Belfast Telegraph

If Alliance can have rules, why should Presbyterian Church be any different?

When David Ford was punished by his local church for supporting gay marriage, liberals were shocked. But the church had every right, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Like all good liberals, I was outraged that the outgoing Alliance Party leader David Ford was dismissed as an elder by his local Presbyterian church over his support for same-sex marriage. How dare these dinosaurs seek to punish this decent and honest man for doing what he felt was right? How dare they try to hold back the tide of tolerance?

When the Presbyterian Moderator went on to rub salt in the wounds by defending the ruling by his Church's Judicial Commission as "carefully balanced", my righteous indignation only shot up a few extra notches.

This is 2016, not the Middle Ages. What other organisations would get away with punishing good people in their ranks for having minds of their own?

Well, quite a lot of them, since you ask.

All clubs have rules. All clubs impose sanctions on those who break them. That's as true of those on the Left as the Right; liberals as well as conservatives. Even the Alliance Party, mildest-mannered of all groups in Northern Ireland, imposed a pre-condition on candidates before the last Assembly election that they had to support same-sex marriage.

David Ford did not appear to have a problem with that, though it must have caused just as much hurt to those who opposed gay couples being given an equal right to wed as the Church's ruling hurt him.

If political parties are allowed to have rules, why should a Church be different? Politics is full of people who've paid a price for defying the official party line, or sometimes just for saying, or doing, something objectionable.

This summer, the Ulster Unionists suspended former councillor Jim Sands for saying that he wished more tricolours were burned on Twelfth of July bonfires. In 2013, they also penalised David McNarry over remarks he made in the media about a possible unionist pact.

Declan O'Loan was suspended from the SDLP for a time for suggesting the party should merge with Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein itself has a long tradition of kicking out people, either temporarily, or permanently, for breaches of party discipline - though, considering the alternative methods of punishment once favoured by republicans for those who fell out with the movement, it could be worse.

Peader Tobin, one of the party's deputies in the Dail, was suspended for six months for his own opposition to liberalising the law on abortion.

In June, two other Sinn Fein deputies in the south were given short-term suspensions for voting in favour of a private member's bill to ban hare coursing, on the grounds that party policy was officially in favour of terrorising small mammals in the name of fun.

(Party leader Gerry Adams, who claims to be strongly opposed to this particularly cruel bloodsport - feel free to insert your own joke - dutifully voted against the bill, because who needs moral consistency when you have a teddy bear that talks to you?)

The Gaelic Athletics Association, for its part, used to throw out members entirely, not just for playing so-called "foreign" (aka British) sports, but even for attending them as a spectator. And woe betide any GAA fan who consorted with the hated RUC. Their feet didn't touch the floor.

It's the same across the water. A Conservative councillor in England has been sanctioned by his local party for starting a petition to make opposition to Brexit an act of treason; while ahead of the recent leadership election, the Labour Party was rooting out a positive mini-army of Toms, Dicks and Harrys, who were deemed not to be supportive of the party's values.

In fact, it's hard to think of a single organisation which has not, at some stage, suspended, or expelled, one of its own members for breaching the rules. Why should Churches be held to a different standard?

If anything, Churches are bound to be more demanding on their members, because they're not broad, well, Churches, in the way that political parties have to be to survive. They're exclusive by their very nature.

That's why there are so many of them. There are high churches and low churches and all manner of inbetween churches, from Catholic to Church of Ireland, Methodist to Baptist, Presbyterian and Free Presbyterian, Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

At least they're upfront about what they believe; you know what you're letting yourself in for when you join. Political parties are much more changeable.

You can join a party that's against same-sex marriage one day, only to find they're for it the next day. Suddenly, you're being disciplined for not supporting a particular policy, even though you'd have been disciplined the week before for supporting it. That's politics.

Nice liberals like to think that they don't impose similar restrictions on free thought and free speech, but they actually do so much more ruthlessly than those they self-righteously condemn for being narrow-minded.

The sanctions that liberals can impose on those who break their rules can be subtle, but they're no less effective when it comes to enforcing conformity.

Sometimes they're not even subtle.

Try refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple's wedding and see how tolerant liberals are about defending your right to hold a different opinion.

Try defending Donald Trump's views about women at a dinner party in south Belfast. You'll soon see how welcoming middle-class liberals are of other people's points of view.

In many ways, the Presbyterian Church is being more honest. There's no pretence that all views are equally valid.

There are actually stipulations and, if you flout them, there are penalties. If the rules were suddenly made optional, it would undermine the point of belonging to a Church at all.

You can't have a free-for-all. It would be like joining the local golf club and then getting indignant because they won't dig up the greens and install a basketball court.

Besides, it's not the end of the world. David Ford may have been removed as a so-called ruling elder by Second Donegore Presbyterian Church, but he remains an ordained elder of the Church "without charge and in good standing". He's also had so many messages of support that he admits he's unable to answer them personally.

Members of the public, of all political and religious persuasions, have praised him for standing by his principles with such grace.

It's his local Presbyterian Church, near Templepatrick, who've been portrayed as mean-spirited monsters for standing by theirs.

That's the thing about tolerance. It's not always very tolerant.

Belfast Telegraph


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