The moderator designate of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has said he would “relish the opportunity” to meet Pope Francis should he come to Northern Ireland.
At a press conference in Assembly Buildings in Belfast Rev Charles McMullen also answered questions on gay marriage and abortion.
Pope Francis will visit the Republic of Ireland later this year and there has been much speculation he could come to Northern Ireland during the same trip.
Asked if he would meet the pope if he came to the Province, Rev McMullen – who was elected as moderator by a majority vote on Tuesday night and will take up the post in June – said: “If he does come ... and if an invitation is extended, our two churches would work out the basis on which that meeting would occur.
“As far as I am concerned, personally I would relish the opportunity of meeting the pope.”
He said a number of gestures such as the Queen’s visit to Dublin have been incredibly important to the peace process over the past few years.
“I would hope that by meeting the pope it would be a small contribution on my part,” he said.
Rev McMullen, who will be officially installed as moderator in June, was asked for his views regarding the upcoming abortion referendum in the Irish Republic.
He said: “In terms of the referendum ... we are a very strongly pro-life church. We can’t tell people how to vote in the actual referendum but we can give some advice from a scriptural point of view.”
The 57-year-old Omagh-born minister added: “We are a church which I hope has a voice for the marginalised and for the baby in the womb.
“We can talk about the different relationships that are involved – not just the foetus but the mother and father, the wider family as well.”
Talking about women who had become pregnant through rape or who know their child has a fatal foetal abnormality, he said: “I feel their pain and there are no easy answers.
“The real difficulty is if we allow ourselves to open abortion in that way then there is the danger of it becoming much more widespread. That has been the case in England and Wales.”
He added: “We would need to talk that through on a case-by-case basis. I’m not speaking to you as someone who is heartless in all of this.”
Last year there was a split between the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and its ‘mother’ church – the Church of Scotland – whose general assembly agreed to consider changes to church law that could pave the way for ministers to preside over same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The ruling body also approved an apology to gay and lesbian people for the history of discrimination they have faced in the church.
On the subject Rev McMullen, who has been minister of Bangor West Church since 1999, said: “I find any division between churches very painful. I’d rather it not be the case. As a denomination we support the traditional definition of the marriage being between one man and one woman, a voluntary union for life.”
In terms of the general assembly’s decision not to send its moderator to the Church of Scotland’s assembly, Rev McMullen said: “This particular resolution was passed to put a marker down to say we felt we were departing from Biblical standards. I would have to support what has been decided until such times as a different decision might be taken.”
Asked if there were those within his church in Bangor – which he described as “very diverse” – who would take a different view on gay marriage, he said: “My own style is welcoming and inclusive, an open invitation to anyone to come.
“I’m sure there might well be varying interpretations within the congregation, but from what I can perceive, it would be the traditional point of view overall.”