Presbyterian church dismisses Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick for ‘adverse’ comments on BBC about his employer

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has dismissed a college professor on grounds of making ‘unacceptable’ comments to the media about his employer without seeking prior approval.

Thursday, 21st March 2019, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 21st March 2019, 4:31 pm
Union Theological College in Belfast

A church disciplinary panel found the Rev Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick guilty of “gross misconduct” as a result, the BBC has reported.

He was on the teaching staff at Union Theological College (UTC), a college owned and run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) which trains its own clergy and also provides undergraduate courses for Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). QUB has since suspended links with UTC.

The letter which informed him of his dismissal highlighted his comments to BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback in June 2018 after PCI’s decision to cut official links with the Church of Scotland over the issue of same sex relationships.

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He was commenting after a controversial vote by church leaders from across Ireland in June, which affirmed that nobody in a same sex relationship could be a full member of the church.

The letter to Mr Kirkpatrick, seen and reported by the BBC, said: “Your contribution to the Talkback programme on 13 June 2018 brought Union Theological College and by association, your employer, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland into disrepute.

“Your comments on the Talkback programme had a significant and material adverse impact on PCI’s relationship with Queen’s University Belfast and caused hurt and damage to the faculty’s relationship and cohesion.”

The letter said he had taken part in the Talkback programme “at a time when there was considerable media comment, mostly of an adverse nature, about your employer, the Presbyterian Church”.

It said that he had failed to gain the church’s approval for taking part and that his comments were “unacceptable”.

“You stated that you would be ‘horrified’, using that word twice, if a student at Union Theological College was taught that a same-sex, sexually active relationship was sinful, knowing full well that was the doctrinal position of your employer,” the BBC reported.

It also said that when another guest had questioned QUB’s link to UTC, he made no attempt to defend the college’s reputation.

The letter said that Prof Kirkpatrick’s comments had “contributed significantly to a fracturing of the relationship between your employer and Queen’s University Belfast”.

The disciplinary panel found that his participation and what he said on-air amounted to gross misconduct and left them with no alternative but to dismiss him.

Another four charges related to offences including entering UTC and attending a Queen’s graduation ceremony after he had been suspended, as well as unauthorised access to the church’s IT systems.

These constituted misconduct and would have led to one ‘first’ and three ‘final’ written warnings, the panel found.

UTC said it could not comment as the case was “an employment matter which is still subject to appeal”.

A QUB spokeswoman said it has no role in the staffing arrangements at UTC and is not in a position to comment on specific cases. Prof Kirkpatrick offered no comment to the BBC.

Last June Prof Kirkpatrick told BBC Talkback that lecturers at UTC have got to “try and create a neutral environment, and of course I would be heartbroken if anyone turned around and said; ‘Kirkpatrick, you have been bigoted against Catholic students or gay students or whatever’.”

He said of his students: “I don’t even ask religious background. I don’t ask anything, obviously, about someone’s sexual leanings or anything or like that.”

Asked by presenter William Crawley what would happen if a gay student at UTC was offered “only one view” that a “same-sex sexually active relationship is sinful”, Professor Kirkpatrick replied: “I would be horrified if they would be getting that in our college. And it is of course not consistent with the university; as near as possible we uphold everything that the university stands for, our diversity, inclusiveness, equality - all of those things. That is what adds to the mix. I would be horrified if that was the case.”

Mr Crawley said today on BBC Talkback that he had a document from the Presbyterian church which lays out the ways they are developing a task group the decision making and dissent. He said it is tasked with drawing up a report on Presbyterian decision making and the place of dissent, and that the report will go first to the general council and then the general assembly of the church.

A range of commentators on BBC Talkback expressed deep disappointment yesterday with the Presbyterian Church’s decision to dismiss Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick.

Alliance MLA David Ford, who had previously clashed with the church after voicing a more liberal position on same sex relationships, told Talkback he is now “an elder without charge” as a result of that controversy.

He said: “If find it very surprising that anything he said... was anything beyond the expression of his individual conscience as he, a minister of the church, is entitled to do; as any minister or elder is entitled to do. They are bound by the decisions of the General Assembly but they have freedom of conscience to express their views. And I find it very sad that Laurence Kirkpatrick has faced disciplinary action to the point of losing his job.”

Presbyterian minister Rev Cheryl Meban said there is now “a terrible chill factor” but that it is “really important that we allow there not to be a chill factor that stops us engaging fully in public debate” adding that the Presbyterian Church should be “the first place to be able to express diverse opinions and to hold difference well”. She added: “I am deeply disappointed that this has happened. I am really surprised that the outcome has been given as based primarily on what Laurence Kirkpatrick said on the radio. I am horrified that would be the main reason why somebody would lose their job.”

Gavin Boyd of the Rainbow Project said: “I think it is just a really sad chapter in the story of the presbyterian church in Ireland which I think has got a noble and honourable tradition of dissent and radical thought and individual conscience.” He added that “over the past couple of years there has been a really depressing chilling hardening of views within the church”.