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Stifling debate in church will not help fill the empty pews

By Alf McCreary

Published 14/11/2015

Hard line: a Presbyterian minister’s statement on same-sex marriage brought a tough response
Hard line: a Presbyterian minister’s statement on same-sex marriage brought a tough response

On last week's Stephen Nolan TV show, there was a report of a cross-border survey on several social and political issues. One particularly interesting finding was that 31% of Protestants and 13% of Catholics in Northern Ireland say they never go to church. For many people, the terms "Protestant" or "Catholic" are obviously tribal labels.

The lack of comment about the fall in Church attendance was also striking - as if people felt that it was not even worth debating.

The Rev Mervyn Gibson rightly acknowledged on the programme that while many people have stopped going to church, this does not mean that they have abandoned the faith.

It is the task of the Churches to try to reach out to more people and this is something which they already recognise.

However, they should not do this by dumbing down the message, but by making it more accessible and attractive and showing more love and compassion - a point I made earlier this week at a cross-community meeting in Downpatrick Methodist Church.

Sadly, some of the Churches themselves bring little credit to Christianity.

There have been too many church disputes, when rows spill into the public domain, often following tip-offs to the media.

Church rows are as old as Christianity itself, but the task facing their members is to try to resolve disputes with grace and humility.

Sometimes, these qualities are spectacularly lacking, as in the recent case in the Armagh Presbytery, when the Rev Christina Bradley, from Portadown, was brought before a commission because of her publicly expressed views on same-sex marriage.

In a newspaper interview, she had welcomed the "Yes" vote in the Irish Republic as an ending to discrimination and had said, "This warm-heartedness is good to see in a world which is often a cold place as much for women in leadership, as it is for gay and lesbian people in Churches."

Instead of dealing with this in a more tactful manner, the Presbyterian Commission not only underlined that the minister had re-affirmed her views in line with traditional Church teaching on marriage, but also made sure that its findings were read out in her own church, while she looked on.

This led to private dismay within the Presbyterian Church at large, though hardly anyone has had the courage to raise his, or her, head publicly above the parapet in Northern Ireland to complain.

One notable exception is a letter writer to the Presbyterian Herald. He stated: "Recent events, reported extensively in the media, have informed the whole of Ireland that our denomination operates in Portadown something that is in effect stifling debate, crushing dissent and silencing dialogue."

Pointing out that such actions could be judged by the vast majority of Irish people "as being unworthy of followers of Christ", the letter writer asked: "Did no one involved in this 'purge' think of the damage that could be done to the missional outreach of our Church?"

Is it any surprise many people are turned off by such behaviour? No doubt the Armagh Commission felt duty-bound to adhere to Church teaching, but it should have handled it much better.

The reasons for declining Church attendances are complex, but "own goals" do not help to bring people back to the pews, when they have already voted with their feet and walked away.

Belfast Telegraph

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