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David Ford church ruling shows distinct lack of Christian grace from Presbyterians

By Alf McCreary

Published 22/10/2016

Crying shame: David Ford’s shabby treatment illustrates why the Presbyterian Church membership continues to dwindle
Crying shame: David Ford’s shabby treatment illustrates why the Presbyterian Church membership continues to dwindle

The very public removal of the former Alliance leader David Ford from his position of elder in his home Presbyterian Church has big implications for churches and society.

It highlights not only the complex issue of same-sex marriage, but also the right of individual conscience in a democratic society.

In 2013, Mr Ford stepped aside as an elder in Second Donegore Presbyterian Church after some members of the congregation expressed concern about his views. It came after the Alliance Party backed legislation in support of same-sex marriage.

The Templepatrick Presbytery subsequently voted to remove David Ford as an elder and this decision was upheld by the Judicial Commission, the Presbyterians' highest court.

However, the commission underlined that he remains an elder "in good standing", despite not being allowed to take an active role in his church.

The commission's verdict was well-meaning, but it was a fudge. If a person is allowed to remain an elder, but not to play an active role, this a practical nonsense.

The case has attracted much attention, partly because David Ford has a high profile, and its implications will linger on for a long time.

The trouble arose in Second Donegore when some members expressed their disagreement with his views. Instead of reaching an amicable solution in-house, the controversy spiralled into the local Presbytery and then to the commission.

By that stage the outcome was inevitable. The Presbyterian Church adheres strictly to Biblical teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman, and technically it can discipline an elder who disagrees with that ruling.

Yet why should the valuable services of an elder to his own church and congregation be stopped because of that alone? There is much more to Mr Ford than his views on same-sex relationships.

As a former long-term elder in my own congregation, there were issues on which I disagreed with the Presbyterian Church at large, but if these differences had come to a head, I am sure they would have been handled sensitively within our Kirk Session without headlines.

If people in a church cannot agree to disagree in a spirit of mutual respect and concern, then what is Christianity all about? The Anglican Church has failed to reach a compromise over many years, but has tried to show Christian charity in trying to agree to disagree in the short term.

Sadly, however, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has handled this issue in a different way. Last year they disciplined, again very publicly, the Rev Christina Bradley for welcoming the result of the Irish referendum on same sex-marriage.

In the last two years the General Assembly voted not to send a representative to the Edinburgh General Assembly because of the Scots' more liberal views on same sex-relationships. And now David Ford has been stripped of an elder's role.

Two things are clear from this sorry mess. One is that the Presbyterian Church will crush any dissent from the party line on the same-sex issue. The thought control is such that the minority of liberals left are now afraid to be quoted in public, as I have found out at first hand. This is a crying shame for a Church which used to be so proud of its dissenter tradition.

Secondly, there is an unattractive harshness in the public face of Presbyterianism when dealing with the same-sex issue. This was noted by Naomi Long, the successor-apparent to Mr Ford as Alliance leader.

She claimed that the Church had failed to show grace or humility to a fellow Presbyterian. To that I would add the quality of Christian love and support within the one big family.

If the Church cannot show love and tolerance to those with whom it disagrees, then it is losing its way, and its membership will continue to dwindle.

The saddest fact of all is that the Presbyterian Church is not listening to those people who disagree with its views, rather than tolerating any difference of opinion. Is it any wonder that its numbers are dwindling?

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