Belfast Telegraph

Steven Smyrl: 'Why the deafening silence from the Church that sacked me?'

Smyrl was kicked out of his role in September after 12 years on account of his same-sex marriage. Here he explains how his campaign for justice has met a brick wall

Steven Smyrl
Steven Smyrl
Right Rev William Henry

By Steven Smyrl

With a characteristic mixture of arrogance and paranoia, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has accused me of waging a "campaign" against its recent decision to remove me as an elder because I married my same-sex partner.

At the same time, it renewed its attempt at character-assassination by repeating its earlier statement (without offering a shred of supporting evidence) that my "accusations and allegations" about the behaviour of those involved in my case have "no basis in fact".

The Church authorities took particular exception to what they portrayed as my "attacks on the character of highly respected ministers and elders of the Church". It is clear for all to see that PCI is engaging in blatant double standards.

On the one hand, they attempt to defend the dubious conduct of their own officials in this case, while simultaneously seeking to discredit their target: a classic case of victim-blaming.

Is the Church seriously suggesting that members of the Presbytery Commission should not be held to account for their actions simply because the PCI claims they are "highly respected"?

For the record, I have not been conducting any "campaign" against the PCI. My first public comments were made in mid-October in response to enquiries from journalists interested in the case. Furthermore, beyond declaring that my disclosures have "no basis in fact", the PCI has said absolutely nothing to contradict any of my specific assertions.

The media disclosures about my treatment by PCI have generated an extensive and lively debate in these pages and it has been striking that, even among those who uphold the PCI's traditional view of marriage, virtually all have been critical of the uncharitable way in which this case has been handled.

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Far more have been horrified, in equal measure, by the Church's stance on same-sex marriage and its heavy-handed conduct of the case. Some PCI members even expressed their disapproval by holding a silent vigil outside the Dublin and Munster Presbytery meeting in November (though I was invited to join the protest, I had no hand in organising it).

The PCI's latest statement highlights its contention that, while "same-sex marriage is not compatible with being in the ordained leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland", the Church "does not deny the right of an individual to enter into such a relationship".

While this is obviously true in a literal sense (given that the PCI has no authority to exercise civil jurisdiction over its members), it is nonetheless deeply disingenuous.

Right Rev William Henry
Right Rev William Henry

Presbyterian congregations elect elders to serve in a leadership role and, after a process of discernment and preparation, candidates are then ordained by a number of fellow elders, who form a Commission of the Presbytery.

No conscientious elder ever undertakes this role lightly; they honour their calling and respect the trust placed in them by their peers and endeavour to serve their congregation and the wider Church to the best of their ability.

Yet, the PCI is now forcing gay elders to make an impossible choice: if they value their calling as an elder, they are prohibited from entering into a secular, civil, same-sex marriage, or even a civil partnership.

Thus, the Church plays a crucial role in denying gay elders and their families access to legal protections and financial benefits that the state provides for all. This choice is not required of heterosexual elders, so in its very essence it is discriminatory and lacking in Christian charity.

The injustice of this position was central to my various responses to the Presbytery Commission and, later, to my appeal against my dismissal - all to no avail in the face of an inflexibly dogmatic Church leadership.

This intransigence was difficult to accept, but was made infinitely worse by the oppressive actions of the Commission as they pursued the case, which, cumulatively and progressively, sent me into a spiral of depression and had a profound impact on my health and wellbeing.

Having accepted that the judicial process has now concluded, in my recent public comments I have been careful not to deny "the right of the Church to set and interpret the standards it requires of its own ordained leadership". I have, instead, focused primarily on the serious deficiencies in the Presbytery Commission's conduct.

Church members and the wider community need to be made aware of the unacceptable tactics and practices which currently appear to be mandated by the PCI's Code and subordinate guidelines and can manifestly be used and abused by Church authorities at will.

What follows is intended as constructive criticism, with the aim of inspiring enlightened changes to procedures, so that in future, no PCI member will be subjected to the type of harrowing treatment I have experienced since April.

A number of examples will illustrate how modern standards of dignity and respect urgently need to be applied to the PCI's disciplinary processes:

  • The Commission deliberately set out to ambush me, by attempting to coerce me into attending a meeting while withholding all information about a "complaint" against me. I was ultimately forced to invoke GDPR to obtain the information ("evidence" assembled online by another elder, whose identity has remained secret). Such underhand tactics and denial of information are contrary to modern standards of fair procedure.
  • When I complained about these tactics and objected that the Presbytery had failed to observe the PCI's own rules regarding the appointment of the Commission's convenor, the Commission itself summarily dismissed my complaints. Fair procedure would demand that such complaints should be referred on for impartial, third-party adjudication.
  • The Commission summoned me to appear before their six-person panel, specifying that I could be accompanied only by a Church member, not legally trained, and who must remain silent. This procedure is clearly designed to intimidate and skew the balance of power against the person under investigation, ignoring their basic right to be treated with respect and dignity.
  • Despite being informed in advance that I did not wish to be contacted while abroad on holiday in early September, the Commission persisted with its plan to inform me of their final verdict by email. Facing a 10-day deadline, this would have compelled me to spend my holiday preparing and submitting an appeal and was only averted through the intervention of my solicitor issuing a "cease-and-desist" letter.
  • In light of this evidence, how can the PCI continue to characterise my concerns as "accusations and allegations" and claim that they have "no basis in fact"? These shocking examples are emblematic of the Commission's approach throughout. They betray a total lack of compassion and empathy and reflect very badly on the ethical standards of a professedly Christian organisation.

On November 27, in an open letter addressed to the current Moderator, Right Rev William Henry, I called on him to publicly acknowledge the hurt and humiliation inflicted on me by the Presbytery Commission, to initiate an inquiry into the conduct of the Commission and the Clerk's Office in this case and to establish new procedures for dealing with conflict that are guided by modern-day principles of dignity and respect.

To date, this letter has not even received the courtesy of an acknowledgement, never mind a substantive response.

This is just one further example of the Church's lack of respect for those who confront it with uncomfortable argument.

If the PCI is to have any hope of repairing the self-inflicted damage to its reputation and mission, it needs to recognise the equal dignity of all its members, listen respectfully to constructive discourse and respond with a degree of humility.

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