Presbyterian leader 'heartbroken' at vote to loosen Scottish Church ties
The leader of Ireland's Presbyterians has said he is "heartbroken" after his Church voted to stop inviting the Moderator of its sister Church in Scotland to the annual general assembly.
As divisions over same-sex marriage deepen, Presbyterians in Belfast will continue to refuse to send the Irish Moderator to the assembly in Edinburgh.
The decision was taken late yesterday afternoon at the Belfast General Assembly when delegates voted by the decisive margin of 255-171 to discontinue the long-established practice of inviting their respective Moderators to each other's annual Assembly.
The decision was also a snub, perhaps unintentional but nevertheless symbolic, to the recently-elected Irish Moderator - the Rt Reverend Dr Charles McMullen - whose theme for his year of office is 'building relationships'.
Immediately after the vote, Dr McMullen said: "As someone to whom building relationships has been key in my life, I stand before you know heavily burdened and heartbroken."
The dispute centres on the Scottish Church's more liberal view on same-sex relationships and its decision to allow people in same-sex relationships to serve as ministers and deacons in congregations which approve of them doing so.
Earlier, the Scottish Moderator, the Rt Reverend Dr Susan Brown, made an impassioned plea for unity of visitations and friendship.
She said: "The truth is that in Christ we remain a family whether or not you put in an appearance in Scotland. But how can we be effective in working closely with one another if we do not talk to each other?"
The principal clerk of the Church of Scotland, Rev Dr George Whyte, told the assembly after the vote: "We have no choice but to leave.
"We will continue to pray for you, and if at some time in the future you change your mind, our door is always open to you."
The Scottish delegates left Church House immediately after the vote, and some bystanders claimed that the Scottish Moderator seemed visibly upset.
The Irish Church has refused to send its Moderator to Scotland for the last three years, while continuing to extend an invitation to the Scottish Moderator to come to Belfast.
Yesterday's vote was partly intended to clear up this situation. Delegates were asked to chose between continuing Moderatorial visits, or to abandon that link. They decisively chose the latter.
There were impassioned speeches on both sides of the debate, with several former Moderators lining up on both sides.
The Rt Reverend Trevor Morrow, who has spent most of his ministry in the Irish Republic said: "This decision is a defining moment for our Church.
"It will determine whether we embrace or not a separatist ecclesiology.
"The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has never been separatist in its ecclesiology.
"The Scottish Kirk needs to hear where we believe that they are in serious moral error, but they too need to challenge us as to how over the years, in the context of Ulster and its sectarian divisions, we have not pursued justice, or practised grace to the detriment of our Gospel witness.
"This requires relationships, which is our own Moderator's theme during his year in office."
Another former Moderator - the Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, principal of Union Theological College - said: "The Church of Scotland Theological Forum Report of 2017 fails to give and adequate and solid foundation for the approval of same-sex marriage.
"The conclusion of the report that same-sex marriage may be supported and commended by the Church lacks a robust biblical and theological rationale, and it advocates a view of Scripture which is at odds with our confessional commitment.
"In offering our critique of what we believe to be an inadequate report, we do so with the prayer that our brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland would flourish and grow by returning to the clear teaching of Holy Scriptures, and the great tradition of the Reformed Churches."