The proposed disciplining by the Presbyterian Church of Rev Katherine Meyer and the council at Christ Church in Sandymount, Dublin, has been described as "persecution" by a church elder.
It follows a decision by Rev Meyer and the church council to allow Steven Smyrl, a gay man in a same-sex marriage with another church member, to be appointed to the council.
Prof Sam McConkey, head of the department of international health and tropical medicines at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, is an elder at the Presbyterian church in Clontarf.
Speaking of Rev Meyer, and though “a very, very private man”, he said he wanted “to let her know, and all at Sandymount know, that there is a large minority in the church who think differently [to the church’s decision] and who welcome diversity and inclusion. We don’t agree with this decision.”
He recalled taking part in protests at Sandymount in 2019 when the church leadership called for Mr Smyrl to be removed as an elder because of his sexuality and set up a commission to investigate those who appointed him.
That commission, set up by the church's Dublin and Munster Presbytery, found the leadership at Sandymount had justified "approval for that which in scripture God condemns" and that the "words and actions of both minister and church council demonstrate their persistent deviation from the confessional standards of the Presbyterian Church".
Leaked to BBC Northern Ireland, the commission’s report recalled how St Paul instructed the church in Corinth “not to associate with sexually immoral people if they bear the name of brother”.
It found that “in contrast, however, both the minister and church council of Christ Church, Sandymount, have supported the homosexual relationship of two of its members over many years. The minister and church council have caused scandal injurious to the purity and peace of the church”.
It found too that Mr Smyrl had been co-opted to the Sandymount church council – which represents and has members from the Presbyterian and Methodist churches – after he had been sacked as an elder.
The commission instructed the Sandymount church council to reverse that decision and recant. It said that if Rev Meyer did not accept its findings, the Presbyterian Church would “initiate disciplinary proceedings” against her.
Rejected her appeal
Rev Meyer appealed this decision to the church’s judicial commission in Belfast. It met on November 19th last and rejected her appeal. She and the church council at Sandymount were given until December 20th to remove Mr Smyrl and recant his appointment, or disciplinary proceedings would be initiated against them, it said.
When contacted by The Irish Times, the Presbyterian Church said in a statement it was “highly disappointing that an individual, or individuals” had passed on papers to the media “on a sensitive internal church matter” and which were “private to that process”.
It said that “while some issues have been considered, matters are still ongoing and further decisions are still to be made. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Rev Meyer is not commenting on the matter but Mr Smyrl said he was “shocked and horrified at this incessant, vindictive, spiteful behaviour”.
Methodist minister Rev Steven Foster, of the church's North Tipperary Circuit, expressed support for Rev Meyer.
“I am disgusted by the pursuit of her, Steven Smyrl and the church council by the leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland,” he said.
‘Living in fear’
An openly gay man himself, Rev Foster said: “This ongoing process is hurting very many people, as well as those immediately involved. I am in contact with many closeted Presbyterians living in fear of their own church.”
Prof McConkey said “all of the churches struggle with issues of human sexuality, gender and interpersonal relationships”.
“It’s not new but they’ve completely lost the audience, the dressing room, the under 40s. The survival of organised religion in any form on this island over the next 30 to 40 years is at issue,” he said, adding that the church had changed its stance on issues in the past.
“It has changed its position on slavery and women. For instance there are women ministers now in the Presbyterian Church but they struggle with the role of gay people in leadership. More generally it has become an issue of church survival,” he said.