What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. The words of Ecclesiastes 1:9.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) meets next week and will consider reports in the light of the public controversy following last year’s Assembly.
They will be asked to reaffirm that the “PCI is a confessional church”, “there is a difference between members having freedom to hold/promote a range of views, and elders/ministers having the same freedom”, and that “marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman”.
The present controversy appears to have its origin in the reaction to the report of the Doctrine Committee to the 2018 General Assembly.
This stated: “In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children.”
There are two aspects of this controversy which worry me.
Firstly the apparent inability of those who publicly expressed their concern to consider the various Reports of PCI on homosexuality since 1979.
Secondly, the ineptitude in relation to the history of attacks on orthodoxy over recent centuries.
One wonders why the previous reports on ‘The Church and the Homosexual’ (1979), ‘Pastoral Guidelines: Homosexuality’ (2006), and the more recent ‘The Church and Human Sexuality’ (2013) did not generate a similar response.
In commending the 1979 report to the Presbyteries for study and comment, the Assembly considered it desirable“to draw the attention of all people to the fact that the Holy Scriptures clearly condemn homosexual practices, as they also condemn heterosexual immorality, but as clearly declare to those so involved, the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ with the promise of forgiveness and strength in response to repentance and faith”.
The 2007 report stated “as with all areas of sexual attraction, what we do about it as individuals is a matter of choice for which we are morally responsible”.
The 2013 report stated: “The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.”
It will be evident to any careful reader of the 2018 report that it is consistent with these previous reports.
Why therefore have the signatories of both ‘A Cry from the Heart’ and ‘Creative Conversations’ [letters voicing concern at the 2018 PCI decision] not raised their voice in the past? Why do they seem to think that this is a ‘new policy’?
Throughout the history of Presbyterianism in Ireland there have been various attacks on the orthodoxy of Presbyterian teaching. This often arose, like the present attack on orthodoxy, under the guise of “freedom”, “liberty” or the “right of conscience”.
Every student of church history is well informed of the controversies of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is surprising that we have escaped the repeat of this controversy in the 20th century, but it has not been long into the 21st century to see it reemerge.
The 18th century controversy involved the “right of conscience” – a phrase familiar in the present dispute. The Code [the book of The Constitution and Government of the PCI] reference to The Westminster Confession, quoted by the “Creative Conversation Group” – “God alone is Lord of the conscience” – was very deftly used by the New Light party in the 1700s to justify their position, but covering up their real belief and intent, and is used out of context in the present dispute.
It was suspected that many of the New Light persuasion were Arian. Arianism is the heresy denying the divinity of Christ (originating with the Alexandrian priest Arius, c. 250 – c. 336). However, they were discrete about this since to deny the Trinity would bring legal consequences.
The 19th century saw a repeat of the controversy of the previous century with the personalities of Henry Cooke and Henry Montgomery. Cooke regarded Trinitarianism as orthodoxy and any denial of the Trinity as heresy.
It was not until he took up the battle in the 1820s that the Synod of Ulster, and therefore the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, was purged of New Light and Arian influence.
What this history demonstrates is the danger inherent in the present attitude which challenges the authority of the doctrine of the Church and which uses the Confession selectively to justify its reasoning and actions.
Every minister and elder of the PCI accepts that: “Reason and conscience are subject to the authority of the Word of God.”
The present stances of ‘A Cry from the Heart’, and ‘Creative Conversations’ bear all the hallmarks of the undying reasoning of the controversies of the past. This sentiment was further emphasised by an elder who publicly stated that he did not follow the doctrines of the Seventeenth century but the Bible and his conscience.
Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun”.
~ Brian Kennaway is a retired PCI minister, who publishes commentary on this website: bkennaway.com ; the General Assembly of the PCI begins on Monday and runs until Friday at central Belfast’s Assembly Buildings