Christmas when they could not agree on the gender issue.
Under Presbyterian Church rules a male minister can refuse an female cleric to preach in his pulpit "on grounds of conscience”, even if she fully ordained to do so.
The Presbyterian Church was one of the first in Ireland to ordain females, and a number have preached regularly in churches at the invitation of a male colleague.
However, the decision is at the jurisdiction of the individual male cleric. There are 24 female ministers out of a total of 358 clerics.
Despite attempts to reach agreement, including private mediation with former Moderator the Very Rev Dr John Finlay, it has not been possible to reach an accommodation.
The issue was not mentioned during the General Assembly this week, though some observers claimed that this was "an elephant in the room that was not talked about".