Presbyterian Church is so hung-up over same-sex row it has forgotten meaning of love
The removal of David Ford from his role as an elder is an intolerant, retrograde step, says Fionola Meredith
If it was the Presbyterian Church's intention to parade itself as a petty, retrograde and intolerant institution by forcing David Ford out of his position as elder in his own congregation, then it has achieved its mission - and then some.
Mr Ford's inexcusable sin? To support same-sex civil marriage. To be clear, the former Alliance Party leader wasn't demanding that Presbyterians fling open the doors of their churches and invite same-sex couples to stand before the altar in holy matrimony. He endorsed the view that gay people should be allowed to get married in civil ceremonies, and that there should be legislation to that effect.
Apparently, it was this belief that proved so intolerable to his fellow elders at Second Donegore Presbyterian Church, near Templepatrick, that they refused to work with him.
To make matters worse, the Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Frank Sellar, is backing the decision to remove Mr Ford. He praised the ruling by the Judicial Commission, the highest court of appeal for the Presbyterian Church In Ireland, describing it as "carefully balanced".
Remarkably, he also expressed his hope that the verdict was "something affirming to the various hurt parties", adding that "it's not simply one side or another that are exclusively hurt".
Really? I can see why Mr Ford is hurt: getting kicked out of his role in the church because others refuse to tolerate his beliefs must be very painful. But I fail to understand why he should find anything affirmative about this sorry situation, or indeed, why any of his opponents are in distress. They won, didn't they? They removed a principled man from a post he has held for almost 30 years. No amount of unctuous rhetoric from Dr Sellar will change that ugly fact.
Perhaps the Presbyterian Church considers this de facto 'sacking' of Mr Ford a consolidation of its implacable opposition to marriage equality, and as such, a positive move. After all, it had already made an example of the Rev Christina Bradley in 2015, when she had the temerity to praise the positive result of the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage.
Rev Bradley said that such "warm-heartedness is good to see in a world which often is a cold place for women in leadership as it is for gay and lesbian people in churches. I welcome the yes vote".
She got a sharp reminder of just how chilly it could be when she was hauled before a committee of the Armagh Presbytery to account for herself, and subsequently had to sit through the reading out of a report in her own church, which retracted her comment. I bet the pew felt like perma-frost to Rev Bradley that day.
So, if the Church is tempted to see this as a moral victory, it is ridiculously short-sighted and self-defeating.
This decision does not demonstrate leadership, solidarity or unity. Rather it shows that the Church cares more about defending hard-line ideology than it does about the right of parishioners to formulate their own ethical beliefs, according to their personal conscience.
What Presbyterians seem to forget, is that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are not interested in their little congregational power wars, or their internal hierarchy of 'justice'. They will simply see a Church that appears so hostile to gay people and so bizarrely hung-up on the issue of same-sex marriage that even a deeply committed, long-standing governor can be slung out for daring to think differently about the matter.
The David Ford debacle reminded me of a letter I received in 2012 from an old school friend, now living in London. Outraged at the Presbyterian stance on same-sex marriage, he wished to sever his own long-standing links with the Church.
Effectively, he wanted to excommunicate himself. I don't know if he ever succeeded - or indeed if that sort of theological severance is even possible - but his sense of revulsion and disappointment was clear. If this was how the Presbyterians defined themselves, he was having none of it. Of course, Dr Sellar, the elders at Second Donegore and, indeed, any other members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, are entitled to oppose same-sex marriage. But there is absolutely no reason - other than crude intolerance - why they should punish and exclude those who disagree.
I don't hear compassion or grace in their words. I don't hear inclusion or mercy. People are still getting beaten up on the streets of Belfast for being gay. Let's see a little more Christian love in action.