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Presbyterian Church may as well insert the word 'Free', so far to the Right has it travelled

Old enemy Ian Paisley would have no quibbles with its views on women in leadership and LGBT rights, says Fionola Meredith

What planet does the Presbyterian Church in Ireland live on? Because it doesn't appear to be the same one that I occupy. When it comes to benighted attitudes to women and gay people, it may as well be on the dark side of the Moon.

The problem with the Presbyterians, in my view, is that they are dominated by a rump of powerful, complacent old men who use obscure justifications for their fundamental hostility to women in leadership. The first female minister, Dr Ruth Patterson, was ordained over 40 years ago, yet women still make up only a tiny proportion of active ministers, and very few are nominated as elders. There have been no female candidates for ordination in the last three years and there has never been a woman Moderator.

The Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, principal of Union Theological College - the centre for ministerial training for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, where all the teaching staff happen to be male - does not support the ordination of women ministers.

Speaking this week on the BBC's Sunday Sequence programme, he said: "Personally, I'm a complementarian, which would say that all the ministry in the church is open to everyone and that a woman may do everything a non-ordained man may do, but in the specific role of teaching and preaching God's word, I believe that's reserved for men."

Complementarian, eh? Isn't that just a mealy-mouthed way of saying you don't want a woman in charge?

In remarkable defiance of simple logic, disappointing in an eminent theologian, Dr Carson apparently sees no connection between his opposition to female ministry and the fact that no women are coming forward to be ministers. He's sticking to his claim that "the door is wide open to women". As long as they know their proper place, of course.

As for the absence of female lecturers at the college, it's all the fault of the ladies themselves, bless them, for not being quite good enough. "We would love to have a woman on the faculty, it's just been the case that we haven't had any suitably qualified candidates," said Dr Carson.

Rev Cheryl Meban, a Presbyterian minister herself, felt inspired to speak out when last week's General Assembly was about to pass a resolution on abortion without even mentioning the word 'woman'. She asked: "How dehumanising is it to be systematically told that your voice and your opinion is not relevant and that it's not important for the rest of the church to hear what you have to say?"

It's no better if you happen to be gay. Since 2015, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has been in an almighty huff with the Church of Scotland, refusing to attend its General Assembly, after the mother church voted to allow people in same-sex civil partnerships to serve as ministers.

Now the Kirk has decided to apologise for its historically poor treatment of gay people, and to begin working towards conducting same-sex weddings. Cue long rants about "synagogues of Satan" and "modern re-paganisation" from their alienated offspring across the Irish Sea.

We shouldn't be surprised. This is the Church that orced David Ford, the former Alliance leader, out of his position as elder in his own congregation, simply because he endorsed the view that gay people should be allowed to get married in civil ceremonies. Dissent is not tolerated, it seems.

Rev Christina Bradley discovered that, to her cost, when she welcomed the positive result of the Irish referendum on gay marriage in 2015. She 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". Quite how icy it could be was made clear to Rev Bradley when she was brought before a committee of the Armagh Presbytery, and afterwards had to sit through the reading out of a report in her own church in which she toed the required Biblical line.

In 18th century Belfast, Presbyterians fought for the principles of enlightenment, equality and liberty, and supported Catholic emancipation. Rev Cheryl Meban's call for the need to find "gracious, courageous, loving ways of holding difference together" shows that those voices are not quite dead.

But it is bitterly ironic, in a week when there have been so many questions about the hardline religious proclivities of the DUP, and anxiety over the party's fitness to support Theresa May in government, that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland - the church that Ian Paisley tried to destroy - now seems intent on becoming a Paisleyite vision of itself.

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