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Why our differing views must be debated with real dignity

By Alf McCreary

Published 06/06/2015

Presbyterian Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Ian McNie
Presbyterian Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Ian McNie

Tolerance is a two-way street, declared the new Presbyterian Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Ian McNie, during his address at the opening night of the General Assembly last week.

In doing so, he cut to the heart of the current controversies on the Ashers court case, the same-sex referendum and other matters involving Church and gay issues.

Dr McNie was not asking for special treatment, but he was reinforcing the point that is deeply felt by many Christians who believe that they have a right to the tolerance of their views, just like anyone else.

In reaffirming the Church's commitment to "the Biblical and historical position of marriage", he also recognised society's right to express its opinion. However, he underlined that the Church had "the right to expect the same level and proportion of tolerance afforded to us that other groups expect to be afforded to them".

His views mirrored those of a dozen or so people of all ages whose opinion I sought just before the General Assembly began.

Predictably, all of them were sympathetic to Ashers, and disapproving of same-sex marriage, but what impressed me was the tone of their replies.

There was no rancour, but rather a quiet statement of their carefully-considered points of view.

This was in sharp contrast to some of the ignorant abuse levelled at the Church in recent statements by some of those who support same-sex and the gay lobby.

One of the most important speeches at the Assembly was made by the Very Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, convenor of the Presbyterians' Council for Church in Society.

He said: "This Church must think hard, and rigorously, about how to present our convictions to a society which is less inclined to accept core Biblical teaching, and how those convictions are to be worked out compassionately and graciously in a myriad of different circumstances.

"We are simply arguing that people who have reasonable and deeply-held convictions be allowed to express them in a reasonable way, in every sphere of life."

One cannot be fairer than that, and it is important that public and private debate on these matters should be conducted with dignity and understanding on all sides.

This year's Assembly dealt with many administrative issues, which do not make for riveting headlines, but they are important.

Sometimes it is easy to overlook the work of the Churches at home and abroad as they try to bring comfort, hope and practical support to all kinds of people. They deserve credit for doing so.

Despite all the good works, there is also a sense of the Church being under sustained attack, and therefore a need to remain strong at heart. This was underlined by the outgoing Moderator, the Very Rev Dr Michael Barry, who referred to an uncertainty experienced by some Presbyterians, as society questioned and rejected their teaching and values.

His answer was "to stand clearly and firmly on the Scriptures". He also said: "We will face opposition from the world in which we live. We will find that we are in the minority, but we do not lose heart."

Sometimes the Church as a dedicated minority can be the Church at its best. Once it tries to be popular at the expense of core principles, that will be the time to close the doors to its timeless message of renewal and hope.

Belfast Telegraph

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