Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Presbyterian Church must allow debate, not try to suppress it

Editor's Viewpoint

The decisions taken at this year's General Assembly on loosening ties with the Church of Scotland and refusing full membership to same-sex couple has caused issues within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

These have the potential to become deep rifts unless there is a greater acknowledgement by the conservative wing of the Church that winning the votes at the General Assembly should be the beginning of a conversation, not the ending of it.

A letter published in this newspaper today from 232 elders and ministers shows that there are significant numbers within the Church who are fearful of the future if some kind of rapprochement is not established.

In the letter, seemingly written more in sorrow than anger, they acknowledge what they call "the deep sense of hurt, dismay and anger being expressed in the wake of the decisions" and note that "this level of feeling is unprecedented in our pastoral experience".

As they point out, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is a broad church, which allowed a diversity of views, and they fear for the future if it becomes a church of narrow theological views.

The signatories are not critics of the Church but faithful members and their views - described as a cry from the heart - deserve to be taken on board in that perspective.

There have been much more strident views expressed in the wake of the General Assembly and some high-profile members have decided to leave the Church in protest.

No one pretends that debate on social issues such as same-sex marriage or how the children of same-sex couples should be treated are easy topics for Churches.

By their very nature, the traditional Christian Churches are conservative. They have survived for a very long time by adhering to what they see as fundamental truths based on biblical writings and what evolution does occur is glacial in its progress.

Members of Churches like the Presbyterian Church obviously share the general thrust of the teachings and it is clear from the votes at the General Assembly that a majority favour the traditional views on the subject under debate, whether they are considered out of touch on modern social pressures or not.

But it was the attitudes taken by some on what could be described as the winning side which caused not a little offence to their critics.

There appeared to be a move to close down debate on the decisions taken, and that was regarded as too authoritarian on such controversial and delicate subjects.

That is also the view taken in today's letter. The 232 signatories who represent the broad church of Presbyterianism in Ireland instead want debate to continue.

There are many who will agree with them that failure to do so could damage the credibility of the Church and limit its future.

Yet it has to be recognised that the Presbyterian Church is a very democratic organisation where there is a largely transparent debate on all kinds of issues and a general acceptance of the outcome whatever way it may fall.

Fall-outs within Churches are serious matters because religion does matter deeply to so many people.

If wounds are allowed to fester they can be very difficult, often impossible to heal, and in Protestant Churches can lead to schisms.

The members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have more in common than divides them and they must build on that foundation.

Belfast Telegraph

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