Gay Presbyterians fearful of coming out, says ex-Moderator
The Presbyterian Church's ruling body has been told "there are a reasonable number sitting here amongst us who are gay" and was urged not to be dismissive or judgmental of people of same-sex attraction.
Around 1,000 ministers and elders from the Church's 500-plus congregations across Ireland are attending the General Assembly in Belfast for worship, prayer, celebration and discussion.
Last year's General Assembly became embroiled in controversy after the decision was taken to deny full Church membership to gay people, and to refuse baptism to their children.
It also decided to no longer send its Moderator to the Scottish General Assembly, nor invite its leader to the annual Belfast General Assembly, because of the Scottish Church's more liberal attitude to same-sex marriage.
Yesterday a former Moderator, the Very Reverend Dr John Dunlop, told delegates that "if this Assembly is composed of a normal cross-section of people, there are a reasonable number sitting here amongst us who are gay or same-sex attracted, as evangelicals like to put it".
"It may be that they have never told many people, or indeed anyone, for they don't know what other people might say, and how it might affect their ministry or their position in the Church," he said.
"There are probably others among us who have family members, sons, daughters, brothers or sisters who are gay, and you may be like some Presbyterian parents I know, who do not know who they dare tell, as they don't know what the consequences might be for them and their children.
"Some hope that their children may meet someone of faith whom they love and who loves them so that they do not live alone for the rest of their lives. They worry about telling anyone this."
Another former Moderator, the Rev Dr Alastair Dunlop, urged members of the General Assembly not to be dismissive or judgmental of people of same-sex attraction.
He said: "People matter to God, all people, including our own members and families with same-sex attraction.
"They deserve the best we can offer in terms of genuine listening, prayerful support, and the intentional ordering of our congregations as real communities of welcome, grace and love."
He said that the Church members' statements "whether from the pulpit or on social media must reflect these values in tone and language".
"Tone is important, for we are followers of Jesus Christ called to witness to our whole secular island about the good news, the offer to all of forgiveness, salvation and hope," he added.
Dr Dunlop pointed out that the Presbyterian Church "has had pastoral guidelines on homosexuality for a dozen years, but how many ministers have drawn attention to them, and how many Kirk Sessions have discussed them"?
"Anecdotal evidence suggests not many. They are outdated now, and part of the remit given to our task group is to update them and present them in a different form to sit alongside what is produced by PCI on the credible profession of faith," he said.
Dr Dunlop is convenor of an implementation task group which was set up last year by the General Assembly to look at how training can be provided for Church members on the theology of the PCI's understanding of "a credible profession of faith and the pastoral guidelines on homosexuality".
The group was also directed to provide "a resource with a clear pastoral tone to be used by Kirk Sessions".
Dr Dunlop said: "The task group is more optimistic than when we began last July when the job appeared somewhat of a poisoned chalice. We are making progress on a resource that will benefit every Kirk Session, as well as those dealing with issues around same-sex attraction."
Another task group is working on a report on decision-making and the place of dissent in the Church, while the Assembly has also approved the establishment of a third to produce a report to try to clarify "the vows taken at admission to full membership and at baptism".
The reports of the task groups will eventually provide guidance to Kirk Sessions on the complex issues of same-sex relationships, full Church membership, infant baptism and decision making and dissent.