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Presbyterians face a stark choice: Adapt or stagnate

By Alf McCreary

Published 04/06/2016

Touchy subject: same-sex relationships still rankle with some Presbyterians
Touchy subject: same-sex relationships still rankle with some Presbyterians

Last Sunday I listened to BBC Radio Ulster's Morning Service, when the address was given by the Rev David Gray of Portaferry Presbyterian Church. It was a thoughtful sermon, delivered in the classic stentorian tones of Presbyterianism.

Mr Gray was urging his listeners not to forsake the well-tested standards of their Christian forefathers but also to be prepared to move in new directions if they felt that God was calling them to do so.

My first reaction was that's easier said than done but Mr Gray's theme could apply to our modern society, where there are few enough important standards left.

The Rev Gray's advice could also apply to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland which is holding its annual General Assembly in Belfast next week.

The Presbyterians hold firmly to the old standards, but one wonders how far they are prepared to move forward in a way that makes Christianity attractive to a secular world that thinks it irrelevant and outdated.

The same applies to the other main Churches who are struggling to not only increase their numbers, but also to keep those members they have already.

The Churches have a difficult task today and they do not always receive the credit for their contribution to society at large - a point overshadowed by the unfortunate and unnecessary remarks of the commentator Jude Collins on the Boys' Brigade.

First Minister Arlene Foster was right to draw attention to the Churches' voluntary work in helping the young and old which would otherwise cost the taxpayer a fortune to subsidise.

That said, however, the Churches need to move with the times without diluting their central message of devotion and discipline, and that is not easy to achieve. How can this be done efficiently and effectively?

Take, for example, the subject of same-sex relationships that is not going away. Last year the Presbyterian General Assembly passed a churlish, childish and counter-productive resolution which prevented the Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Ian McNie, from visiting the General Assembly in Edinburgh this year because of the more liberal views of the Scottish Church on the role of homosexual and lesbian clergy.

Will this year's Irish General Assembly take a more enlightened view on this, or will the same blinkered hardliners triumph again, while the liberals wring their hands helplessly? The outcome on the EU referendum might be easier to forecast.

The Presbyterians are still consistently ducking the issue of electing a woman Moderator, and, sadly, there is no indication that this will change any time soon, while the stiff-necked male clergy and elders continue to dominate this arcane process which remains a complex mystery in most of the pews.

Ecumenism, which is common around the ecclesiastical world, is still a radical concept for too many Irish Presbyterians, and the dwindling band of liberals will not be reassured by the comments of the incoming Moderator, the Rev Dr Frank Sellar, who said enigmatically: "I'm not a huge fan of ecumenical services, but I am interested in speaking with people from other Christian traditions."

One had hoped that Mr Sellar, with his experience of serving in Dublin, would be more outward-looking, so what does his view on ecumenism say to us as a leadership path for the future when the main Churches are trying to get closer?

It is good for the Presbyterians to adhere to the old standards, but that can also be an excuse simply for not moving forward.

The once-dominant Ulster Unionists were good at saying "not an inch" but look what has happened to them.

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