The Presbyterian Church in Ireland says 602 members who signed a letter calling for discussions on same-sex marriage have acted contrary to their own request for “respectful discourse” by publishing the letter in the media.
The informal network of mainly Belfast-based Presbyterians, uniting under the banner of The Creative Conversation Group (CCG), sent the letter to Presbyterian Moderator Rev Dr Charles McMullen on September 12 and also had the letter published in the media yesterday.
The move comes after the church’s annual general assembly – made up of elders from every congregation – voted overwhelmingly in June to exclude anyone in a same-sex relationship from full membership and to exclude their children from baptism. Although 602 people have signed the CCG letter it is not clear how representative they are of the church’s 217,000 membership.
A church spokesman said: “It is assumed that the letter to the Moderator, Dr Charles McMullen, was written to him for his consideration and response. It is very disappointing therefore and somewhat discourteous to the moderator, that the authors also chose to circulate it more widely and make it available to the media. This somewhat undermines the ‘respectful discourse’ the authors purport to be engaged in.”
The church said ministers and elders from every congregation meet openly in general assembly each year which, together with other structures, provides “significant democratic accountability where genuine dialogue can take place, rather than through the pages of newspapers”.
The CCG letter opened by “expressing our regret” over PCI’s decision to sever formal ties with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church in June over their acceptance of same-sex relationships.
“Our Group, made up of members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, is informal and has no constitution, nor does it have an agreed theological position on the issues currently the subject of debate within our Church, notably concerning same-sex relationships, equal marriage, admission to the Communion Roll and the baptism of children of same-sex couples,” CCG said.
“What we want to do is to provide a forum for constructive and respectful debate within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland on issues that divide us. We desire to learn from each other, informed by Holy Scripture, and build relationships. With the exception of a few set-piece events, it is our perception that the Church has failed to live up to its commitment of ‘consultation and engagement’ as set out in the Structures Report.”
Signatory John Hunter, an elder at Stormont Presbyterian Church, said the 602 names had been made available to the moderator but not made public as it was not clear that consent had been given by them all to do so.
The reason the letter was published, he said, was that previous attempts to request private meetings had fallen on deaf ears.
He called on the church to restate that members are free to “disagree” as there is a perception that this is no longer the case. Ultimately, what his group really wants is a “continual” public dialogue on issues of concern, he added. The committee who signed the letter were: John Hunter, Rosemary Hunter, Susie Morrow, Linda Agnew, Heather Hanna and David Mark.
A Presbyterian woman whose daughter is in a same-sex relationship commended the signatories.
Lesley Macaulay from Portstewart left the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in June over its decision to exclude people from same-sex relationships from full membership. Speaking on BBC Talkback yesterday she thanked the letter signatories.
“Thank you so much for doing this and for taking this stand and showing true genuine Christian care because that is not what the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has been doing,” she said to the signatories.
The church’s decision in June has caused “quite a backlash” and it is persecuting a community which are “the least threatening to the church” she said.
She was speaking as “the mother of a wonderful gorgeous Christian daughter who is in a same-sex relationship” she added.
However, a retired Presbyterian minister has challenged the letter.
Retired Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) minister Rev Brian Kennaway was speaking after challenging a similar open letter in July which was signed by 200 ministers and elders.
He noted that like the previous letter, this week’s “does not specifically state what the signatories wish the moderator to do”.
He queried what the origins of the group – the Creative Conversation Group – were and whether it was “open to all or... narrow and restrictive”. He also queried why the names of the 602 signatories had not been made public.
“How many of the 602 signatures are ministers and elders of PCI? How can we be sure that these alleged 602 members are genuine members of the PCI?”
He emphasised that the Westminster Confession of Faith, which all ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland must sign as “a confession of my faith”, is clear that “marriage is between one man and one woman”.
The general assembly vote on same-sex relationships in June was accepted “on the nod” with only 12 members of the assembly dissenting “as is their right” he added. This is the proper channel of the church for “democratic accountability where genuine dialogue can take place”.
He added: “This letter, like the previous one, does not state whether the object of the signatories is to change the policy of the PCI, in relation to the decision not to continue the ceremonial relations with the Church of Scotland, or to change the doctrine of the PCI in relation to ‘same-sex marriage’.”