Same-sex couples welcome in Presbyterian Church – but cannot be full members

Same-sex couple: 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com
Same-sex couple: 'Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye.com

People in same-sex relationships are still welcome in the Presbyterian Church, but “speak the truth we must,” and refuse to administer the sacraments, a former moderator has said.

Rev Dr Stafford Carson was commenting on Friday night after the Presbyterian general assembly formally adopted a policy that means those in a same-sex relationship cannot be full members of the church.

Stafford Carson at the 2018 Presbyterian general assembly. Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

Stafford Carson at the 2018 Presbyterian general assembly. Photo courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

The decision means they will not be able to have children baptised for example,

“Obviously people in same-sex relationships will be required to think about how their lifestyle matches with the clear position of the church on marriage,” Dr Carson said.

“In the debate today I was aware that this is a highly sensitive issue. People are almost wanting to say two things – ‘Yes, we believe what Jesus taught about marriage and we want to affirm that,’ and yet we also want to say to people whose lives don’t match with that, ‘we still love you, and we are still concerned about you, and we still welcome you.’”

Earlier this week, the general assembly voted by 255-171 to cut formal ties with the Church of Scotland after the ‘mother church’ officially endorsed same-sex marriage – a decision described by one delegate as a “theological Brexit”.

We still love you, and we are still concerned about you, and we still welcome you

Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Dr Carson, as convenor of the Doctrine Committee that drafted the report that became church policy on Friday, headed a team tasked with considering what represents a ‘credible profession of faith’ in the church and the outworking of that faith in a person’s life, described by the church as: “Something that applies to all who want to be a member of our church, regardless of background, orientation or anything else.”

The committee’s report was backed by endorsed by a clear show of hands rather than a recorded vote.

Dr Carson said the church has an obligation to address issues affecting its members.

“It is a current issue, and it is one that is very much in the public realm at the moment,” he said.

“On the one hand, the agenda of the church cannot be dictated by the culture around it, but when the culture around it raises a particular question, then it is the responsibility of the church to speak clearly on that. In this particular area the church has a very clear stance with regard to marriage, and with regard to human sexuality, so in that sense the Doctrine Committee was simply reiterating what the church has already said in this area.”

The former moderator and minister of First Portadown Presbyterian stressed that people in same-sex relationships were still more than welcome to continue with their worship.

“The doors are still wide open to all,” he said.

“Speak in love, but speak the truth we must – this report does not say we close the door on anyone.

“It is the job of the Doctrine Committee to give the theological reflection on any issue rather than give practical guidelines, for example: ‘How does this sit with our understanding of Christian doctrine and Biblical teaching?’...and that was the answer we gave. We are committed to Christ’s teaching.”

Following the decision of the general assembly, a spokesman for the Presbyterian Church said: “Today’s debate, which was conducted in a spirit of grace, honesty and respect by all who took part, was one of many that we have had this week – around 120 reports on a range of issues before us, trying constantly to respond biblically, theologically and pastorally to different situations in a changing world.

“Members were not discussing whether to prevent anyone from attending worship, coming into church, receiving communion, or having access to pastoral care, as our church is open to all.”

He added: “The Doctrine Committee’s report was received by the general assembly and now becomes the formal position of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. While this has been clarified today, an even greater truth remains that all men and women are loved by God, who calls them to know Him through faith in Jesus Christ.”

A further report will now be commissioned which will provide practical guidelines for church elders on how the new policy should be implemented.