Lord Alderdice has stood by his comparison of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to those who burnt martyrs at the stake in the wake of controversial decisions about same-sex relationships.
Last week the church’s general assembly decided that being in a same-sex relationship was incompatible with full membership of the church, and that the children of same-sex couples should be denied baptism.
It also decided to stop exchanging moderators with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church in England over their affirmations of same-sex relationships.
But Lord Alderdice, former speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly – and the son of a Presbyterian clergyman – said on social media that his church “has now effectively indicated its withdrawal, not only from the global family of Reformed Churches, but has even broken its ties with its closest sister churches”.
“Arguably it is no longer the Presbyterian Church in Ireland because that name suggests that it is the Irish branch of the global Presbyterian family, and this is no longer the case.
“In theological terms it will soon be difficult to make any differentiation between the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, a measure of the withdrawal into a narrow ground that is far from the courageous, radical commitment to the search for liberty and truth that characterised the Protestant Reformers.”
He added: “The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is no longer the spiritual heir of the Protestant martyrs of the 16th century, and is instead becoming more like a present-day representation of those who lit the fires that burnt them.”
However, the church responded that much of what Lord Alderdice said was “inaccurate and on occasions factually incorrect”.
The church has not withdrawn from “the global family of Reformed Churches” it said, but in fact last year confirmed its membership of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, “the world Presbyterian body”. It is also remains an active member of the Irish Council of Churches and the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, which includes the Roman Catholic Church, it said.
It was regrettable, it said, when some who differ with the church choose to “ridicule not only the decisions but also by implication the integrity of the general assembly itself”. The suggestion that the church was becoming like those who burnt the martyrs was “ungracious, unbecoming and deeply regrettable” it added.
Lord Alderdice told the News Letter his post had not been about same-sex relationships but about the church’s “long-term trajectory” in pulling back from external church bodies, such as the World Council of Churches.
He said that he had not mentioned the bodies the church continues to hold active membership in and he rejected its characterisation of his comments as “ridicule”.
“My comments were serious and concerned comments from someone that has been an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for the past 30 years,” he said. He is an elder in Knock Presbyterian Church in Belfast, he added.