Almost every week, over the last few months, people have graced the Write Back page of this newspaper with their views on the decision the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) took last year to stand down a member of its ordained leadership in a Dublin congregation.
From time to time organisations are called to deal with sensitive and challenging issues, and in these situations the people involved, on all sides, may feel hurt and disappointment with either the process or the outcome. This is clearly the case for those involved in this particular matter, over which thousands of words have been written in this paper by letter writers, columnists, correspondents and the person most affected.
The subject that has filled copious column inches, much of it uninformed and based on a single narrative, concerns Mr Steven Smyrl, a former elder in a same-sex marriage. While nobody denies that Mr Smyrl has the right to enter into such a relationship, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was found to be contrary to the Church’s clear and settled position that being in a same-sex marriage is not compatible with being in the ordained leadership of the Church. Referring back to the biblical account of creation, Jesus teaches that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman.
While on many occasions we have clearly and publicly affirmed that all people are loved, valued and cherished by God, regardless of their sexual orientation, PCI has been attacked through these pages for its decision, and also for its silence. Those involved in the process have been described in various ways as “evil” and of lacking “love and compassion”.
The Bible tells us that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). In our previous public statements we said that the allegations and accusations that have been made had no basis in fact. Much of the discussion in the media has focused around the narrative given by one person, Mr Smyrl. But when a reader, who says they have never corresponded with a newspaper before (Write Back January 14), feels moved to write — based on this single narrative — and feels “repulsed” by what has happened, it is perhaps time to speak.
There is of course the risk that those same voices may attack me for now seeking to do so. However, as someone who was directly involved in the process, I am willing to take the risk of a personal response.
When necessary, every organisation has the right and responsibility to engage its agreed procedures in order to deal with issues when they arise. Understanding the internal workings of any large institution like PCI, however, can be tedious at the best of times. When a matter arises and has to be looked at, most inquiries are conducted by elders and ministers drawn from the local presbytery that oversees congregations in its area.
In this case the Presbytery of Dublin and Munster became aware of a matter in the public domain that suggested that one of its elders had entered into a same-sex marriage. If so, this would have been in contravention of the clear and settled position within the Church regarding ordained leadership.
To establish the truth of any matter, in the spirit of Jesus’ command in Matthew 18 (which deals with dispute resolution) and to avoid a formal process, standard procedure is for the presbytery Moderator and Clerk to meet the individual concerned informally.
This is simply an opportunity to see if in fact there is an issue that needs to be looked into. Unfortunately, Mr Smyrl declined this informal meeting, and so the presbytery was required set up a ‘commission’, which was made up of four of its ministers and elders — two men and two women — to act on its behalf.
Sometimes commissions request additional independent input. Because of my knowledge of procedure and rules of the Church as Deputy Clerk, I was requested to serve alongside Very Rev Dr Frank Sellar. Frank was also asked because of the respect with which he is held throughout PCI, and as a former Dublin city minister. In no way was the commission membership, as has been described by some, imposed by some “Machiavellian scheme” devised in PCI headquarters.
Numerous opportunities for Mr Smyrl to meet with the commission were not taken. These would have given him the chance to respond personally to information and facts that were already in the public domain. Instead, he sent a letter freely acknowledging that he was in a same-sex marriage, while outlining his reasons why he should remain as an elder.
While not obliged to, and despite Mr Smyrl’s claims to the contrary, the commission gave the letter full consideration. A further opportunity was given to him to respond personally before any final decision was taken, which was to remove him as an elder of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Out of consideration for his health, and respecting the fact that he was on holiday (and not, as has been claimed, the result of a solicitor’s letter) commission members decided not to inform him of their decision until he was back home, just as Mr Smyrl requested. Ordinarily this would be done face-to-face, but again, out of consideration for him, he was given the option of not attending in person.
Disappointingly, Mr Smyrl went public with the decision before all the relevant parties were informed officially. He also chose to go further, by publicly attacking and seeking to discredit those involved in the process, making allegations that had no basis in fact. The decision was appealed to the General Assembly’s Judicial Commission, the highest court of the Church. It upheld the local presbytery decision and so dismissed the appeal.
While Mr Smyrl has expressed hurt and disappointment, the actions and qualities that have been attributed to members of the commission and leadership of PCI through the letters page, has caused me and others great personal distress. It is one thing to disagree with the decisions of a judicial process, it is quite another to question the integrity of the individuals involved in that process.
Dr Sellar and the Clerk of the General Assembly, Rev Trevor Gribben, have been singled out and publicly pilloried. If I may say, Frank is one of the most gracious people I have ever met. A minister of longstanding and integrity, he represented the Church as our Moderator with distinction, serving quietly and with compassion, as he did in this matter. Likewise, my colleague Trevor is a dedicated servant of the Church, advising impartially those who seek his professional advice as Clerk, regardless of his own personal view. Those who have made personal attacks on them through these pages, especially those who profess a faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, may wish to reflect on their own exercise of “love and compassion”.
Some of our critics have conceded that the Church, like any organisation, has a right to make and uphold its own standards. Some have also recognised that the commission could not have come to any other conclusion, which it did, I might add, with a heavy heart. Indeed the commission and its members sought to accommodate Mr Smyrl and his requests as best they could throughout the process, while ensuring that pastoral care was provided to him by his minister.
In closing, it is important for me to add that I believe that newspapers and the Press in general are a fundamental part of the democratic fabric of any free society. To every story, however, there are two sides, and for me, it was time to speak.