Belfast Telegraph

Top Presbyterian members sign letter criticising same-sex ruling

By David Young

More than 230 influential members of the Presbyterian Church have put their names to a letter critical of the General Assembly's ruling on same-sex relationships.

Among the signatories to the letter - headlined 'A Cry From The Heart' - are a former Moderator of the Church, the Very Rev Ken Newell; former Clerk of the General Assembly, Donald J Watts; Rev Ruth Patterson, the first woman ordained into the Presbyterian Church in Ireland; and well-known BBC broadcaster Rev Bert Tosh.

Rev Watts is also a former President of the Irish Council of Churches.

They join a long list of ministers, elders and academics from across Northern Ireland and the Republic - among them Rev Christina Bradley of Portadown, who previously clashed with her church over same-sex marriage.

She was the only Presbyterian minister in Ireland who welcomed the result of the same-sex marriage referendum in the Republic.

The letter makes clear the anguish felt by many Presbyterians over the General Assembly's decision to bar people in same-sex relationships from full membership and to refuse baptism to their children.

The Church will no longer send its moderator to the Church of Scotland's general assembly, nor will it invite its sister Church's leader to annual meetings of the Presbyterian ruling body in Belfast.

This is because of the Scottish Church's more liberal views on homosexual relationships.

Yesterday's statement said that the General Assembly's decisions have generated an unprecedented level of hurt, dismay and anger among Presbyterian worshippers.

"As teaching and ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, we acknowledge, and indeed share, the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger currently being expressed in the wake of decisions taken at our 2018 General Assembly," the letter states. "This level of feeling is unprecedented in our pastoral experience."

The letter also claims the Presbyterian Church's position on same-sex marriage and on the baptism of the children of people in gay relationships will damage the long-term credibility and survival of the Church.

It states that "any unnecessary narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will damage our credibility and limit our future".

The controversy over same-sex marriage within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland came to a head at this year's General Assembly.

The anger was compounded by a letter from Clerk of the Assembly Rev Trevor Gribben to all Presbyterian ministers warning against bringing the Church "into disrepute" by speaking in public in a way that may cause "scandal injurious to the purity or peace of the Church". One professor of church history, Laurence Kirkpatrick, was suspended from Union Theological College - the Presbyterian teaching college - following critical comments he made in the media.

The letter published today is the latest sign of unhappiness and unrest in the pews.

Lord Alderdice, a former Speaker of the Stormont Assembly and one-time leader of the Alliance Party, has already resigned as a Church elder over the issues.

However, a former Moderator, the Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, convener of the Church's Doctrine Committee, has insisted that the Church would not be changing its mind on same-sex relationships.

Commenting on 'A Cry From The Heart', former Presbyterian minister Rick Hill said he was heartened by the fact that 232 prominent Presbyterians had put their names to the public statement.

"I am tremendously encouraged that so many had the courage to put their name to this statement," he said.

"I hope that it is a beginning of some steps by them to engage more widely to try to see what they can do about the rather absolutist positions the Church has adopted. Momentum is building."

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland last night acknowledged that "considerable hurt" had been caused by the decision of the General Assembly.

"In a Church with over 6,400 ministers and elders, we recognise that many will hold different views and some will choose to express them publicly in this and other ways," it said.

"In a recent pastoral letter to ministers following this year's General Assembly, the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen, said that '…the mind of our General Assembly was very clearly expressed at the end of debates which, I believe, were conducted fairly and sensitively. Sadly, however, considerable hurt has been caused among various members of our denomination…'

"As the Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben, said in his accompanying letter - and repeated in a recent BBC interview - people are free to debate in public, but it is the nature of the discourse that is important."

The official Church statement welcomed the declaration of loyalty by the 232 signatories, and anticipated continuing discussion of the highly-charged issue among the faithful.

"Therefore it is worth positively noting that the 200-plus ministers and elders who were signatories state that they were making their statement 'as a prayerful expression of appropriate loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland'.

"Discussions will also, no doubt, take place within the structures of the Church, in presbyteries and kirk sessions.

"Indeed, in his letter, the Clerk also gave guidance as to how any decision of the General Assembly could be changed."

The full text of the letter

A Cry from the Heart

As teaching and ruling elders in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, we acknowledge, and indeed share, the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger currently being expressed in the wake of decisions taken at our 2018 General Assembly.

This level of feeling is unprecedented in our pastoral experience. We are committed to doing all we can to ensure that the decisions which have prompted such a level of concern will be subject to the urgent attention they deserve, and for which many in the Church are calling.

We gladly acknowledge that we ourselves have been constantly enriched and challenged by the diversity of views found in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Therefore, as we participate in this work of critical engagement and discernment, we hold that any unnecessary narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will damage our credibility and limit our future.

We make this statement: as a prayerful expression of appropriate loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland at this moment in our history; as a necessary consequence of our ordination vows, which we take with the utmost seriousness; and by the grace of God, as an imperfect yet credible witness to our trust in Jesus Christ alone.

To God alone be the glory.

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