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Alf McCreary: Liberal-minded Presbyterians must fight to save the Church from itself

By Alf McCreary

Any Presbyterian who thought the crisis over same-sex issues would fade away quietly during the summer has been given a sharp awakening by a letter with 602 signatures delivered to the Moderator, Dr Charles McMullen.

It was organised by the Creative Conversation Group of Presbyterians, who are disturbed by the judgmentalism in the Church, as well as its lack of grace and inclusivity.

The letter was sent to 80 members for signing, but the signatories grew by more then 700%, proving that very many more than 600 Presbyterians are severely critical of the Church’s leadership.

The Right-wing drift has been taking place for years, with the dwindling band of liberals unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

Matters came to a head at the General Assembly in June, when delegates re-affirmed the Church’s policy of not allowing same-sex couples to receive Communion and refusing to baptise their children.

This led to a widespread public controversy, with Lord Alderdice, an elder for more than 30 years, resigning from the Church in protest. “This is a leadership that is trying to close things down,” he said.

Tensions were raised further by a letter from the Church asserting the authority of the General Assembly and seeking to discourage any debate that might give rise to “scandal injurious to the purity or unease of the Church”.

The original word used was ‘contumacy’, from the Latin ‘contumacia’, meaning ‘a stubborn refusal to obey authority’. That is very heavy-handed indeed.

This then led to many more people accusing the Church of trying to curtail free speech, and there was — and still is — widespread dismay because the highly respected Union College Professor of Church History, the Rev Laurence Kirkpatrick, was suspended from his post without any reason given in public, then or now.

The recent letter from the Creative Conversation Group to the Moderator underlined that Presbyterians have the God-given right to form their own views, according to their interpretation of Scripture, and that “such respectful debate is healthy and should be encouraged”.

However, the letter was greeted tetchily in a Presbyterian Church reply expressing disappointment that its contents had been given to the media and not confined privately for the attention of the Moderator.

It is absurd to think that a letter signed by 602 Presbyterians should not be made public, and the critical reaction of the Church to this step merely underlined the claim from Lord Alderdice and others that the leadership wants to curtail public debate on such important issues.

The Church leadership claims that there are many opportunities for dialogue within Presbyterianism, including the General Assembly. However, the Creative Conversation Group letter notes that the Doctrine Report was presented to the Assembly “without full and proper consideration for debate”, or consideration for its public impact and pastoral considerations. The turgidly written report was not an easy read.

However, the anger among Presbyterians lingers on because of the way in which the General Assembly snubbed their Scottish brethren by voting not to invite their Moderators to the Irish General Assembly and not sending Irish Moderators to Scotland because the Scots are more liberal on same-sex issues.

One fears that the Right-wing takeover of the Irish Church is almost complete, and if liberals want to win back the centre ground, they will have be prepared to fight, fight and fight again strongly for what they believe in.

Have they the courage and stamina to do so? I hope so.

In the meantime the Moderator, whose motto is ‘building relationships’, could try to use any influence a Moderator now has left, by urging the Irish Church to rebuild the bridge to Scotland, to apologise and to invite back the Scottish Moderators to Ireland. The Irish Presbyterian leadership might also consider how the Church can prepare itself to elect its first female Moderator in this, the 21st century, when most other main churches and organisations have women in high office, and to show more of the grace and all-embracing love that outsiders expect from a Christian organisation.

Will this happen?

Don’t hold your breath, but liberal Presbyterians should never give up their hard-won rights as dissenters.

Belfast Telegraph

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