Belfast Telegraph

Suspended Queen's lecturer 'faces sack' after Presbyterian college snub

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Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick
Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick
Union Theological College in Belfast
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The Presbyterian Church's theological college has removed a suspended lecturer's photograph from its website - prompting speculation that the long-standing staff member is about to be sacked.

Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick was suspended by Union Theological College, which runs all undergraduate degree courses in theology for Queen's University Belfast (QUB), following comments he made in the media about the ages of his employer's staff.

And now, in addition to not being included in the new academic year courses, Professor Kirkpatrick is the only full-time staff member whose picture has been replaced by a black silhouette on the college website.

The treatment of a minister who has given 22 years' service is understood to be a factor in QUB's decision to re-examine its links with Union Theological College.

In the coming weeks QUB is widely expected to announce its intention to sever its ties with the Botanic Avenue-sited institution.

When contacted by the Belfast Telegraph, Professor Kirkpatrick said: "The Church processes are in place. I'm suspended from all normal duties and I'm not allowed to talk about my employment."

Former Alliance leader David Ford, a Presbyterian church elder, said he can't understand the college's "bizarre" treatment of Professor Kirkpatrick.

"I was most surprised when I heard of the professor being suspended, because it appeared to me that the remarks he made were entirely within the bounds of conscience which are permitted to ministers," said the former Justice Minister. "If the college has now seen fit to remove his photo from the website, it does raise questions about the way they are treating him.

"As I understand it, Professor Kirkpatrick is still currently a member of staff."

The academic's suspension in June followed a letter from Rev Trevor Gribben, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's clerk of the General Assembly, warning all ministers against bringing the Church "into disrepute".

Professor Kirkpatrick was asked on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme on June 13 if there were any female lecturers at Union College, to which he replied: "Some part-time."

He added: "I am, personally, totally conscious that at graduation we must look like escapees from an old people's home - getting on, (an) exclusively male full-time faculty."

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the remarks angered some faculty members and led to the suspension on June 25 of Professor Kirkpatrick, a Presbyterian Minister who teaches Church History at Union Theological College.

A Presbyterian source, however, told the Belfast Telegraph that the professor's face "doesn't fit with the new hardline image of the Church. He's become a persona non grata since the breakdown of his marriage several years ago and subsequent divorce", said the source.

"This is all about timing. He was suspended while all the modules were being set up for this academic year, so that's basically him out.

"If all the charges were dropped against him, he'd get back into his room, but the courses are all set up, so he's surplus."

QUB previously confirmed it was reviewing "the nature of its relationship" with the college.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the draft report is being finalised and well-placed sources have said Queen's is likely to cut its links with Union College going forward.

It is also believed that the intake of theology students has fallen by close to 50% this year compared to last.

A QUB spokeswoman said: "The university is in the process of taking forward a full and comprehensive review of the governance, management and delivery of Queen's academic programmes within Union Theological College."

The panel investigating Professor Kirkpatrick's conduct is being led by retired minister Alastair Dunlop, former chair of the college management committee. A spokesman for the Presbyterian Church said it "would be inappropriate to make any comment publicly" regarding Professor Kirkpatrick but stressed: "We can confirm that no member of academic staff has left employment in the church's Union College in the past year."

He added: "With regards to the College website, it has just launched its new online presence and still requires images to accompany the biographies that are already on the website.

"This includes the photographs of Professor Kirkpatrick and three other members of staff to sit alongside those already uploaded."

A week before Professor Kirkpatrick's comments on Talkback, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which has over 200,000 members north and south, voted to sever its ties with the Church of Scotland because of the latter's more liberal attitude to same-sex relationships.

The unprecedented move meant that Moderator of the Church of Scotland's General Assembly would no longer be invited to the annual meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast.

At this year's meeting, the severance vote was passed by 255 votes to 171.

Then came the controversial report from the Doctrine Committee, chaired by former Moderator Stafford Carson, excluding same-sex couples from full Church membership and their children from baptism.

Last month more than 600 Presbyterians signed a letter to Moderator Dr Charles McMullen saying they will not be silenced in the growing row over the controversial decision.

Although most of the Union College staff are male Presbyterian - the majority of them ministers - students hail from a variety of backgrounds: male and female, Protestant and Catholic.

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