Posted By: June 11, 2018

Irish Presbyterian Church in “theological Brexit”

 William Crawley BBC Radio Ulster Talkback presenter

Image caption The Presbyterian church in Ireland’s General Assembly took place in Belfast last week
“Theological Brexit” — that’s how one senior Presbyterian minister described what had just happened at his church’s annual General Assembly.

And, by any standards, what the Presbyterian Church’s highest governing body did this week was historic.

On Wednesday, the ministers and elders gathered in Belfast voted by a substantial majority to, in effect, sever diplomatic relations with both the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church.

They agreed that they will continue to co-operate with both denominations, where appropriate, in common projects.

But the Irish Presbyterian Church will no longer invite their representatives to attend its annual Assembly and will no longer be sending a delegation to theirs.

Caution against ‘separatism.’

It was a decision that did not side easily with the current Moderator’s chosen theme for his year in office – “building relationships.”

Nor with the church’s recent public statements encouraging Northern Ireland’s politicians to work through their differences in an effort to restore a power-sharing Assembly at Stormont.

One former moderator, Dr. Trevor Morrow, in seeking to persuade his colleagues to vote differently, cautioned them against “separatism.”

Another, Dr. John Dunlop, in an impassioned plea, even appeared to challenge their theological right to separate.

To do so, he said, could be tantamount to flouting their biblical obligation to share in fellowship with a properly constituted church- even if they regretted the recent direction of travel of that church.

But the vote could not be avoided. This was a moment of truth for the General Assembly that now seems almost inevitable.

As I watched the result of the vote announced by the Moderator, Dr. Charles McMullen, it was like watching the final, rather a formal stage of a couple divorcing – with all the pain and heartache, regret and anger, that so often accompanies a long relationship coming to an end.

And this was a very long relationship.

Presbyterianism in Ireland is an off-shoot of the Church of Scotland: its first ministers arrived during the Plantation of Ulster in the early 17th century.

‘Once mother church, now distant cousins’

For generations, Irish Presbyterians were proud to describe the Church of Scotland as their “mother church.”

In recent years, as the cultural and theological differences between the two denominations became more pronounced and more apparent, the term “sister church” acquired more currency.

Now, the Presbyterians of Ireland and Scotland appear to be increasingly distant cousins.

The Scots have made it clear that they want to maintain the friendship, even in the face of growing disagreements.

Image copyright Presbyterian Church in Ireland
Image caption Rev Charles McMullen was elected church moderator on Monday
But the majority of ministers and elders at the Irish General Assembly signaled that they’d had enough.

Those making a case for a formal separation said the theological distance between Ireland and Scotland had widened so far that it could no longer be tolerated – the Scottish church’s decisions over recent years to affirm the equal place of its LGBT members.

‘Same-sex relationship incompatible.’

It already permits the ordination of lesbian and gay ministers, including ministers in same-sex relationships.

Last month its General Assembly, meeting in Edinburgh, authorized officials to review any changes in church law necessary to allow ministers to preside at same-sex-marriage weddings.

Meanwhile, this week in Belfast, the Irish General Assembly asserted, in a report from its Doctrine Committee, that being in a same-sex relationship is incompatible with full membership of the church, and that the children of same-sex couples should be denied baptism.

While some will regard that stance as harsh, perhaps even cruel, its advocates say they are merely upholding biblical teaching and preserving their own doctrinal integrity.

But, however you read it, this is the clearest indication so far from Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant denomination that it is traveling in an entirely different direction.

In effect, it is the theological equivalent of taking back control of its traditional teachings in the face of a changing culture within parts of the church, particularly in the West, that appears willing to accept and affirm sexual diversity.

Image caption Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick said that the Irish and Scottish churches share the same DNA and the separation carries with it the potential for a split within Irish Presbyterianism
The actions of this year’s General Assembly undoubtedly separate the Irish Presbyterian Church from many other churches across Europe who have reached out to LGBT people with a message of welcome and affirmation.

‘Tragic decision.’

The Irish church’s decisions this week also present serious pastoral challenges for congregations seeking to relate to the communities around them.

And there is clearly a risk that the church’s message will alienate even sections of its own membership, particularly younger Presbyterians, who have shown a willingness to embrace many of the cultural changes taking place in our society.

Expressing his personal dismay at the “tragic” decision to sever its Assembly-level links with the Church of Scotland, Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick, a Presbyterian minister and historian, told the BBC that the Irish and Scottish churches share the same DNA and that this week’s formal separation carries with it the potential for a split within Irish Presbyterianism.

Certainly, the fractures within the Irish church were already painfully visible in the tears of some of those who walked away from its divided General Assembly.

Scots to blame for the Presbyterian split over same-sex marriage

Billy Kennedy. News Letter. Belfast. Saturday.  June 9, 2018.

 This week’s Irish Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast produced a seismic shift in relationships and difference in doctrinal theology with the Church of Scotland that may be irreparable or will take some time to heal.

Thursday’s 255-171 vote by Irish ministers and elders to break off formal ties with the Scottish Kirk — historically the ‘Mother Church’ of Irish Presbyterianism dating back to the 17th century -—has created shock waves in reformed religious circles on both sides of the north channel.

 Fundamentals in the theological fall-out between the Irish and Scottish churches center on The Kirk’s gradual move towards acceptance of same-sex marriage, as agreed by a majority vote at its General Assembly last month.

 The liberal stance was taken by Edinburgh church leaders on same-sex marriage, according to the Irish Presbyterian hierarchy and congregational clergy and elders overturn traditional Biblical teaching that marriage is strictly a union between a man and a woman.

No longer will the Scottish Moderator be welcomed at a Belfast Assembly and the Irish church will discontinue sending representatives to the Edinburgh Assembly. After an emotional, tense debate, visiting Scottish Moderator the Rev Dr. Susan Brown was in tears when the vote to break ties was announced, and her colleague Rev. Dr. George Whyte led an unceremonious walk-out of his delegation.

 In comments afterward, implicitly defending the stance on same-sex marriage, Mrs. Brown could have chosen her words better when she said: “Sadly, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has allowed those differences of opinion to drive a wedge between us.”

Yet, it was the Scottish church which created the schism. The marked difference in attitudes on same-sex marriage is not surprising: Irish Presbyterianism is a conservative Bible-led church, and there is absolutely no chance, now or in the foreseeable future, of clergy and elders here departing from scripture to follow their Scottish counterparts. Views of the two churches on this most controversial issue are incompatible – there is no meeting of minds. Presbyterianism was founded in Ulster by 17th century Scots’ army chaplains, and for centuries worshippers in meeting houses here and in Scottish Kirks have had close religious and cultural affinity.
Presbyterian traditionalists appear long on preaching and short on love

 Alf McCreary. Belfast Telegraph. Saturday, Jue 9, 2018

It has been a bad week for the image of the Presbyterian Church, or a good week, depending on your point of view.

The traditionalists will feel they have held the line by once again showing their opposition to same-sex marriage and by loosening their historically strong connection with the Church of Scotland.

Many Irish Presbyterians feel the Scots were wrong to allow partners in same-sex relationships to serve as ministers or deacons in congregations that approve of this.

The traditionalists voted by a majority of 255 to 171 to stop inviting Scottish Moderators to the Irish General Assembly and again refused to send the Irish Moderator to the Scottish Assembly.

Outsiders noted the hypocrisy of the General Assembly severely criticising the political stand-off at Stormont, then voting to loosen its links with the Scottish church.

While the Irish General Assembly also voted to continue or consider to collaborate with the Scots in areas of mutual benefit, this was a polite attempt to paper over the cracks.

The Irish dagger went into Scottish hearts even after their Moderator, the Rt Rev Susan Brown, pleaded eloquently that they should all remain part of the one family, in the name of Christ.

Her pleas were ignored, and I cannot think of a more rude gesture by our church.

The traditionalists are entitled to their views, and many are decent people. They will say they did not mean it to seem rude, but the symbolism was inescapable.

A former distinguished local Moderator, the Very Rev John Dunlop, said afterward, “It would make you cry.”

There was also the sad sight of Scots Principal Clerk the Rev George Whyte declaring sorrowfully: “We have to go, but we will keep you in our prayers, and if you change your minds, our door is always open.”

It was also immensely sad to hear the newly elected Moderator, the Very Rev Dr. Charles McMullen, talk of his heartbreak.

In his eloquent speech on the opening night, he made a passionate plea about “building relationships,” but two days later the words were hurled back in his face.

Many Presbyterian reports claim to show pastoral care for LGBT relationships, but how many of those involved feel directly that compassionate pastoral care which the assembly reports claim?

One delegate asked the writers to be careful about how they chose their words because they might make young LGBT people feel like they were second-class Christians.

Another delegate urged members to join him in saying, “Whatever your background, in Christ’s name we love you.”

That went down like a lead balloon.

Then yesterday the Church’s voted in favor of a new policy which means anyone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a full member of the Church and their children cannot be baptized.

Christ said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” but some Irish Presbyterians say, “Not if you are the child or parents in a same-sex relationship.”

The traditionalists here are saying to the Scots, in effect, “Our theology on same-sex relationships is more Biblical than yours, and you should come to your senses.” Such arrogance is staggering.

In the past 50 years or so, the Irish Presbyterians have left the World Council of Churches, they have distanced themselves from the British Council of Churches, and now they have loosened the ties with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church in England.

This is an ecclesiological version of ‘ourselves alone,’ which mirrors the old ‘Ulster says no’ political slogan.

The Irish Presbyterian Church is now seen by many outsiders, rightly or wrongly, as a narrow and unwelcoming institution that is long on preaching and short on humility, compassion, and love.

Many individual Presbyterians have these positive qualities in abundance, but the image of the institution is very different.

If you were a young person, or a parent, who had deep worries about sexuality, would you seek love and comfort within the Presbyterian Church? I hope you would, but I would fully understand it if you walked away to find help elsewhere.