Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Same-sex marriage issue no excuse to play politics

@Press Eye Ltd Northern Ireland- 2nd March 2013 Mandatory Credit - Brian Little/ Presseye David Ford MLA, Alliance Party leader address delegates at the Alliance Party Conference at La Mon Hotel, Belfast.

This week, the Church of Ireland's General Synod established a select committee to consider human sexuality in the light of Christian teaching and to report back in two years' time.

This might seem like putting the vexatious issue into the long grass, but the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, assured reporters at a synod Press conference that this was not so.

I believe his assurance that the Church is not stalling, but, on the other hand, the articulate pro-gay campaigner Gerry Lynch, of Changing Attitude Ireland, also told me that the select committee does not include even one member from the lesbian/gay community.

There is not the same transparent heart-searching among the Presbyterian Church at large, because the issue has not surfaced in quite the same way.

However, I am intrigued by the situation in a local Presbyterian church, where the Alliance Party leader, David Ford, stepped aside temporarily as an elder, because some of the congregation expressed concern about his support for marriage equality laws.

This raises the further question as to how far a Presbyterian elder can hold a point of view that differs in conscience from others in the Church, or from the Church's stated views.

If that was to apply to a wide range of topics, the Presbyterians would soon be short of elders. Earlier this week, I heard Mr Ford, whom I respect, shrewdly avoiding the pointed question from a radio presenter if he thought that same-sex relationships were "sinful".

However, he implied that same-sex marriage is an "equality" issue, which it most definitely is not. The question is how to deal with "difference", not equality.

The gay community has total legal equality with everyone else. And rightly so. I was also intrigued as to why the whole issue had been raised again by Sinn Fein at Stormont. Especially as an earlier motion backing same-sex marriage had been defeated, as it was this time.

However, I am told that the real reason for the Sinn Fein amendment was to prove that under the constitutional convention they could again raise an issue which had been voted upon only a short time ago.

Putting aside the complex arguments for, or against, same-sex marriage, what worries me most about the current debate is the lack of political consultation with those who hold a traditional view of marriage.

When Stormont MLAs voted on the issue recently, I wonder how many members had a mandate from their constituents to do so. This point was well made on local television by Fr Tim Bartlett, one the most articulate spokesmen in the Roman Catholic Church, which badly needs such skills.

On the same programme, an academic suggested that same-sex marriage should be backed because we needed to be "progressive". Progressive about what?

I sincerely hope that some solution can be found which will not cause hurt, or a feeling of victimisation, on either side.

However, I worry about the fact that many people who do not support same-sex marriage are labelled by the so-called liberals as "bigots." They are not. And they are just as entitled to their views as anyone else.

The trouble is that many fair-minded traditionalists are frightened to speak out, for fear of being branded as narrow-minded.

For people on both sides of the argument, this should be a matter of conscience and not for playing politics, or hurling insults at one another.

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