Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: What Christian would want to join a church that refuses to baptise gay people's kids?

It's neither Christ-like nor compassionate to punish children for their parents' 'sins', writes Fionola Meredith

Suffer the little children to come unto me - unless they have a gay mum or dad. That would appear to be the essential position of the Doctrine Committee of the Presbyterian Church, which is due to be recommended to the General Assembly in Belfast today.

Let me give it to you in their own words. "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," opines the committee.

"We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ."

That sounds like a harsh, punitive and exclusionary verdict to me.

Of course, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is entirely at liberty to make up its own rules, just as it is entitled to stick by the traditional belief that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

But telling devout same-sex couples who wish to play a full and active role in the Church that they aren't eligible for "communicant membership" simply because of who they're tucked up in bed with at night does not come across as an act of Christ-like love.

That's bad enough. But it's the refusal to baptise the children that really gets me.

How is their parents' sexual orientation anything to do with them? Why are they being punished and excluded for the perceived "sins" of their fathers and mothers?

Where in the Bible does Jesus say "let's lay the blame on the kids"?

Hilariously, in the next breath - well, the next paragraph - the Doctrine Committee says: "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 with compassion."

Don't imagine that the church is happy about it, though: "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."

Right, so gay couples and their kids will be permitted to "sit under the means of grace" at public services - whatever that actually means, perhaps something to do with inhaling the odour of sanctity? - and they can get pastoral care and counselling, but they still can't be full, proper Presbyterians.

Instead, they have to remember that their activities are the subject of moral disapproval, and so they must keep to their place, which is sinful, and thus secondary.

What family in their right minds would want to join a church that treated them like this?

Perhaps mindful - in some dim, woolly sense - that the Doctrine Committee's proposal sounds neither kind nor welcoming, a spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: "The General Assembly will not be discussing whether to bar anyone from attending worship, coming into church or receiving communion, it will discuss a paper focused on the theological question of what represents a credible profession of faith, something that is applicable to everyone."

Well, I'm afraid that gets us no further. Theological questions are only worth discussing if they actually connect up with the lived experience of real individuals in the world, otherwise you're in angels on pins territory, and what use is that to anyone?

They can robe this question in all the pious, emollient words they like, and they can pretend that a theological discussion is separate from everyday reality, but in the end it still comes down to whether the Church is going to treat people - and, still worse, their poor kids - differently, because they happen to love a person of the same sex.

So the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has a choice. Is it going to ostracise and stigmatise gay parents and their children, or is it willing to welcome them with love and compassion? I'm not talking about cold-blooded tolerance, parsimoniously meted out, but real, warm-hearted love, the non-judgemental kind that Jesus himself practised.

The signs aren't good. Since 2015, the Irish Presbyterians have been in an almighty huff with the Church of Scotland, refusing to attend its General Assembly, after the mother church voted to allow people in same-sex civil partnerships to serve as ministers. Now they have decided to dis-invite the Scottish Moderator to their own General Assembly.

Back in the 18th century, Belfast Presbyterians fought for the principles of enlightenment, equality and liberty. Today they want to deny baptism to children.

How is this progress?

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