Dismay at bid by hierarchy to 'censor' Presbyterian ministers
A former Presbyterian cleric has claimed that the Church has been "scoring own goals" by trying to silence debate on same-sex issues and its relationship with the Church of Scotland.
Rick Hill was speaking after clerk of the General Assembly Rev Trevor Gribben issued a letter to all Presbyterian ministers last week warning against bringing the Church "into disrepute" by speaking in public in a way that may cause "scandal injurious to the purity or peace of the Church".
Mr Hill, who is non-executive deputy chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, said: "If a team in the World Cup had scored as many own goals as the Presbyterian Church has in the last few weeks, there would doubtless have been a change of players and manager."
On BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence programme yesterday, Rev Gribben denied that ministers were being censored.
He said: "People are free to debate in public - it is the nature of that discourse that is important."
However, his letter to Presbyterian clerics was seen by many inside and outside the Church as an attempt to limit frank public comment on recent controversial decisions taken at the General Assembly earlier this month.
Delegates decided by a large majority to significantly loosen the ties with the Church of Scotland because of its more liberal views on same-sex issues.
They voted to reaffirm the Church's policy not to allow people in same-sex relationships to be full members, or to baptise their children.
And they stopped future moderatorial exchanges between Belfast and Edinburgh in protest at the Church of Scotland's more liberal attitude towards homosexuality.
Mr Hill said: "The Presbyterian Church has always been deeply conservative, but in the past has tolerated considerable diversity of views among ministers, elders and members.
"The recent letter seems to indicate that those days are over. The letter allows debate within certain contexts, but it still places severe constraints on free speech. I am dismayed. I am a dissenter and there are many like me."
Alan Meban, a former elder and a member of a Belfast Presbyterian congregation, noted that during the General Assembly, the Moderator Dr Charles McMullen struggled to get people to come forward to speak in favour of cutting ties with the Church of Scotland and the restrictions on communion and baptism concerning same-sex couples and their children.
He said: "Yet people with those little-voiced opinions voted in the greatest numbers. That feels like an abuse of power unbefitting a denomination that values its democracy.
"Surely the Church is bringing itself into disrepute without the help of members and elders?" Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said: "After the initial controversy, many individual Presbyterians and congregations were engaged in serious reflection.
"Instead of encouraging that discussion to take place in a calm, measured way and seeking to heal the divisions, the issuing of this warning feels like an attempt to shut down this debate.
"I think that the letter was a poorly-timed and ill-considered attempt to silence dissenting voices. This is a bizarre approach from a denomination synonymous with dissent."
Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: "The clerk's letter did not define what comment would bring the Church into disrepute, but it seems to suggest that 'the purity or peace of the Church' should be given a higher priority than individual conscience. That will be difficult for some members of a church founded by dissenters from establishment forces."
Lord Alderdice, who resigned from the Church over its new stance, said: "It is disappointing that the clerk has written a letter to all Presbyterian ministers advising that dissent should not be public but largely confined to General Assembly debates.
"If the wider community is to understand the arguments they need to be open, and the Church should not fear its ministers and elders engaging in public debate."