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Moderator backs David Ford church ruling over gay marriage support

Church moderator says removal of MLA as elder 'carefully balanced'

By Claire Williamson and Allan Preston

Published 19/10/2016

Former Alliance leader David Ford
Former Alliance leader David Ford
Presbyterian Moderator Dr Frank Sellar
Second Donegore Presbyterian Church

The Presbyterian Moderator has supported a ruling that saw the former Alliance Party leader David Ford ousted as an elder in his own church after voicing support for same-sex marriage.

Dr Frank Sellar praised the ruling by the Judicial Commission - the highest court of appeal for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland - describing it as "carefully balanced".

Earlier yesterday, Mr Ford had said "it was a matter of great sadness" that he had been forced from his post at the Second Donegore Presbyterian Church near Templepatrick, a position he held for nearly 30 years.

But Dr Sellar said that there was hurt on both sides, and called for Mr Ford and those who opposed him to draw a line under events and move on.

"It's a very carefully balanced comment on a very sad and complex situation," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I think the judicial commission have been very keen to get a very balanced judgment.

"Hopefully it's something that's affirming to the various hurt parties - it's not simply one side or another that are exclusively hurt."

He added: "There are two parties here that are hurting. The judicial committee has spent a long time working on the situation and their comments are very well chosen and balanced. Hopefully it will enable those who are on both sides and will help them draw a line in the sand and together move forward with grace."

However, acting Alliance party leader Naomi Long - a member of Dr Sellar's Bloomfield congregation in east Belfast - called it a "sad day for the church".

Mrs Long said: "As a fellow Presbyterian and someone who believes passionately in freedom of and freedom from religion, who supports the separation of church and state, and who supports equal civil marriage because of my faith, not in spite of it, this is a very sad day for the church and a very painful day for many of us who support David Ford's position.

"His faith is clear to anyone who knows him, a man of principle who respects those who hold different views: that others cannot be so gracious or show humility in disagreement is regrettable to say the least."

In 2013 Mr Ford spoke of the difficulty he faced in balancing his party's support for same-sex marriage with his Presbyterian beliefs.

It came after the Alliance Party voted in support of legislation to allow same-sex civil marriage in Northern Ireland.

At the time Mr Ford said his personal position on same-sex marriage was the same as the party's. However, the Presbyterian Church strongly opposes same-sex marriage.

Mr Ford voluntarily stepped aside as an elder in Second Donegore, also known as Dunamuggy, after some members expressed concerns about his views.

The church considered his position and have now confirmed he has been removed from his role as an elder at Dunamuggy. A statement was read to the congregation on Sunday morning.

Mr Ford said he was informed on August 31 that the Templepatrick Presbytery had resolved to remove him as an elder because the other elders in the congregation "refused" to work with him.

On October 12 the Judicial Commission told him the decision would be upheld.

Mr Ford said: "It is a matter of great sadness to (wife) Anne and I that both Presbytery and Session have failed to act to promote healing and unity within our church, despite repeated requests from us over the last nine months.

"I believed, as an elder, I had a part to play in making our congregation fit for purpose. Unfortunately, Presbytery and the Judicial Commission have now made that impossible. It remains to be seen whether or not I have any role in Dunamuggy.

"I thank those members of the congregation and others who have supported Anne, our family and me in word and in prayer through the last four difficult years of church life."

A spokeswoman for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said that while Mr Ford had been removed from his role as a ruling elder in Second Donegore, he remained an ordained elder of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland "without charge in good standing."

Dr Sellar's traditional views on same-sex marriage have seen him indirectly criticise Alliance in the past. In 2015, former East Belfast Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane abstained on an Assembly vote over same-sex marriage, whereas Ms Long voted to allow it during a vote in Westminster in 2013.

Both women attended Dr Sellar's Bloomfield Presbyterian Church.

Dr Sellar said at the time: "On that particular issue, Judith's position would be closer to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's official line."

Earlier this year Mr Ford told the BBC's Nolan Show: "It saddened me that there was a lack of understanding from some people about the role I had as a legislator, compared to the role I have within the church. Walking into church on Sunday morning, in those circumstances, hurts."

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