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Alf McCreary: Why Presbyterian Church should listen to critics rather than circle the wagons

By Alf McCreary

Once again the Presbyterian Church has been making the headlines as the suspension of one of its eminent academics from his duties at Union Theological College continues.

The Reverend Dr Laurence Kirkpatrick, the highly respected Professor of Church History, was suspended from his post on June 25.

No explanation was given by the college or the Church, so people were left wondering why this step was taken.

Was it because of his comments on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme on June 13, when he said of the staff at the college, "I am, personally, totally conscious that at graduation we must look like escapees from an old people's home - getting on, (an) exclusively male full-time faculty"?

This could be taken as a highly individualistic opinion from someone who has been on the Union College staff for a long time, which gives him a first-hand experience of the situation there.

It is important to underline also that he described his views as personal.

His remarks seemed mild enough to outsiders. They appeared to be meant jocularly rather than as a severe critical condemnation of the college.

However, is it possible that his personal remarks riled other members of the college staff who objected to being described in this way?

This leads to another question. Was there any connection between Prof Kirkpatrick's remarks on BBC Talkback and his suspension soon afterwards?

If this was so, and we can only speculate in light of no further information from the college or Church, this was a denial of the professor's freedom of speech.

David Ford, the former Alliance leader and a Presbyterian elder, described the college's treatment of Prof Kirkpatrick as "bizarre", and many people will agree with him.

The suspension of a senior academic in any institute of higher education is a serious matter that worries academics the world over - and all others who value free speech.

Prof Kirkpatrick's suspension was followed by an announcement from Queen's University that it was reviewing its links with Union College.

This development was almost inevitable, given the suspension of a senior member of the college.

A Queen's report is expected within the next few weeks. People inside and outside the Church will be keen to find out the views of such an august body as Queen's, which is mindful of its obligations to support academic programmes which are fit for purpose in a world where human rights, individual protection and gender equality are of paramount importance.

People may also want to know the number of new students who are opting for a career in the Presbyterian ministry, as well as how many are studying theology at Union College, and how many of these are females.

There may be dramatic developments in the next few weeks, but in the meantime we are left in the dark as the college and the Church are effectively saying nothing when you read between the lines of the statements.

To outsiders, this may seem an ecclesiastical storm in a tea cup, but it is much more than that. It is part of the ongoing battle for the heart and soul of the Presbyterian Church.

Even though the hardliners have always had a strong influence, it remained a broad church until relatively recently, when it was taken over almost entirely by the fundamentalists.

The Presbyterian Church's hardline stance on same-sex issues and its refusal to baptise the children of LGBT couples has put off many people, as well as its lack of graciousness to the Church of Scotland, with which exchange of Moderatorial visits has been stopped.

The tragedy is that instead of listening to its critics, who are trying to help, the Church is circling the wagons and behaving as if only it has the truth.

It is no wonder that some people have lost faith in the Church, and who can blame them? I am still a member, criticising from within, but I understand why others are voting with their feet and going elsewhere.

The Presbyterian Church, which has a noble dissenting history, still needs dissenters and should not driving them out.

An historically dissenting church which does not tolerate dissent is losing its way.

Belfast Telegraph

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