Belfast Telegraph

Lecturer sacked by Presbyterian college over radio remarks says he may quit Church

Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick
Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

An academic who was dismissed from his teaching position at Union Theological College in Belfast last week has said he is considering leaving the Presbyterian Church.

Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick said he is now on Jobseeker's Allowance after a Church disciplinary panel found him guilty of "gross misconduct" as a result of comments he made to BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme in June last year.

A final appeal against the college's decision to dismiss him will be heard in the first week of next month.

"I don't hold out much hope of the appeal being successful. By mid-May I will know the conclusion, but leaving the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will certainly be an option for me," he said.

"I've devoted my whole working life to the Presbyterian Church and I'd leave with a heavy heart, but why would I stay in an organisation that has sacked me?"

Prof Kirkpatrick was a guest on a BBC NI Talkback panel in June 2018 after the Presbyterian Church's decision to loosen ties to the Church of Scotland. That was mainly due to the Church of Scotland's more liberal attitude to same-sex relationships.

He was subsequently suspended by the Presbyterian Church from his lecturing post at Union Theological College for his comments.

"I had been asked, theoretically, that if there was a practising gay student in a class on Christian ethics, what would I feel if they were being told they were indulging in a sinful practice?," he said.

"I said I'd be horrified. I never criticised the Church's viewpoint. I would have thought, at third level education, students should receive a spectrum of views. Students should be broadened.

"Under the evangelical conservatism of a right-wing regime that only wants to put across the mission of the Church we've got a problem."

Earlier this month Queen's University revealed it is to formally end its link with the Presbyterian-run college.

"The issues have been signposted by the university for some time," said Prof Kirkpatrick.

"Issues have been flagged up at reviews over the past four years - what could be improved, what should be improved and what must be improved. Union College failed to react and has never signed up to the university's equality and diversity policy.

"I'm not looking to be a martyr, but almost 40 Presbyterians were approached to speak last year when the General Assembly issues arose.

"They were frightened for their jobs, frightened about the publicity.

"There's certainly a fear factor in lots of Presbyterians who have been sympathetic to me. They're horrified with the direction of travel within the Church," he added.

"Even a couple of years ago I couldn't see myself ever leaving my position. Now I'm on Jobseeker's Allowance and that's quite a change for me.

"I saw my job as an educationalist who opened minds but I've been banging my head against a brick wall.

"I've had Catholic students come to me and say they keep their heads down in the college. This is 2019, not 1619.

"There has always been another issue with transparency of appointments to Union College. Teaching staff have been male and Presbyterian and the university has had no say in part-time staff. That was never addressed, so while I regret it I understand the view of Queen's that the partnership had to come to an end.

"In two years' time, with only 30 third year students, Union College will seem a very hollow place."

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland said it would "be improper for us to comment in detail at this time".

"While we would obviously differ with many of the points he sought to make, to respond to them in any specific way while a personnel matter is still ongoing, and subject to due process, would be very inappropriate," it said.

"With regard to wider issues relating to Union Theological College, the college is and always has been part of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, fully under the control of the Church's General Assembly.

"We were naturally disappointed and deeply regret this week's decision by Queen's University, Belfast.

"In our understanding this was largely because there was only one remaining college teaching undergraduate courses in the Institute of Theology at Queen's, which was Union Theological College.

"In the view of Queen's this made the Institute no longer viable with regard to diversity.

"Moving forward, the college will continue to ensure that students from home and overseas will benefit from theological study in a warm and positive Christian environment, being taught by academic theologians of the highest standing, some of whom are indeed world leaders in their field."

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