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Steven Smyrl: The investigation into my personal life by the Presbytery Commission left me feeling demeaned. I wondered where was God in any of it... I quickly realised that it wasn't God who was to blame

In conversation with Steven Smyrl

Tough time: Steven Smyrl was removed as a Presbyterian elder
Tough time: Steven Smyrl was removed as a Presbyterian elder
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

Steven Smyrl is a Dublin-based genealogy expert and a former elder in Sandymount United Presbyterian and Methodist congregation. He was removed from his role as elder because of his same-sex marriage.

Q. Can you tell us something about your background?

A. I was born in Lincolnshire in 1965, the son of David and Valerie Smyrl. My dad worked for Curry's Electricals. Soon after my younger brother, Kit, was born, my parents separated and later divorced. My dad remarried and, in 1974, moved to Scotland, where he owned a fishing boat and a hotel. I have two half-brothers.

All of my late father's family came from Northern Ireland. My dad and every generation before him were born in Belfast, back to William Smyrl, from near Coagh in Co Tyrone, who arrived in Belfast in the 1860s to try his luck in the Big Smoke. He was quite successful, carving out a niche in buying up failing hotels and hostelries, turning their fortunes around and then selling them on.

With Kit, I run a genealogy business in Dublin, Massey & King. We specialise in providing genealogy and beneficiary-tracing services to the legal profession throughout Ireland. I have a long-standing interest in the history of Protestant dissent in and around Dublin. In 2009, my research was published under the title Dictionary of Dublin Dissent: Dublin's Protestant Dissenting Meetinghouses, 1660-1920.

I live in a leafy Victorian Dublin suburb with my partner of 20 years, Roy Stanley, a librarian. In 2007, we bought a home together, even though we both knew our situation would be precarious if either one of us should fall ill, or even die, because we had no legal protection as a couple.

Shortly after the law changed in 2010, we entered into a civil partnership. And then, after the overwhelming success of the Republic's 2015 marriage equality referendum, we were able to commit to each other in marriage in November last year.

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My mother taught me compassion, my father the importance of self-sufficiency and my maternal grandmother taught me thriftiness. I am a Christian who happens to be gay. Until recently, I served as an elder in Sandymount United Presbyterian and Methodist congregation in Dublin, but was removed by a Presbytery Commission because of my same-sex marriage.

Q. How and when did you come to faith?

A. Lily, my late maternal grandmother, instilled faith in me as a wee boy. I saw that her faith wasn't abstract, or something that she talked about endlessly, but rather it was something practical, something she lived. She died last year, aged 102, outliving her only child, my mother, who died aged just 72 in 2014. Having witnessed how even that great knock hadn't undermined the depth of my grandmother's faith, I was deeply humbled.

Q. Does this faith play a real part in your daily life?

A. I follow my grandmother's example by living out my faith in ways that do not turn others away. Too many present their faith in ways that suffocate and deter.

Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith?

A. Several times. Few of us are ever prepared for the problems that life throws our way. Too often, it's an unexpected, worldly crisis which causes us to question our faith. But such events can also galvanise, making us stronger. A number of years ago, my mother was diagnosed with an inactive brain tumour. It suddenly began growing in 2013 and she died a year later. It shook me to the core. It's this kind of challenge that would cause a crisis of faith in even the most ardent Christian.

Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?

A. My anger certainly welled up at the Presbytery Commission's intrusive investigation into my marriage and personal life.

Their unnecessarily oppressive tactics left me feeling demeaned as a human being. Astounded that a Christian Church could inflict such hurt, I was left wondering where was God in any of it. But I quickly realised that it wasn't God who was to blame.

Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church?

A. What is annoying is that, while there is so much to celebrate about Irish Presbyterianism, it is constantly overshadowed by its obsession with sex and sexuality. As I have said in this newspaper previously, the PCI's current fixation with homosexuality is destroying its credibility as a voice of Reformed Christian witness.

Q. Are you afraid to die? Can you look beyond death?

A. We should all have a healthy fear of death. God gave us life to live and wants us to live it to the full. I do find Ecclesiastes 3:1-9 helpful, though: as the writer says: "There is a time for everything."

I think that the notion of Hell as fiery is allegorical. More likely, death without any form of resurrection is the real Hell. I certainly believe in resurrection, but I've no idea what form it will take.

Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?

A. I don't like to judge. I'm obviously concerned about those religious sects that can be destructive and harmful. We should remember though that, while Christians, Muslims and Jews all venerate the same God, it would be dishonest to deny that aspects of the character of that same shared God cannot be seen, too, in other world religions.

Q. Would you be comfortable in stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn something from other people?

A. Stepping out how far? Even in the face of what I've recently endured at the hands of a number of over-zealous fundamentalists, I wouldn't want to leave the Church to which I have been a committed and faithful member my entire adult life.

Yet, having said that, I'm always open to learn from other Christians and from other faiths. Not being willing to take the time to listen to others is hardly a Christian virtue.

Q. Do you think that the Churches here are fulfilling their mission?

A. We're returning immediately to being Christians not listening. The Churches, all of them, Protestant and Catholic alike, need to take stock.

It's not about turning our back on biblical truth, but accepting that the Bible comprises many books, some of which, without doubt, conflict.

How we interpret each must take account of the social and religious context of the time it was written.

The lack of such insight is what is emptying pews. When people attend church and the preacher's message actively diminishes the lives of those labelled as 'different', then they naturally fall away.

Q. Why are people turning their back on religion?

A. In their headlong rush to judge, too many in the long-established Churches lose sight of the central gospel message of "love thy neighbour". Telling youth to "like-it-or-lump-it" just doesn't wash anymore.

The current generation has learnt to question and to challenge and not to simply accept the status quo.

When our Church leaders finally grasp this, they may reverse the exodus.

Q. Has religion helped, or hindered, the people of Ireland?

A. Ireland's history has ensured that, until recent times, a toxic mix of religion and politics has prevailed, insinuating itself into every aspect of life. Thankfully, this is fast fading in the Republic, but I fear there's a good distance yet to go in Northern Ireland.

Christianity will finally have proved itself in the north when it fully accepts the difference between Church and state. This means allowing those who resolutely choose a life without religion to live it without interference from Christians, or indeed any other faith group.

Q. Where do you feel closest to God?

A. Anywhere there is solitude and quiet. There isn't enough of it these days. Silence now seems to be a void that has to be filled with a din.

Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?

A. I'm a genealogist, so leaving nothing to chance and out to impress genealogists of the future, it will state my full name and date and place of birth and death - and my occupation.

Q. Finally, have you any major regrets?

A. Yes, I sometimes lack patience in my dealings with others. And I find delegating too stressful, so I tend to take on too much.

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