Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Presbyterian college should be standing up for freedom of academics, not silencing them

No matter how it is dressed up, there is no place for censorship in a university institution, says Fionola Meredith


No gay people as full members, no baptism of gay people's children, and now no freedom of speech. What next for the Presbyterian Church - kicking out the women?

Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick was suspended from his job teaching Church history at the Presbyterian-run Union Theological College after expressing some criticism of the Church in the media.

Presumably he had incurred the wrath of the clerk of the Assembly Rev Trevor Gribben. Rev Gribben had sent out a letter warning all Presbyterian ministers against bringing the Church "into disrepute" by speaking in a way that may cause "scandal injurious to the purity or peace of the Church".

This is how many senior male Presbyterians love to talk, swathing punitive, intolerant actions in pompous, emollient, caring-sounding words so it all sounds terribly grand and kind, just exactly what Jesus would do, when in fact it's anything but.

I don't buy it, lads. I'm allergic to this particular brand of sanctimoniousness. So, let me offer a very personal interpretation of Rev Gribben's diktat: "Shut up, or else."

Poor Prof Kirkpatrick made the mistake of being open-minded and forward-thinking when he appeared recently on Radio Ulster's Talkback programme to discuss the long-established partnership between Union Theological College (UTC) and Queen's University, after the Presbyterian General Assembly decided to prevent people in same-sex relationships being full members of the Church, or having their children baptised.

UTC is a bizarre, antiquated set-up: currently there are no full-time female academic staff at the college.

The entire full-time faculty are male Presbyterians, and to be a professor in the college one must be a Presbyterian minister.

Crucially, though, if you want to study theology as an undergraduate at Queen's - whether you're a Presbyterian or not - then UTC is where you must go.

Talkback presenter William Crawley asked Prof Kirkpatrick about the concerns that gay students might feel about studying in the college following the General Assembly ruling.

Making it clear he was speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Kirkpatrick said that of course he could understand such fears, and spoke passionately of the need to create a neutral, welcoming environment for all.

Kirkpatrick said he'd be "broken-hearted if anyone said I'd been bigoted against a Catholic or gay student".

Later, he was suspended. It seems that dissent of any kind will not be tolerated by the Church, and thus by the college. If so, this is an outrageous attack on academic freedom.

Union Theological College rejoices in the hallowed principalship - sorry, the waffling lingo must be catching - of the Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson, who does not support the ordination of women ministers. He's a "complementarian", apparently. That means women can do everything they like in the Church, bless their little hearts, except teach and preach - that's reserved for blokes only.

As for the absence of female lecturers at UTC. "It's just been the case that we haven't had any suitably qualified candidates," Dr Carson explained to the BBC's Sunday Sequence last year.

Ah, of course! The calibre of female degrees is atrocious these days, right? You just can't get the women when you want them.

Fun fact: Dr Carson is also the convenor of the doctrinal committee of the Presbyterian Church, which came up with the pernicious idea of denying communion to same-sex partners and baptism to their children.

Of course, what Dr Carson and his all-male associates decide to do in their own Church is entirely up to them. If they want to turn it into a grim, bigoted Paisleyite throwback, that's their choice.

But it's an entirely different and much more serious matter when it comes to the actions of a publicly-funded church college, formally connected with our highest seat of learning.

In the wake of this episode it has emerged that Queen's has no control over UTC staff appointments and - incredibly - may only have discovered that Prof Kirkpatrick was suspended when it was broadcast on the airwaves.

As a proud alumna of Queen's University, with a PhD in English and Scholastic Philosophy, I deplore the antediluvian, illiberal and benighted attitudes that have been flourishing in Union Theological College.

Quite rightly QUB has decided to take a firm stand. The university is taking "active steps" to review the nature of its relationship with the college, and it wants a "radical increase of diversity" among both students and staff. Amen to that. Queen's must promote the incalculable value of academic independence and free thinking.

No matter what pious language it's dressed up in, censorship cannot be tolerated.

Belfast Telegraph

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