Belfast Telegraph

Not all Presbyterians as intolerant as its institutions

By Richard Hill

The bad choices by the Presbyterian Assembly last week don't match my experience and conversations with many grassroots members over the last few days.

For 17 years I served as a parish minister before resigning in 2008 to work in several public service roles. I am currently the deputy chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation for the UK. I'm still a person of faith who cares deeply about Church.

I was dismayed by the Irish General Assembly decision to stop sending representatives to the Church of Scotland's Assembly. They had ceased sending delegates in protest at the Church of Scotland's decision to allow the ordination of clergy in civil partnerships in 2015.

Following the Scottish Church's decision this year approving a report which may pave the way for some ministers to conduct same-sex marriages, the Irish Church made their ban permanent and left their Scottish guests in Belfast with little option than to politely withdraw.

We've had long historical links with the Scottish Church. The first Presbyterian Churches on this island were formed by Scottish Presbyterians.

Many of our clergy through the centuries have been trained in Scottish universities and made welcome there.

Before returning to work in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland I studied at the University of Aberdeen. My dad died when I was student; I'm forever grateful for the kindness of the Church of Scotland in stepping in to help fund my final year.

The isolationist approach by the Irish Church is truly depressing. It sits alongside a Northern Ireland political context in which nobody is talking.

The Church can't really lecture the politicians about lack of dialogue when they have stopped talking to their own neighbours.

The second wrong decision of the week to exclude LGBT couples from communion and their children from baptism was unnecessarily cruel and shows a deeply intrusive interest in people's private lives.

The Church appears to show more curiosity about sexual activity than it does in social justice and equality.

There have been some high-profile responses. It was brave of the Macaulay family to speak to this paper yesterday about their sense of hurt and their decision to leave the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Lord Alderdice commented on social media about the rise in fundamentalism in the Presbyterian Church.

There's good reason to fear he's right. One minister currently faces a Church disciplinary process for views he expressed about gay marriage.

There appears to be a move towards enforcing a new insidious type of Church orthodoxy.

I'd appeal to the Presbyterian Church for tolerance. LGBT marriage is a subject which can divide Christians, but it doesn't have to. Surely, we can tolerate diversity of opinion on how we interpret the Bible?

For me, the decisions taken by the Irish General Assembly are depressing, but I believe there are reasons to be hopeful.

There are many clergy who don't agree with the views expressed last week - sadly it is almost impossible for them to speak out without facing a disciplinary process.

I've heard from a lot of people who have told me that they are leaving the Church.

Don't let the bad choices of the institution obscure the warmth and generosity that remains in many congregations towards all people.

The institution may have revealed itself to be isolationist and intolerant, but not all Presbyterians are.

Belfast Telegraph

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