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Our Churches can't bury their heads in the sand over same-sex marriage

By Alf McCreary

In a week of major developments in politics, there has also been an upheaval in the attitude of a mainstream Scottish church on same-sex-marriage, plus further evidence of a hardening line on this by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In this season of Church general synods and assemblies there are numerous examples of the important witness by churches in their spiritual spheres and in carrying out the social gospel.

However, this good work is continually overshadowed by the headlines on the Churches attitude to same-sex marriage, and the decision by the Episcopal Church of Scotland to allow, by a narrow vote, same-sex marriages is an important development that cannot be ignored.

The Most Rev David Chillingworth, who was brought up in Northern Ireland and worshipped at St George's Church, is the Scottish Episcopal Primate.

He said: "Our church now affirms that a same-sex couple are not just married in the sight of God.

"Every faith community must face the issues which are bound up with human sexuality in their own way and in their own time."

The Scottish decision will create big problems for the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Justin Welby who is trying to hold together the worldwide Anglican Communion, a view shared with me last night by the former Presbyterian Moderator the Very Rev Dr John Dunlop.

When I talked to the former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette Canon Ian Ellis, he also pointed out shrewdly that he does not see the Church of Ireland taking the same approach because of its very strong traditionalist position on the issue.

He also believes that while the Church of England may be more open to secular trends, it is very conscious of the difficult role that the Archbishop of Canterbury now faces in the Anglican Communion.

Back home, the official spokesmen for the Presbyterian Church, Methodists and Church of Ireland indicated a lack of support for the Scottish move, and all three underlined their backing for their traditional teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman.

It was very ironic that on the same day that the Episcopal Church of Scotland opened the floodgates to same-sex marriage over there, the Irish Presbyterians affirmed yet again their deep disagreement with their counterparts in the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

They voted for the third year in a row, and by an even bigger majority of 221 votes to 139, to ban their new Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Noble McNeely from attending the General Assembly in Edinburgh next year, because the Scottish Presbyterians also seem well on their way to backing same-sex marriage. Some of the speeches upholding the ban were made ungraciously by some people who should know better, particularly as the Scottish Moderator was in their midst.

The Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning told the Irish Presbyterians: "We hear your concern, upset and pain. We are not asking you to agree or disagree with us, but we are asking you to be with us."

Sadly, his gracious plea was thrown back in his face. One wonders if the Irish hardliners realise that the Scots are extremely polite in accepting their invitation to come to Belfast, and that they would be perfectly entitled to withdraw their own invitation to the consistently rude Irish next year.

As the debate continued on Thursday there was a feeling that despite what speakers from either side said, people had already made up their minds - as they do with so many things in Ulster.

It was also puzzling to hear speakers on both sides claim how close they were to their Scottish "brothers and sisters" and then 221 Irish Presbyterians voters snubbed them. The Irish Presbyterians fail to realise how much things are changing in Scotland and in Ireland, as well as in every part of the United Kingdom.

The old order is changing, politically and ecclesiastically, and while we might not like these changes, we need to prepare ourselves for them.

There will be no same-sex marriage here in the short-term, but rightly or wrongly, this is now only a matter of time, and the Churches will have to deal with that as best they can.

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