Belfast Telegraph

Presbyterian Church's treatment of academic 'like Inquisition'

Laurence Kirkpatrick worked at Union Theological College for 22 years
Laurence Kirkpatrick worked at Union Theological College for 22 years

By David Young

A leading Scottish academic said yesterday that the Presbyterian Church's treatment of a Belfast professor of theology reminded him of "the Inquisition".

Rev Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick (62), who worked at Union Theological College for 22 years, was dismissed after being found guilty of "gross misconduct" by a disciplinary panel of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which runs the institution.

His dismissal as Professor of Church History came after he told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme that he would be "horrified" if students were taught that same-sex relationships were sinful.

Respected academic Ian Hazlett, Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow, supervised Professor Kirkpatrick's doctoral studies there.

Prof Hazlett told the Belfast Telegraph that "Laurence Kirkpatrick's dismissal from his academic post by non-academic churchmen will in no way damage his good standing and reputation, academic and religious, outside Ireland. Rather, it will enhance them".

The academic also said he felt that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland "seems to be turning itself into an exclusivist holiness sect, a ghetto increasingly devolved from evolving mainstream Christian tradition... thereby destined for contraction and marginalisation".

In a personal statement, he added: "The long, semi-secret plotting and public leaks putting psychological stress on Prof Kirkpatrick and his family reminded me in some respects of the Inquisition."

The Inquisition was an institution within the Catholic Church which for centuries was used to root out heresy and was notorious for the severity of its torture and widespread killings.

In its letter of dismissal to Professor Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterian Church said that his contribution to the Talkback programme had brought Union Theological College, and by association his employer the Church itself, into disrepute.

Prof Kirkpatrick, who told the Belfast Telegraph last month he was now on Jobseeker's Allowance, is appealing the decision by the Presbyterian Church to sack him.

He is also pursuing a claim of discrimination at an employment tribunal.

A Church spokesman said last night: "As with all employers, it is never appropriate to comment on any employment matter."

Last month Queen's University said that it intended to sever its links with Union College.

The Presbyterian-run college admits around 150 undergraduate students a year. It teaches Presbyterian theological students, and has currently no female academic staff or female students.

The decision by Queen's to break its ties with Union College means that the university will no longer award theology undergraduate degrees or postgraduate courses after the current students finish their programmes of study.

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