Ongoing dissent at Presbyterian General Assembly over same-sex issues

Delegates advised that the position of the church on major issues should not be undermined in public by ministers or elders

The Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast has been told “the Bible is not a toxic text, but the word of life”. Outgoing moderator Rev Dr David Bruce also told members how “we have found ourselves in recent times under harsh scrutiny as a people”.

Church critics were “lighting 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” and “consider our views to be incomprehensible, or even dangerous”, he said.

“We are painted as rigid, unchanging and even unloving. We have been described as a people who exclude rather than include” and as “a denomination which will be left behind on ‘the wrong side of history’” while “some have adopted a position of overt opposition to us in the media”, he said.

He called on members “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. We need to state with loving clarity to the world around us that we are not minded to redefine our relationship with the Bible, which as our supreme standard we consider to be the word of God. We will not rewrite it, re-edit it or reframe it.”

Rev Dr Bruce was speaking at the opening of this year’s General Assembly in Belfast where his successor, Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, was installed as moderator for the coming year. Approximately 800 delegates from the church’s 19 presbyteries all over Ireland are meeting this week for the first in-person General Assembly since 2019, due to the pandemic.

The largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland, the Presbyterian Church has 204,000 members belonging to 532 congregations throughout the island of Ireland, with over 95 per cent of members in Northern Ireland.

Ongoing fallout from the 2018 General Assembly decision to ban same-sex couples from communion and refuse Baptism to their children continued in debate on Thursday. In 2018 also, the church severed links with the Church of Scotland because of its perceived more liberal stance on same-sex issues.

Rev Trevor Gribben told delegates that “in the church alone resides the right to interpret her standards under the word of God. So when the General Assembly of the church comes to a mind on a position, that is the position of the church, and those who’ve taken ordination vows on big issues shouldn’t be undermining that position in public and shouldn’t be ignoring and doing the opposite to what the assembly has decided.”

Rev Alistair Beattie said: “We have sadly witnessed how the Church of Scotland, the United Reformed Church, the Methodist Church of England and Wales and others have moved regarding homosexuality and other gender issues in the church. Should this house at some time dare to move in a similar direction, are those of us who disagree on the basis of Bible teaching bound to silence on such a decision as this or by such decision as this?”

He continued: “It is my prayer that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will not make such contentious decisions as we have witnessed elsewhere. Yet if such things should happen, I would want to be assured that I and fellow ministers of like mind would not be bound to silence but would have freedom to express what we believe the word of God to teach.”

Rev John Dunlop noted how the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was rich, predominantly white, male, and culturally British. “Now there’s nothing wrong with being rich, being white, being male or being British provided we understand that we’ll be carrying to the Bible biases of rich people, biases of white people, of male people and of culturally uniform people by and large,” he said. “When we come to the scriptures we have got to understand and appreciate the biases which we bring to it and listen to other people who have a divergent point of view,” he said,

He hoped a report to be presented to the General Assembly next year would be one which “makes room for this diverse, creative, energetic, biblically interpretive theological discourse which this church at all times needs and, at this particular moment in history, desperately needs.”

Rev Cheryl Meban, chaplain at Ulster University in Belfast, told the General Assembly how in her work “I encounter many people who experience the marginalisation, the pain and trauma caused by decisions of this body, decisions which for them undermine the authenticity of the gospel.”

Those decisions were “causing not peace and unity but deep personal, familial and community damage, division and upset. And in such circumstances every minister, every elder, surely, in our responsibility as leaders, must use every Christ-like means to change the minds of our colleagues, our congregants and the wider community,” she said.

Rev Gribben repeated out that it was “not legitimate for ministers who have promised to yield submission of the Lord to the courts of the church to deliberately and proactively, in an organised way, go out and seek to undermine that”.