Northern Ireland abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, transgenderism: Presbyterian Church in Ireland says it will not back down on bible whether it is ‘loved or despised, respected or reviled’

The outgoing moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland has told critics inside and outside the church that “we will not rewrite” the bible when it comes to issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, transgenderism - even though some critics brand it “dangerous”.

By Philip Bradfield
Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 8:00 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd June 2022, 8:15 pm

Rev Dr David Bruce was speaking on the opening night of the 2022 General Assembly of the denomination at Church House in Belfast, the first time the 1000 or so elders from some 500 congregations across the island of Ireland have met in person to make policy decisions since the pandemic. 

After two years criss-crossing Presbyterian congregations across the Island as moderator, Rev Bruce told the assembled leaders that while it would engage with critics graciously, the church would not be changing its stance on issues such as abortion, euthanisa, same sex marrige or transgenderism - based on its reading of the bible and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

”We have found ourselves in recent times under harsh scrutiny as a people,” he said. “Some have struggled to understand what we mean when we say we are a confessional church, with standards to which we physically subscribe as elders at the moment of our ordination. Our critics, alighting on a number of social policy issues such as the provision of abortion, end of life care, the redefinition of marriage, a changed understanding of human identity, among others consider our views to be incomprehensible, or even dangerous.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The outgoing Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (left) Very Rev Dr David Bruce, shakes hands with his successor and Moderator of the all-Ireland denomination for 2022-2023, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick.

In 2018 the denomination made headlines when elders from across the island of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to exclude anyone in an active same sex relationship from full membership. The move - which reflects similar traditional definitions of marriage in the Catholic and Anglican churches - caused much media controversy.

Rev Bruce told the assembly tonight: “We are painted as rigid, unchanging and even unloving. We have been described as a people who exclude rather than include; as a church which judges sinners rather than offers grace; as a people who do not mean what we say when we advertise that ‘All are welcome’. A denomination which will be left behind on ‘the wrong side of history’. A few have left us while others have sought to change our minds from within. Some have adopted a position of overt opposition to us in the media.

“We do of course need to listen carefully to those who criticise us. Like any human organisation which has been around for a while, we have our blind spots, prejudices and deficiencies – of course we do. This is one of the reasons why we meet in General Assembly, so that we can scrutinise our positions on various matters of policy, life and doctrine, and under God discern His mind, and hold each other to account.

“But similarly, we need to be confident in the calling we have received to be the church of God, and especially when to do so means swimming against the tide. In particular, and for us with confessed standards which define us, we need to state with loving clarity to the world around us, that we are not minded to re-define our relationship with the Bible, which as our supreme standard we consider to be the word of God. We will not re-write it, re-edit it or re-frame it.”

He claimed that under this “generous canopy of truth... There is room here, and we include all who wish to come, embraced by the forgiveness bought by Christ on our behalf – the ultimate act of generous inclusion before the human race.”

And claims that Christian conversion is a move “from darkness to light, from brokenness to wholeness, from sin to forgiveness is what Paul meant by the offence of the cross. And yes, it is provocative, because it cuts through the pretence that all is well with us, just as it is healing because it offers us hope that all may be well with us. Of course the gospel is offensive! It says we are all dead in transgressions and sins. Not that we are merely mistaken, or misguided, or confused, but spiritually dead, without hope and without God in the world.) But at the heart of its offensiveness is the beauty of its truth. You don’t need to stay dead.”

The cleric went on to envisage the the church may potentially face surging hostility in the future for holding to its traditional values.

He added: “I do not know what the future of Ireland - North and South - will be, but I pray this – that those of us who live here bearing the name of Jesus, whether loved or despised, respected or reviled, would walk Peter’s mixed up journey of grief and rejoicing, knowing that Jesus has gone ahead of us and is even now cheering us on and waving us home. Keep going. Do not falter. Glory awaits!”

Same sex marriage was legalised in the southern jurisdication of the church in 2015 and in Northern Ireland in 2020. 

In 2019 Queen’s University Belfast cut long standing ties with the church’s theological training centre, Union Theological College. And there have also been public rows with a number of elders over the issue with several clergy making high profile resignations in protest over the church’s position on same sex relationships.

The UK government recently announced plans to ban gay ‘conversion therapy’ which critics say could intervene into churches’ pastoral counselling on sexuality. Stormont is also working on similar draft legislation, potentially putting many denominations on a collision course with government.

Dr Bruce was ordained in 1984 as Secretary to Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (now Christian Unions Ireland). The following year he was installed as assistant minister in Wellington Street Presbyterian Church, Ballymena, and was called to Clontarf, Ormond Quay and Scots Presbyterian Churches in Dublin as their minister in 1987 where he remained until 1992, having been appointed General Director of Scripture Union Northern Ireland.

He became PCI’s Secretary to the Board of Mission in Ireland in 2007, continuing in his role for the Council for Mission in Ireland in 2015, a post he still holds making him the first Moderator in over 20 years to come from a position outside of parish ministry.

The assembly is livestreamed at www.presbyterianireland.org/ga22

READ MORE: