Belfast Telegraph

Moderator right to highlight emotivism around so many of today's big debates

By Alf McCreary

The end of the Methodist Conference in Belfast last Sunday marks the completion of this year's series of annual gatherings of the main Churches. Most Church members, from my experience, pay little attention to such detailed business of their Church at large, and some may not even know the name of the new Presbyterian Moderator or Methodist President, or the Church Of Ireland or Catholic Archbishops of Armagh.

The only time that the general public pays attention is when controversy arises, and this is usually to do with same-sex relationships.

This year the Presbyterians made headlines by moving yet further to the right by increasing their vote to ban Moderato,r the Very Rev Dr Noble McNeely, from going to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland next year, because of the Scots' more liberal attitude to same-sex marriage.

There were also worrying headlines about the lack of candidates, including women, for the Presbyterian ministry.

There was a time when the speeches of the Church leaders at the annual assemblies, conferences and synods made headlines because the media editors sent reporters in anticipation that these worthy figures might actually have something interesting to say.

All this has changed, partly because the church leaders now choose largely to speak to their own flock in the form of an ordinary Sunday sermon.

Long gone are the days when John Dunlop, Robin Eames and Eric Gallagher could make headlines without even trying.

To be fair, this is partly because the nature of the news changed as the peace process slowly took effect, and the headlines are in themselves now less dramatic.

However, it is a pity that Church leaders in general do not take the opportunity in their inaugural or annual state-of-the-Church addresses to speak out to the mass media audience who do not go to church.

This year there was an exception when the outgoing Presbyterian Moderator Dr Frank Sellar gave an important and challenging address in which he claimed that the Western world had lost its way.

He said: "We have abandoned the way of the Cross, and opted instead for power and respectability.

"We have blessed the ways of the world, and we have legitimised sectarianism and fascist xenophobia, and all in the name of God.

"Now we are being forced to the margins once more. It is no longer respectable to be a Christian.

"With the decline of Christendom, the western world of which we are a part, finds itself with a moral dilemma. We cannot agree on what the good is for human beings.

"As a consequence, we are unable to persuade people by reasoned arguments because we cannot agree on what is good and reasonable.

"If we cannot persuade people, then only emotion remains, which is why discussion on politics and morality are increasingly loud and angry.

"We have arrived at a state of emotivism, the doctrine that all moral judgments are simply a matter of preference or feeling."

This could apply, for example, to the controversy over same-sex marriage.

Just because someone feels it is permissible to bless a same-sex marriage, this does not necessarily mean that it is right.

Dr Sellar's reference to emotivism applies to politics as well. There was a great deal of emotion in voting for or against Brexit simply because we knew so little about it either way.

Equally those who voted for Jeremy Corbyn recently followed the temptation to gain free university tuition, pensioner benefits and other goodies without realising or caring that these would eventually have to be paid for by somebody else.

In the USA, meanwhile, there was much emotion in backing the Trump motto 'Make America Great' without questioning closely the claim of this bombastic and rude narcissist that he could actually do so.

Without doubt Dr Frank Sellar raised fundamental questions that apply to people inside and outside the Churches as well, and this was like a breath of fresh air wafting across a dusty debating chamber.

However, it's a pity that there are not more Church leaders who have the depth and courage to speak out as he has done when they have a golden opportunity to do so.

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