Justice Minister David Ford has stepped down as a Presbyterian elder while the church authorities investigate his support for gay marriage.
The Alliance Party leader – who voiced his support of same-sex marriage eight months ago while the Presbyterian Church opposed the proposal – has stepped aside as an elder in the church where his family have worshipped for decades.
The South Antrim MLA’s decision was announced to the congregation of Second Donegore Presbyterian Church on Sunday after months of private meetings in which Templepatrick Presbytery asked Mr Ford to explain his position.
When contacted yesterday, the church’s minister, the Rev James Tosh, directed queries to Presbyterian headquarters in Church House.
It is understood that Templepatrick Presbytery has launched an investigation into the controversy, although the Presbyterian Church has stressed that the politician is not being disciplined.
The development has echoes of the debates sparked in the US where some pro-abortion Roman Catholic politicians have been refused Mass because of their views.
The magnitude of the issue and its implications for other situations throughout the church mean that the Presbyterian General Assembly is likely to be asked to discuss the issue.
The church released a copy of the statement which the Rev Tosh read to his congregation – in which Mr Ford has been an elder for about 20 years – on Sunday.
It said: “The kirk session wishes to inform the congregation that David Ford has, with sadness, decided to step aside for a time from the active duties of the eldership to reduce any offence his position has apparently caused to some within the congregation.
“The kirk session has accepted David’s decision.”
Last night Mr Ford confirmed that he had stepped aside as an elder but declined to elaborate beyond the statement which was read in church on Sunday.
When asked whether his party would change its approach to gay marriage when the issue again comes before the Assembly next week, Mr Ford said that the party was discussing its position.
He suggested that Alliance may table an amendment to the Sinn Fein motion which calls for same-sex marriage, with the amendment spelling out that it would only support gay marriage if there were protections for churches opposed to the change.
In a statement, the Clerk of the Templepatrick Presbytery, Rev John Murdock, said: “Unease has been expressed by some members of Second Donegore Presbyterian Church, where David Ford serves as an elder, concerning his publicly stated views on marriage equality.
“To ease any offence that he may have apparently caused, Mr Ford has voluntarily decided to step aside from the active duties of eldership for a time. This was announced to the congregation last Sunday, April 21.
“The conduct of elders is not a matter for their congregation but for the supervising presbytery and the Presbytery of Templepatrick of which Second Donegore is a member is aware of the situation.”
Another Executive minister who is a Presbyterian elder, Danny Kennedy, told the Assembly last October: “I’m opposed to [gay marriage] not just on the basis of my church, the Presbyterian Church...but also most importantly the reaching of Holy Scripture.”