In 2007 genealogist Steven Smyrl (56), a member of the Presbyterian congregation at Christ Church Sandymount in Dublin, was ordained there to the senior position of elder.
He and fellow church member, librarian Roy Shanley (62) had been in a relationship for many years, and entered a civil partnership in 2011. Following the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015, they decided on marriage and it took place in 2018.
In November 2019, Mr Smyrl was removed as an elder at Sandymount by the Presbyterian Church following an investigation by an internal church commission.
His relationship and marriage was widely known within the Sandymount congregation and its church council unanimously supported an appeal against the decision to dismiss him as an elder. In December 2019 he was co-opted as a member by the church council there .
The council has refused to remove him despite a direction to do so by a commission set up by the Dublin Munster Presbytery of the Church.
The Presbyterian minister at Sandymount, Rev Katherine Meyer, has refused to recant, as directed by the same commission, which is to meet on January 18th next to decide on her fate and that of the church council.
Rev Meyer was born in April 1956, in the US, and spent many years as Presbyterian minister in the ecumenical chaplaincy at Trinity College Dublin. She was also on the Irish School of Ecumenics board and academic council there while attached to Abbey Presbyterian Church on Parnell Square, Dublin. She became minister at Sandymount in 2007.
Her threatened dismissal and the probable disciplining of Sandymount’s church council reflects a hardening of attitudes within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland towards same-sex relationships, one that has provoked deep internal division.
In June 2018, the Church's General Assembly in Belfast decided that same-sex couples could no longer be full members of the church, nor could their children be baptised. It decided to loosen ties with its mother church, the Church of Scotland, as the latter moved towards approving same-sex marriage.
All of this followed a report from the (Irish) church’s doctrine committee, which concluded that the “outward conduct and lifestyle” of those in same-sex relationships puts them at variance with “a life of obedience to Christ”.
The church had “a clear position on marriage and human relationships based on the teaching of the Bible” , and taught that “homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law”.
The Presbyterian Church has approximately 225,000 members in Ireland, 90 per cent in Northern Ireland. Its stance on same-sex marriage has made this island something of a cold house for its fundamentalists, many now among its leaders, as same-sex marriages are permitted by law in both jurisdictions.
Moderate members have looked on aghast at recent decisions by the church with such as former Alliance Party leader David Ford standing down in 2013 as an elder in his Donegore congregation in Antrim due to his, and his party's, support for same-sex marriage.
In a letter to The Irish Times in June 2018, following the church’s decision to ban gay couples as full members, Rev Meyer said she was as “nearly speechless with dismay, but not quite”.
The following month 232 Presbyterian ministers and elders acknowledged the “profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger” felt in the church following the General Assembly decisions.
In March 2019 the church dismissed Rev Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick, who had been teaching for 22 years at its Union Theological College in Belfast, for publicly disagreeing with the church's opposition to same-sex relationships.
An added element to this hardening of position on same-sex relationships in the church is believed to be that increasingly many former Free Presbyterians have recently joined, with some saying that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is now “the DUP at prayer”. This, inevitably, is disputed.