Belfast Telegraph

Former Presbyterian moderator should lose role, says elder ousted over sexuality

Steven Smyrl was removed from role as elder because of his same-sex marriage
Steven Smyrl was removed from role as elder because of his same-sex marriage
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

A Presbyterian elder who was dismissed for being gay has called on a former church moderator to lose his role as a deputy lieutenant for Belfast.

Steven Smyrl lost his position of 12 years as an elder with Christ Church in Dublin’s Sandymount area after complaints that he was in a same-sex marriage.

He has claimed a church commission which investigated his case acted in “an oppressive and vindictive manner” and that he felt bullied to the point of depression.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has said it rejects “these attacks on the character of highly respected ministers and elders of the Church”.

It denies all claims of bullying and said its decision about Mr Smyrl was in line with the settled position of the church that being in a same-sex relationship is not compatible with being a church elder.

Mr Smyrl said the very Rev Dr Frank Sellar, an ex-moderator, was the most senior representative on the church commission that investigated his case at the time.

Last year, he was appointed as the deputy to the Lord Lieutenant for Belfast Fionnuala Jay O’Boyle.

Mr Smyrl, who is originally from Belfast, has now written open letters to the Lord Lieutenant, the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

Mr Smyrl said his treatment “must not be condoned” by the Lieutenancy and that the PCI policy of “demeaning the lives of gay people should surely preclude any of its ordained members from serving in the Lieutenancy.”

A spokesperson for the Lord Lieutenant said it would be inappropriate to comment on Mr Smyrl’s letter.

In 2018, the Presbyterian Church voted at its General Assembly to exclude same-sex couples from taking communion and for the children of same-sex couples from being baptised.

In Mr Smyrl’s letter to current Moderator, Dr William Henry, said the policy had rendered the church “an unwelcoming, hostile environment for those who grapple with issues of sexuality and gender.”

In a statement the Presbyterian Church said: “From time to time the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is called to deal with sensitive and challenging issues. In these situations, the people involved on all sides may feel hurt and disappointment with either the process or the outcome. This is clearly the case for those involved in this particular matter, which is about the right of the Church to set and interpret the standards it requires of its own ordained leadership.

“Over the past number weeks Mr Steven Smyrl has continued to make a series of allegations and accusations which, as the Church has previously stated, have no basis in fact. Mr Smyrl has chosen to go further, by attacking and seeking to discredit a number of named individuals. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland rejects these attacks on the character of highly respected ministers and elders of the Church.

“It is one thing to disagree with the decisions of a judicial process of the Church, it is quite another to question the integrity of the individuals involved in that process. Much of Mr Smyrl’s ongoing campaign seems to be a clear attempt to distract from the real issue: the Church’s clear and settled position that being in either a same-sex civil partnership, or same-sex marriage, is not compatible with being in the ordained leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. This does not deny the right of an individual to enter into such a relationship, but it is asserting the right of the Church to set and interpret the standards it requires of its own ordained leadership.”

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said the issue was a matter for the Lieutenancy.

Meanwhile, the Irish Senator and gay rights campaigner David Norris spoke out against the removal of both Mr Smyrl as an elder as well as a Church of Ireland organist in Co Sligo who also married his male partner.

Quoted in the Irish Times he said a controlling, right wing conservative “clique” in both churches had started in Northern Ireland.

“They do control the Presbyterian Church,” he said, noting the Presbyterian Church had also cut ties with the Church of Scotland for being too liberal on same-sex issues.

“Presbyterianism started in Scotland. What has happened in Northern Ireland is quite extraordinary,” said Mr Norris.

“The tail is wagging the dog. It flies in the face of the words of Jesus Christ and his ‘suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me’,” he said.

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