PRESBYTERIAN moderator Dr Norman Hamilton has come under fire from within his church after accepting invitations to two events in honour of Pope Benedict XVI.
The Rev Mark Neilly of Buckna Presbyterian Church in Broughshane expressed his "great disgust, frustration and hurt" at the news that Dr Hamilton will attend a service in Westminster Abbey on Friday at which the pope will be present.
Rev Neilly said yesterday that the issue of ecumenism between the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI] and the Roman Catholic Church had caused "massive debate" in the PCI in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"It finished with the Presbyterian Church coming out of the World Council of Churches (of which the Roman Catholic Church is a member] and I think that is why this is so hurtful," he said.
"We had already taken this decision not to have any formal engagement with the Roman Catholic Church. Members of my own congregation have already come forward to raise their concerns about this visit by the moderator.
"The pope has made clear his views that all other denominations are not churches – he said this in 2000 in the 'Dominus Iesus' document and he reaffirmed it last year."
Rev Neilly said the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith was at explicit odds with the teachings of the Catholic church on the doctrine of salvation.
"This is what the Reformation was all about," he said. "The Protestant churches, based on scripture, teach that people are saved by asking Christ to forgive our sins and believing He has.
"In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that good works
play an equal part in salvation. But if we go down that route we can end up thinking that living a decent life will get us into heaven, and that is the wrong path. The Apostle James says that good works are only evidence of salvation."
He added that Presbyterian ministers sign the Westminster Confession of Faith, which he said describes the pope as "that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition".
A PCI spokesman said Dr Hamilton had turned down an invitation to meet the pope but has received two invitations connected with the visit.
The first is a reception hosted by the Queen at Holyrood Palace in
Edinburgh on Thursday and the second is a Church of England service in Westminster Abbey on Friday, which will be attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the pope.
Because the moderator is in Malawi at present, Clerk of Assembly Rev Dr Donald Watts will attend Thursday's event, while the moderator will attend Friday's.
Dr Hamilton, who is an outspoken critic of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, said he considered it important to attend the church service "so as to be able to pay appropriate respect to the devout Roman Catholic people of Ireland and the leader of their church".
He added: "I have however declined the invitation to be presented to the pope."
On BBC radio on Sunday the Moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, Rev Ron Johnstone, challenged Dr Hamilton for planning to attend Friday's service.
"We repudiate these Protestant churchmen who will welcome the pope, meet with him or refuse to publicly condemn his teachings," he said.