A document entitled ‘A cry from the heart’ was issued to the media on July 6 2018 and published in the News Letter that day ‘Unprecedented hurt and anger after 2018 Presbyterian general assembly’, July 6, Letters).
It was signed by 36 ministers, 21 retired — 18 from active parish ministry and three from alternative ministry. Of the 15 active 13 are in parish ministry and two in alternative ministry.
Some 196 elders signed, but the vast majority come from just 19 congregations. In a church consisting of 536 congregations, 5,913 elders and 490 ministers, the 232 signatures represent only a very small minority of the ministers and elders of Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI).
Many fellow Presbyterians are confused about the content and purpose of their actions. As there is no specific demand, they are open to the allegation that they are attempting to overthrow or undermine the democratic decisions of the general assembly.
These signatories are duty-bound, in the interests of clarity and openness, to answer some important questions that arise from their statement.
What was the cause of ‘the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger’ highlighted in this document?
Was it the decision not to continue the ceremonial relations with the Church of Scotland?
A decision democratically reached by 255 to 171, or was it the decision to accept the report of the doctrine committee where only 12 members dissented — eight ministers, three retired, and four elders. Or, was it both?
This raises a fundamental question about the ‘decisions which have prompted such a level of concern’. Was it the decisions which prompted this, or the media clamour now ably supported by the issue of this statement?
The phrase, ‘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’, is alarming.
The PCI is bound, both morally and legally, to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which all 232 signed, “as a confession of my faith”. The confession prevents such a ‘narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives’, as it does similarly any ‘broadening’. There is freedom of conscience within the parameters of the confession.
To state that; ‘unnecessary narrowing ... will damage our credibility and limit our future’, raises the question of who is the judge of our credibility?
The context of this statement suggests that it is society, rather than ‘the Lord Jesus Christ, the sole King and Head of the Church’.
Faithfulness to Christ takes priority over what is acceptable to modern society.
What is meant by ‘appropriate’ loyalty? Is loyalty to the PCI only ‘suitable or acceptable for a particular situation’? How can this ‘appropriate loyalty’ be equated to the ordination promise of all ministers and elders to ‘yield submission in the Lord to the courts of this Church’?
The real issue is one of authority, in the life of the church and the individual. As far as PCI is concerned: “It is the privilege, right and duty of every person to examine the Scriptures, and each individual is bound to submit to their authority.” (Code Par. 11)
I can understand ‘churches’ who do not accept the authority of scripture, shaping their theology and practice in order to accommodate the morals of modern society.
PCI ministers and elders however, are required prior to ordination, to answer in the affirmative the following question: “Do you believe the Word of God as set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the only infallible rule of faith and practice?”
Elders and ministers are asked very specific questions at ordination; affirming the confession and catechisms, adherence to the fundamental doctrines of the faith, upholding of Reformed doctrine, and obedience to the courts of the church.
How can anyone sign the confession and endorse ‘same-sex marriage/relationships’ as a ‘credible profession of faith’? The confession states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman”. The general assembly in 2014 underscored this by a resolution which stated that marriage is “exclusively between one man and one woman”.
If ministers and elders are to “yield submission in the Lord to the courts of this Church”, does the signing of ‘A cry from the heart’ not negate such a promise? We were reminded: “Decisions of the assembly are final and binding upon the whole church, but a member of the assembly who dissents from a decision may require a statement of the fact of his dissent to be recorded in the minutes, although he shall not thereby free himself from obligation loyally to implement the decision so long as it stands unaltered.” (Code 104 (3))
Ministers promise to “preserve the peace and unity of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland”, does signing “A cry for the heart” not negate that promise?
Personal credibility requires that we are serious about the promises we make and declare ourselves willing to be bound by them for whatever time we serve as ministers and elders in PCI.
• Rev Brian Kennaway is a retired Presbyterian minister