Alf McCreary: The controversy raging within Presbyterianism is not just about same-sex couples it is a struggle between fundamentalists and liberals for the Church's very soul
The climate of fear means letter-writers to the Belfast Telegraph are reluctant to allow their names to be published, says Alf McCreary
As the Presbyterian Church enters the new year, it continues to faces major challenges in dealing with the same-sex issues which have brought it so many bad headlines since June 2018, when the General Assembly voted to exclude same-sex couples from communion and baptising their children.
There was a prolonged outcry at the time from the dwindling bunch of liberals in the Church about the way it was handled and the damaging headlines persisted through 2019.
The criticism of the Church intensified when it sacked Steven Symrl as an elder in Christ Church Sandymount, Dublin, because he is in a same-sex marriage, which is fully legalised in the Republic. His position was investigated by a Church commission and, after a lengthy process, he was dismissed.
He said later: "It was so hurtful. To be told that I was just dismissed and to have had every argument put to them over six months utterly ignored, it was really like a kick to the stomach."
This decision has led to a long and lively letters debate in this newspaper, reflecting the current turmoil in the Presbyterian Church. Many inside and outside the Presbyterian Church recognise that it has a right to take a fundamental stance on same-sex issues.
But what disturbs people most is the perceived coldness with which these rules are applied. Mr Smyrl, who has shown considerable dignity and courage in fighting his case like a latter-day ecclesiastical David facing a theological Goliath, echoed the views of many Presbyterians and others when he wrote recently: "I am constantly astonished by Church leaders, who, with dogged determination to impose a narrow fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture in matters of sexual morality, ignore the central Gospel message of 'love thy neighbour'."
The cool tone of the Presbyterian Church's constant response to same-sex issues was clearly and uncompromisingly set out in its Blue Book prior to a debate at the 2018 General Assembly and it is still worth revisiting in detail.
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In a weighty and sometimes turgid document, referring to the teaching of Calvin and other theological luminaries thought to be the font of all wisdom, the Presbyterian Church's doctrine committee made clear its views:
"The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has a clear position on marriage and human relationships based on the teaching of the Bible.
"(a) The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.
"(b) The apostolic witness in the New Testament unambiguously regards homosexual activity as contrary to nature, understood as God's created order, and that it sets forth a permanent principle of creation, not a culturally limited perception.
"In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church's understanding of a credible profession of faith, it is clear that same-sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership, nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.
"In this context, it is important to emphasise that the Church invites and welcomes all who wish to sit under the means of grace at public services and to have access to the pastoral care and counsel available within her fellowship.
"Like her Lord, she reaches out to all with love and compassion. This posture of grace and welcome should not in itself be confused with moral indifference or approval of any behaviour contrary to God's Word.
"It is, rather, the warmest of invitations to receive Christ Jesus as both Lord and Saviour in all of life."
The above passage does not make for easy reading, but it is important to remember that every word counts.
And they counted so much to the 2018 General Assembly that members voted decisively to ban same-sex couples from communion and not to baptise their children.
However, setting aside the cold and almost legal tone of the document quoted above, two points are clear. The final paragraph of the Presbyterian Church's statement could be translated in layman's language thus: "We welcome anyone who comes to Church, but that does not mean that we approve of your lifestyle if you are gay, or in a same-sex relationship."
The other sentence in that last paragraph which leaps from the page is the Presbyterian Church's claim that, "like her Lord, she reaches out to all with love and compassion".
For many observers, this is an extraordinary claim, given the way in which the same-sex issue has been handled.
Steven Smyrl has claimed again and again that the process leading to his dismissal had left him feeling "abused, demeaned and persecuted".
Recently, he told this paper that he had written, on November 27, 2019, an open letter to Presbyterian Church leaders, raising questions about his dismissal, but at his time of writing in the Belfast Telegraph, he had not even had an acknowledgement from Church House. No doubt, many people will be asking themselves if this is the proper behaviour from a Church which claims, "like her Lord (to) reach out to all with love and compassion".
Without doubt, this bitter controversy within the Presbyterian Church will continue for some time, but what is at stake, as I have repeatedly underlined in the past few years, is not just the battle over important issues like same-sex, but a long and continuing tussle between fundamentalists and liberals for the very soul of the Church.
This was well-summarised by a letter in this week's Belfast Telegraph from someone who signs himself (or herself) as "Longstanding Presbyterian minister" and is obviously a liberal.
It is most significant that this letter-writer is not named, though his or her name and address is known to the Editor.
Presbyterian liberals are so fearful nowadays of putting their heads above the parapet that very few have the courage to do so in public, or in private.
The letter-writer claims that: "The whole Church polity is in disarray, locked in a race to the bottom, with ministers and elders denouncing each other through secret commissions. A shadowy cohort of men has infiltrated every aspect of decision-making and insinuated their narrow, fundamentalist view into Church policy.
"Unless and until the moderates make their voices heard, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will continue on its headlong march towards absolute fundamentalism."
Already, a number of Presbyterians have voted with their feet and have left for other denominations. At the time of writing, the Presbyterian Church has maintained a solid silence on the Steven Smyrl case, but, in 2020, it still has to answer one basic question: is the Presbyterian Church more intent on being "right" on same-sex issues, rather than demonstrating the "love and compassion" which it claims to show to all?
At the moment, the very wide jury, both inside and outside the Presbyterian Church, is still out on this basic question about the Church's credibility and, in the coming year, people will continue to ask the hard questions to which there are no easy answers.
Love and compassion has to be demonstrated - not just talked about.
Alf McCreary is the Belfast Telegraph's religion correspondent