Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: News is latest blow in torrid year for Presbyterianism

Union Theological College in Belfast
Union Theological College in Belfast
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

The announcement by Queen's University that it is severing academic ties with Union Theological College is the latest development in an "annus horribilis" - a horrible year - for the Presbyterian Church.

It began last June when the General Assembly confirmed its policy of not giving communion to LGBT members, and not baptising their children.

This led to strong criticism of the Church's allegedly harsh attitude, and it received more for its decision to stop annual exchange visits between the Scottish and Irish Moderators to Belfast and Edinburgh because of the Scots' more liberal views on same-sex issues.

This led to an early departure from the Belfast Assembly by the Scottish Moderator, Rev Dr Susan Brown, who was visibly upset.

Lord Alderdice, an elder for 30 years, resigned in protest and said that denying baptism to a child because the parents are gay was "obnoxious," and that cutting off ties with the Scottish Church was "disastrous". This decision was seen as an unforgivable snub to the Scottish Church, which had been the 'Mother Church' to Irish Presbyterians from the early 17th century.

More than 230 members signed a letter to the Belfast Telegraph on July 6 and said that they shared the "profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger being expressed in the wake of the 2018 General Assembly".

Last September, more than 600 Presbyterians signed a letter to the Moderator, saying that they would not be silenced in the row over same-sex relationships.

In the meantime, there was more dramatic news for the Presbyterians when Queen's announced on June 27 that it was reviewing its links with Union College.

The university has now confirmed it will sever its links with the institution.

Queen's will no longer award degrees in theology after the current students finish and term finishes at the end of August. This could result in a significant loss of revenue for Union College.

Following reviews in 2016 and 2018, the university had criticisms of the college, including the "highly problematic" situation of a single denomination providing all teaching in theology, and a lack of female teachers.

The Church has expressed its disappointment, but people outside the college are asking if the management did not see this coming, in an age of multi-culturalism and gender equality.

The Church is talking about "exciting days ahead" for the college, but what exactly does this mean?

To put things in perspective, the Church makes an important contribution to society at home and abroad.

The vast majority of Presbyterians are decent people trying to live out their faith, but many of them pay little enough attention to what goes on at the Assembly, or at Presbytery. However the adverse publicity has been such in the past year that many are wondering how the Church has brought itself to its current unenviable position.

Sadly, the Church has moved steadily to the right in recent years and the former strength of Presbyterianism as "a broad church" is being steadily eroded.

Recently the Church unveiled a visitor exhibition which underlined the cutting edge of Presbyterianism throughout history. It included pictures of the sister of Henry Joy McCracken as a reminder of the radicalism of the Church in the late 18th century.

However many are asking where that radicalism and cutting edge is today as Presbyterianism struggles to find its place as a vibrant and relevant Church that is able to meet adequately the challenges of 21st century life in an increasingly secular society.

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