Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: Presbyterian traditionalists appear long on preaching and short on love

Great divide: Dr Charles McMullen, the new Moderator, welcomes Rev Susan Brown Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, to the General Assembly
Great divide: Dr Charles McMullen, the new Moderator, welcomes Rev Susan Brown Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, to the General Assembly
Dr Charles McMullen
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

It has been a bad week for the image of the Presbyterian Church, or a good week, depending on your point of view.

The traditionalists will feel they have held the line by once again showing their opposition to same-sex marriage and by loosening their historically strong connection with the Church of Scotland.

Many Irish Presbyterians feel the Scots were wrong to allow partners in same-sex relationships to serve as ministers or deacons in congregations that approve of this.

The traditionalists voted by a majority of 255 to 171 to stop inviting Scottish Moderators to the Irish General Assembly, and again refused to send the Irish Moderator to the Scottish Assembly.

Outsiders noted the hypocrisy of the General Assembly severely criticising the political stand-off at Stormont, then voting to loosen its links with the Scottish church.

While the Irish General Assembly also voted to continue or consider to collaborate with the Scots in areas of mutual benefit, this was a polite attempt to paper over the cracks.

The Irish dagger went into Scottish hearts even after their Moderator, the Rt Rev Susan Brown, pleaded eloquently that they should all remain part of the one family, in the name of Christ.

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Her pleas were ignored, and I cannot think of a more rude gesture by our church.

The traditionalists are entitled to their views, and many are decent people. They will say they did not mean it to seem rude, but the symbolism was inescapable.

A former distinguished local Moderator, the Very Rev John Dunlop, said afterwards, "It would make you cry".

There was also the sad sight of Scots Principal Clerk the Rev George Whyte declaring sorrowfully: "We have to go, but we will keep you in our prayers, and if you change your minds, our door is always open."

It was also immensely sad to hear the newly elected Moderator, the Very Rev Dr Charles McMullen, talk of his heartbreak.

In his eloquent speech on the opening night, he made a passionate plea about "building relationships", but two days later the words were hurled back in his face.

Many Presbyterian reports claim to show pastoral care for LGBT relationships, but how many of those involved feel directly that compassionate pastoral care which the assembly reports claim?

One delegate asked the writers to be careful about how they chose their words, because they might make young LGBT people feel like they were second-class Christians.

Another delegate urged members to join him in saying, "Whatever your background, in Christ's name we love you".

That went down like a lead balloon.

Then yesterday the Church's voted in favour of a new policy which means anyone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a full member of the Church and their children cannot be baptised.

Christ said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me", but some Irish Presbyterians say, "Not if you are the child or parents in a same-sex relationship".

The traditionalists here are saying to the Scots, in effect, "Our theology on same-sex relationships is more Biblical than yours, and you should come to your senses". Such arrogance is staggering.

In the past 50 years or so, the Irish Presbyterians have left the World Council of Churches, they have distanced themselves from the British Council of Churches, and now they have loosened the ties with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church in England.

This is an ecclesiological version of 'ourselves alone', which mirrors the old 'Ulster says no' political slogan.

The Irish Presbyterian Church is now seen by many outsiders, rightly or wrongly, as a narrow and unwelcoming institution that is long on preaching and short on humility, compassion and love.

Many individual Presbyterians have these positive qualities in abundance, but the image of the institution is very different.

If you were a young person, or a parent, who had deep worries about sexuality, would you seek love and comfort within the Presbyterian Church? I hope you would, but I would fully understand it if you walked away to find help elsewhere.

Belfast Telegraph


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