Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Ousting of Steven Smyrl by Presbyterian Church a moral own-goal

Steven Smyrl's only 'crime' was to be a loving husband, so why kick him out, asks Fionola Meredith

Steven Smyrl and husband Roy
Steven Smyrl and husband Roy
Fionola Meredith

Fionola Meredith

What is it about two men who love one another that is so very deeply threatening to the leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland? Genuine question.

Why does love between homosexual people - which is no different from the heterosexual sort, being just as rich, sustaining and life-enhancing - inspire such dread in them?

It's starting to look like a very unhealthy obsession.

Steven Smyrl is the latest target of the invidious 'purity' drive which appears to have seized the Church since it decided that gay people could no longer be full members of the Church and, still more astonishingly, barred their children from being baptised.

I must have missed that crucial bit in the Bible where Jesus said: "Let's humiliate homosexuals and take it out on their kids."

Mr Smyrl was dismissed as an elder at Christ Church Sandymount in the Republic after a special internal commission was set up in order to investigate Mr Smyrl's relationship with his husband Roy Stanley, who attends the same church.

The couple, who have been together for 20 years, were married in a registry office in November 2018 following the marriage equality referendum in the Republic in 2015.

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Everything was fine at first. The congregation at Sandymount knew about the couple's long and happy relationship, their civil partnership and subsequent wedding, and they had no problem with it at all: as Mr Smyrl said: "They recognise the love between us is genuine."

But then the purity police started sniffing about, on the trail of renegade gayness.

Mr Smyrl received a letter from the then moderator of the Dublin and Munster Presbytery, the Rev Alastair Dunlop jnr, speaking of initially unspecified "concerns".

A six-member Presbytery commission - a type of Church court - was set up to investigate. Its members included Rev Dunlop, as convenor, and Rev Frank Sellar, the minister of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in Belfast.

When Mr Smyrl finally managed to discover what "information" the Church had about him, he found they had been perusing screenshots from his and his husband's Facebook pages, with photos of their wedding and happy holidays together.

With all the injustice, poverty and human need in the world, have these Presbyterian bigwigs nothing better to do than trawl through social media looking for snaps of two mutually devoted men having a nice time on vacation?

Quite naturally, Mr Smyrl was disgusted. "I felt really degraded and dehumanised by it. When I saw the photos of Roy and I being used in this way, I thought: 'Is this a Christian Church doing this?'" Good question. The answer, sadly, is yes.

Of course, it was only ever going to end one way, and it has. Mr Smyrl was ousted from his role as a church elder at Sandymount, and this week his appeal against the verdict was denied.

If ex-Alliance leader David Ford could be removed as an elder from his own church near Templepatrick simply for expressing support for gay marriage, as he was in 2016, then I guess Mr Smyrl had no chance.

I recall that the then Presbyterian Moderator Dr Frank Sellar - yes, him again - backed the decision to remove Mr Ford.

Dr Sellar expressed his hope that the verdict was "something affirming to the various hurt parties".

I found this a remarkably callous and tone-deaf statement at the time, and still do. How could Mr Ford - the sole hurt party in the case as far as I could see - find anything affirming in being shoved out of his 30-year role in his own church purely for expressing his political views?

We saw the same kind of mealy-mouthed language used by the doctrine committee of the Church, which drew up the recommendation to deny same-sex couples "communicant membership".

"All who wish to sit under the means of grace" are welcome at public services and can receive pastoral care, it announced. "Like her Lord, she [the Church] reaches out with compassion." Compassion? It sure as heck doesn't look like it from where I stand. Let's put it biblically: by their works shall ye know them.

In excluding Steven Smyrl as an elder, perhaps the Presbyterian hierarchy feel they have achieved another victory in their quest to maintain the traditional principles of the Church in defiance of the new world of libertine behaviour and loose morals.

In fact they are actually indulging in the worst form of modern identity politics: reducing an individual to a category, in rejection of his selfhood, his love, his devotion - and his humanity.

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