Steven Smyrl: I felt like a citizen of the former East Germany, discovering that, after many years, people I knew had been spying on me for the Stasi
Steven Smyrl was dismissed as a Presbyterian elder because he is married to a man. He says the debate about sexuality and religion can only grow louder once same-sex marriage becomes a reality in NI
In early September, during his visit to Mozambique, Pope Francis spoke about Christianity’s fixation with sex and sexuality ahead of other, more important, issues: “We focus on sex and then we do not give weight to social injustice, slander, gossip and lies. The Church today needs a profound conversion in this area.”
In the same week, a Commission of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) meeting in Dublin removed me as an elder, because of my same-sex marriage. After 30 years of loyal, dedicated service, my dismissal felt like a kick to the stomach.
I was informed that PCI’s “clearly-stated policy” is that “to be in a same-sex marriage is not compatible with being in ordained leadership”.
Yet, other than expressing “disappointment” at the outcome of the Republic’s 2015 marriage referendum, the Church has failed to issue any instruction, or guidance, to its gay members about contracting a non-Church, civil marriage.
With same-sex civil marriages set to begin in Northern Ireland from Valentine’s Day 2020, the crucial, legal distinction between secular, civil marriage and Christian marriage needs to be discussed and acknowledged by all the Churches.
Civil marriage is, essentially, a legal contract, through which is conferred a set of rights and responsibilities, defined in law. In Ireland, it dates from the passing of the Marriage (Ireland) Act 1844.
From that time, such unions became possible and were solely a contract between the parties and the state. In their nature, they are secular, a fact confirmed by the rule that, in solemnising such unions, both the registrar and the parties to the union are forbidden to use any text, or music, which invokes, references, or associates, with any form of deity, Christian, or otherwise.
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Civil marriage has no intrinsic spiritual dimension — indeed, this was acknowledged almost 500 years ago by the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, in the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva (1545), under which a marriage was not recognised as valid unless it met the dual requirements of state registration and Church consecration.
It is, therefore, tenable that a secular, state-registered marriage contracted without Church consecration does not have sufficient status to be of any concern to Church authorities (which is certainly current policy in the Catholic Church).
While in the past, PCI has found it convenient to assume parity between Christian and civil marriage, such a view can no longer be justifiable once eligibility for civil marriage has been extended to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland, as is already the case in the Republic.
This divergence makes it utterly apparent that these are two entirely separate and distinct concepts, despite their common use of the term “marriage”.
In my dealings with the Commission, I submitted two lengthy, detailed statements noting the clear legal distinction between secular, civil marriage and Christian marriage. It has been hugely frustrating, therefore, that they never once engaged with this.
PCI’s assertion that civil and religious marriage can be conflated as being one and the same doesn’t make it so. Statute law categorically says otherwise and, whether it wants to or not, PCI must acknowledge that the law applies to all without exception.
My civil marriage is, essentially, a personal legal matter — a constitutional right (as I live in the Republic) securing legal protections in areas such as finance, inheritance and next-of-kin recognition.
I never once asked, or expected, PCI to recognise my civil marriage as a Christian marriage. While PCI is fully entitled to set its definition of Christian marriage based on its own interpretation of Scripture, it strays far beyond its competence when it seeks to interfere and prevent elders from accessing this basic right — particularly when the prohibition is applied solely, and inequitably, on the basis of sexual orientation.
Pope Francis is surely right to suggest that the Churches need to take a wider view. PCI itself states that “while a person’s sexuality is a very important part of their lives, it does not define who they are”, but in dealing with me, the Commission paid scant regard to this principle, showing little sign of pastoral concern, Christian charity, or even basic human empathy.
The treatment I received felt oppressive and dehumanising and had a serious impact on my mental health and wellbeing. Any modern organisation would consider many of the Commission’s tactics to have been unfair, or unacceptable, and, in some aspects, unethical.
Here is just one example: having been informed in April that “concerns” had been raised about my position as an elder, for almost two months, I was refused any information on their nature and origin, while being strongly and repeatedly pressed to meet for an “informal conversation”. Clearly, the intention was to ambush me with their allegations.
I was eventually told that the concerns related to my same-sex marriage, but astonishingly it took a formal application under GDPR to elicit full disclosure of the complaint made against me.
This turned out to be a blank email with seven attachments — mostly screenshots taken from social media. Several of these were photos of happy family events, showing me and my spouse on holiday and at our civil partnership in 2011.
There was also a letter we had submitted to the Dublin Planning Office — presented as evidence of us cohabiting.
The identity of the complainant was redacted and has never been disclosed to me. I was left feeling like a hapless citizen of the former East Germany, discovering that, after many years, people I knew had been spying on me, submitting intelligence to a Stasi file.
In reality, another Presbyterian elder had done just that, having over a period of time systematically stalked me online to assemble a book of “evidence” to use against me.
This revelation pinpoints a crucial concern, above and beyond the immediate issue of same-sex relationships. Presbyterians traditionally pride themselves on their democratic, “bottom-up” structures, but increasingly PCI authorities appear keen to assert control from above.
Tellingly, my removal was instigated by someone who saw me simply as a “case”, rather than knowing me as an individual. Yet, since this action began, my “usefulness as a ruling elder” (to quote the Commission) has been subject to the strongest possible reaffirmation by my home congregation.
My treatment at the hands of the Commission indicates that the highest authorities within PCI are currently not prepared to tolerate any divergent opinion.
Yet, it has to be acknowledged that, as our Church of Scotland brethren have discovered after years of careful consideration, accommodating different views on same-sex relationships, founded upon sincere Scriptural reflection, is also possible.
Since the 2018 General Assembly’s decisions on same-sex relationships, a considerable number of prominent PCI members have expressed vocal dissent, as witnessed in the “Cry from the Heart” open letter from July 2018 and the more recent emergence of the “Being Presbyterian” discussion group. The debate can only grow louder once same-sex marriage becomes a reality in Northern Ireland.
I believe that two important lessons must be learned from my case. Ordinary PCI members should reassert the authority of individual conscience in the interpretation of Scripture, resisting attempts to impose orthodoxy from above.
And PCI should move quickly to establish new procedures for dealing with conflict that are guided by modern principles of dignity and respect.
** Steven Smyrl lives in Dublin with his spouse, Roy Stanley. He is a professional genealogist and a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
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