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Thought for the weekend: General Assembly in danger of becoming a new Inquisition

Allen Sleith, Hillsborough Presbyterian Church

Wow!" said a thoughtful agnostic friend of mine, who often darkens a church door. "Has the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) become the Inquisition? Is that the grinding of an ancient drawbridge I hear slamming shut on its rusty hinges?"

A series of decisions taken at last week's General Assembly lit the blue touch paper, with sparks showering off in all directions. Some people have already been badly burned. Many have expressed their shock, dismay, anger and sadness at what they consider a stance that poses as counter-cultural but is likely counter-productive.

There was a moment of supreme irony on Wednesday afternoon when, after voting to break formal ties with the Church of Scotland, PCI's mother church, the Assembly was reminded that an evening celebration entitled Building Relationships would take place. Even as gifted a satirist as Soren Kierkegaard would struggle to match that.

Last week's decisions to break with the Church of Scotland, recommend barring same-sex couples from full communicant membership and their children from being baptised, plus declining participation in inter-faith worship at certain civic events, are the outcomes of an increasingly separatist theology that prides itself on its reassertion of Reformed scholasticism.

It claims to be based on a covenant, but it's closer to a conditional contract and is set on a crusade to purge the church. Gerhard Forde used the term 'fundagelicalism' to describe such an ethos, in which glad tidings are drowned out by the sound of grim chidings.

At its worst, three main phenomena - Biblicism, pietism and legalism - together form a triad of mutually reinforcing distortions, in which each is an inadequate version of a better counterpart.

Biblicism treats the Bible like a dictation device or a logarithm table rather than an inspired library through which the Triune God dynamically and dramatically works salvation. Pietism is that self-absorbed spirituality which is a pale shadow of faith in God as the Holy Loving Other. Legalism seeks to legislate for as much of life as possible, a controlling mindset far removed from the free and freeing grace of Christ, in which liberation isn't license.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had a phrase for the Protestantism of his day - "bible black and cavern cold" - a more sinister edge to the expression 'darkening a church door'.

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