The removal of David Ford from his position as an elder within his Presbyterian congregation does not make the denomination a cold place for freedom of conscience, a prominent Northern Ireland cleric has insisted.
The former Alliance Party leader has been removed as an elder of the Second Donegore congregation, where he has held the role for almost three decades, after speaking out publicly in favour of gay marriage.
Mr Ford’s views have seen him taken out of the role in his local church, although a ruling from the Presbyterian Church’s Judicial Commission means he remains “an elder in good standing” and eligible to hold that post in other congregations.
Rev Dr David Latimer, a minister at First Derry Presbyterian Church, told BBC TalkBack that the ruling shows that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is “not a cold place for people who want to exercise their freedom of conscience and freedom of speech”.
He added: “When I learned of the ruling I must say I was dismayed and disappointed. Not every congregation is the same. If David Ford had been in First Derry he would still be an elder in First Derry. There is unease that has resulted in fractured relationships within the congregation.”
Another prominent Presbyterian cleric, Rev Dr Leslie Caroll, said the issue at stake was whether the church’s long standing tradition of freedom of conscience should be extended to the issue of gay marriage. The former convener of the Presbyterian Church and Society Committee said there was some disagreement within the church on the issue.
She said: “It is difficult to speak on some issues and I think it is important for us to understand why that is from the church’s point of view.
“Freedom of conscience has always been a part of our tradition, a very important part of our tradition, but that has never been without limit. We have limited freedom of conscience, specifically by the Westminster confession of faith. There are some things about which we are happy to disagree, have disputes about and you can have a conscience about.
“The point is that for some folks within the Presbyterian Church this is a critical matter about which we may not disagree whereas for others it is a matter about which we can exercise conscience. For me this is an issue about which we can talk but I understand that there are others who think that is not the case.”
The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rev Dr Frank Sellar, told the Belfast Telegraph: “I think the Judicial Commission have been very keen to get a very balanced judgment. Hopefully it’s something that’s affirming to the various hurt parties – it’s not simply one side or another that are exclusively hurt.
“There are two parties here that are hurting. The judicial committee has spent a long time working on the situation and their comments are very well chosen and balanced. Hopefully it will enable those who are on both sides and will help them draw a line in the sand and together move forward with grace.”