Alf McCreary: No end in sight to the struggle between fundamentalists and moderates for soul of Church
The suspension of Union College's Professor of Church History the Rev Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick is thought to be connected to his recent personal comments in the wake of the Presbyterian Church's loosening of links with the Church of Scotland, and confirming its policy of not giving communion to same-sex partners, nor baptising their children.
On BBC programme The View, he claimed the Presbyterian Church was losing 3,900 people a year and warned: "If that continues we have 55 more years until the last Presbyterian switches the light off. It's as bad as that."
He is also said that at graduation "we must look like escapees from an old people's home, a 'getting on' exclusively Presbyterian male teaching faculty".
"I'd love the Church to be big enough to act and give up some of its autonomy," he added.
"We have to see the building through the eyes of a 17-18-year-old perhaps thinking of studying theology at Queen's."
Union College, which teaches Presbyterian theological students, has currently no female academic staff or female students.
Professor Kirkpatrick was expressing his personal opinions at a time when the Church hierarchy is closely studying what its clerics are saying in public.
Last week Assembly clerk Rev Trevor Gribben wrote to all Presbyterian clergy advising them against making public statements that might bring the Church into disrepute.
He denied on BBC's Sunday Sequence ministers were being silenced. He said: "People are free to debate in public, it is the nature of that discourse that is important."
Nevertheless many people inside and outside the Church point to a relentless right-wing trend in Presbyterianism and a lack of encouragement for frank and open public debate.
Lord Alderdice, who resigned as a member of the Church because of the recent decisions by the General Assembly, said: "If the wider community are to understand the arguments, they need to be open, and the Church should not fear its ministers and elders engaging in public debate."
There have been calls for Queen's University to dissociate itself from Union College. However, the Presbyterian Church said virtually nothing in a statement yesterday.
Some people see in the current controversies a certain parallel with the 1928 heresy trial of Professor Ernest Davey, then a teacher at Assembly's College, the forerunner of Union College.
Davey was accused of "modernism" by Rev James Hunter and several others, but was acquitted by 707 votes to 82. Professor Davey was later elected Presbyterian Moderator.
Many observers also see the current controversies between fundamentalists, who have the upper hand, and moderates, for the soul of the Presbyterian Church. It is a struggle that is unlikely to end any time soon.