Over 200 Presbyterian ministers and elders have come together to express their “hurt, dismay and anger” over the church’s policies on same-sex relationships.
In a public statement, which seemingly indicates a profound fracture within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, members of the denomination speak of an “unprecedented” level of concern regarding recent decisions taken by at the general assembly last month.
It comes after the church voted to stop sending its lead cleric to assemblies of two denominations with liberal stances on homosexuality, and said it would withhold full membership from anyone in a same-sex relationship and deny baptism for their children – all of which have caused heated controversy.
The statement is signed by 232 members, including Rev David Latimer of First Derry Presbyterian Church, former moderator Rev Ken Newelll, and the church’s first female minister, Rev Ruth Paterson.
Entitled ‘A Cry from the Heart’, the signatories express fears that the recent moves regarding same-sex marriage will “damage” the church’s credibility and “limit” its future.
In response, a spokesperson for the church said: “People are free to debate in publc, but it is the nature of the discourse that is important.”
The statement referred to an “unprecedented” level of concern among the 232 ministers and elders (known as teaching and ruling elders) and said they acknowledged and shared the “profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger currently being expressed” following the 2018 General Assembly.
It added: “We are committed to doing all we can to ensure that the decisions which have prompted such a level of concern will be subject to the urgent attention they deserve, and for which many in the church are calling.
“We gladly acknowledge that we ourselves have been constantly enriched and challenged by the diversity of views found in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
“Therefore, as we participate in this work of critical engagement and discernment, we hold that any unnecessary narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will damage our credibility and limit our future.”
In response to the statement, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland acknowledged that, in a church with more than 6,400 ministers and elders, “many will hold different views and some will choose to express them publicly in this and other ways”.
A spokesperson for the church added: “In a recent pastoral letter to ministers following this year’s general assembly, the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen, said that ‘the mind of our general assembly was very clearly expressed at the end of debates which, I believe, were conducted fairly and sensitively. Sadly, however, considerable hurt has been caused among various members of our denomination.’
“As the clerk of the general assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben, said in his accompanying letter, people are free to debate in public, but it is the nature of the discourse that is important.
“Therefore it is worth positively noting that the 200-plus ministers and elders who were signatories, state that they were making their statement ‘as a prayerful expression of appropriate loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’.
“Discussions will also, no doubt, take place within the structures of the church, in presbyteries and kirk sessions.
“Indeed in his letter the clerk also gave guidance as to how any decision of the general assembly could be changed.”
The latest development in the fallout of the controversial general assembly decisions comes just weeks after a string of Presbyterian politicians questioned the direction of the church.
Three Presbyterian MLAs voiced their hurt over the issue to the BBC last month.
UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt said some people seem intent on taking the church down a more conservative path, adding: “I feel the church has become a much colder house for me.”
He added: “My attendance at church over recent months has not been anything to be proud of so I am not sure they would even miss me. But I am very uncomfortable with supporting those decisions.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “I don’t know if I am going to hang in there and it is very painful.”
Her party colleague David Ford MLA said there had been a move to “single out” those in same-sex relations as an “almost unique sin”.
Their remarks come after former Assembly speaker Lord Alderdice resigned from the church overs its stance on same-sex relationships.