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Zero tolerance of dissent out of step with public thinking

By Alf McCreary

Published 19/10/2016

The decision to remove former Alliance leader David Ford as an active elder from his congregation underlines the deepening opposition to same-sex marriage within the Presbyterian Church.

Anyone who steps out of line will be firmly dealt with. This means that the old liberal wing of the Church is dying on its feet, if it is not already dead.

Mr Ford stepped aside in 2013 as an elder in Second Donegore Presbyterian Church after expressing the Alliance Party's support for same-sex marriage, and the Templepatrick Presbytery later resolved to remove him.

The case went to the Judicial Commission, the Presbyterians' highest court, which upheld the decision.

Mr Ford remains an elder in good standing, but without an active role.

He is, in effect, an elder without portfolio.

Technically, the Church is entitled to adhere to its strict rule that marriage applies only to a man and a woman, and that equal or same-sex marriage is not in line with Biblical teaching.

However, it is being accused by some Presbyterians, including Mr Ford's imminent successor as Alliance leader Naomi Long, of failing to show grace or humility to a fellow Presbyterian of integrity who holds a different view.

The Presbyterian Church is rapidly narrowing into a traditional right-wing body where personal views on matters of conscience are not tolerated when they do not adhere to strict Biblical teaching.

Instead of allowing David Ford the freedom of conscience, he has been stripped of an active role as elder.

He is not the first to be disciplined.

In 2015, Rev Christina Bradley, a Portadown minister who had welcomed the Irish referendum result backing same-sex marriage, was brought before a special committee of the Armagh Presbytery.

She had said of the referendum result: "This warm-heartedness is good to see in a world which often is a cold place as much for women in leadership as it is for gay and lesbian people in churches."

A report by Armagh Presbytery's special committee underlined that Rev Bradley had confirmed to them that she accepted the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith that same-sex marriage is contrary to Bible teaching.

The report's findings of her recantation were read out in Rev Bradley's church, while she listened on. This was seen by many Presbyterians as a deliberate attempt to silence public discussion on the subject.

In 2015, and once again this year, the Presbyterian General Assembly voted not to send its representative to the General Assembly in Edinburgh because of the Scottish Church's decision to allow people in same-sex civil partnerships to act as ministers and deacons, if their congregations approved.

In stark terms, the message is clear from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland - there is absolutely no room for dissent.

In a free society, that may not go down well with the public, many of whom may conclude that the Church is long on discipline but short on humanity.

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