Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: Presbyterianism's disastrous month casts doubt over its long-term future

Challenging times: new Moderator the Rev Charles McMullen
Challenging times: new Moderator the Rev Charles McMullen
Scottish Moderator the Rev Susan Brown
The Rev Laurence Kirkpatrick
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

At the end of a bruising month for the Presbyterian Church, there are more questions than answers. There were bad headlines, comments and harsh letters to newspapers that would have made you cringe.

This is not what you would expect from a Church that, on its Opening Night, heard its impressive new Moderator, the Rt Reverend Charles McMullen, declare that his theme for the year was "building relationships". What now?

The Presbyterians predictably ruled out communion for active LGBT people and baptism for their children, and confirmed the status quo.

However, the real damage was done two days earlier, when the Irish Presbyterians voted by a large majority to cancel visits between the Irish and Scots Moderators because the Scots have more liberal views on homosexuality.

Scottish Moderator the Rt Reverend Susan Brown and Chief Clerk George Whyte left immediately, and reportedly in some distress.

I can't blame them, but a letter writer to this newspaper argued they should have shown the discipline required by Scripture and stayed.

That is the kind of ecclesiastical knit-picking which puts so many people off the Church.

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All of this created headlines, and when the Presbyterians dropped from the news - and should have taken respite - the hierarchy put them back in again.

Ministers were advised by letter that they could discuss important ecclesiastical matters in the General Assembly, but if they spoke outside they should not bring the Church into disrepute.

However, one senior retired minister rightly claimed in this newspaper that the Presbyterian Church was in disrepute already because of its treatment of the Scottish Church.

The sheer bad manners of this really annoyed many Presbyterians, and made some embarrassed to be members of a Church that would act in such a way.

The letter to the clergy last weekend was taken by some as an attempt to curtail open debate, but a senior Church figure said: "People are free to debate in public - it is the nature of the discourse that is important."

People remained wary, with Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, a practising Presbyterian, saying: "The letter was a poorly timed and ill-considered attempt to silence dissenting voices.

"This is a bizarre approach from a denomination synonymous with dissent."

Some misinformed people claim there is a one-sided campaign against the Church, but the fact is that many Presbyterian clerics are not speaking out in public on these issues because they are afraid of being rapped over the knuckles for doing so.

Even when Union College suspended the distinguished Reverend Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick, no Presbyterian spokesperson went on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback, and the Church issued a statement which said nothing.

The Church has still not revealed why Prof Kirkpatrick was suspended, so we must assume it was because he spoke his mind in public.

This raises the issue to a whole new level, including the right to free speech.

The Church has put the spotlight on its relations with Queen's.

The university has already carried out a review, and has said that it may carry out a further review.

Queen's, which is funded largely by our taxes, is entitled to ask why there are no female academic staff or female students at Union, to note the teaching courses and in general to determine how far the college is fit for purpose in a big, multicultural university.

The debate has moved from same-sex relationships to the very nature of free speech itself in a Church which used to pride itself on dissent.

There are still moderates left, but there is also a strong streak of ruthless totalitarianism.

Prof Kirkpatrick said the Church was losing 3,900 people a year, and added that if this continued, it could be out of business by 2073.

This raises the ultimate question of all: is the Church fit for purpose to face the many challenges of our time?

Belfast Telegraph


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