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 centre 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 taken by Edinburgh church leaders on same-sex marriage, according to the Irish Presbyterian hierarchy and congregational clergy and elders, overturns 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 afterwards, 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.