The Irish Presbyterian Church has always been a broad church where conservatives and liberals have managed to stay together in a loose coalition that accepts the theological parameters of Reformed Protestantism.
Majority decisions at last month’s General Assembly in Belfast, however, have created acute tensions and a potential schism, that threatens the stability and viability of Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant denomination.
The General Assembly voted decisively to cut its historic ties with the Church of Scotland because of the latter’s espousal of same-sex marriage within its portals. For the great majority of Irish Presbyterian ministers and elders this was a step too far by the Scottish Kirk, contravening the traditional Biblical interpretation that marriage is strictly a union between a man and a woman. The Church also decided to debar the children of homosexual parents from accepting communion.
Since those decisions, much has been written and said on both sides in a most intense debate, with strident secular radio and newspaper commentators, with little or no understanding of Reformed Biblical theology, weighing in to denounce and castigate the entire Presbyterian Church. Alliance politicians had their say and two commentators, personally well versed in Presbyterianism, joined the siren choruses against the democratic decisions taken at Church House.
This week, 232 liberal Presbyterian clerics and elders released a letter clearly at odds with their General Assembly. It was an expression by a section of the church who may feel restricted in their ministry. However, in briefly stating their position, there is a vagueness about what direction they want the church to move. By expressing the view that “any unnecessary narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives within the Presbyterian Church will damage our credibility and limit our future”, are they demanding the church abandons its Bible standpoint on same-sex marriage? This is a question they must answer.
On this page last week, former Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Dr Ian McNie said the Assembly decision was a desire by the majority to adhere to the Word of God. Dr McNie added: “The church believes ‘the Word of God’ set forth in the Old and New Testaments, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, the supreme standard of the Church”. Enough said.