Even by the standards of the Presbyterian Church’s poor public relations record in recent times, the recent statement by its moderator-elect, the Rev Dr Sam Mawhinney, is almost beyond belief. Shortly after his appointment was confirmed last month he told the Belfast Telegraph about the churches’ need to “modernise”. Yet on the same afternoon he told a BBC Northern Ireland journalist that he does not approve of the ordination of women.
Shortly afterwards the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) clerk Rev Trevor Gribben rushed out a statement to confirm that: “The clear, long-standing and settled position... is that the Presbyterian Church ordains men and women on an equal basis.”
Such deeply contrasting public statements from the PCI secretariat and the moderator-elect, who assumes office next June, are unusual and Dr Mawhinney’s words will not be forgotten.
The kindest comment may be that he did not duck the question of women’s ordination and spoke his mind. However, he sent out confusing mixed messages and he cannot have it both ways. Although he apologised for any hurt caused, people will rightly ask how can the church elect a leader with such views in an age of gender equality?
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Dr Mawhinney, minister at Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church in Dublin since 2008, is the first minister from the Irish Republic for almost 25 years to become moderator-elect. Even many of his colleagues in the wider church had no prior knowledge of his views on women’s ordination but, once made, the reaction to his comments was swift.
I feel hurt too on behalf of all my female colleagues who are pouring their hearts out in the ministry to which God has called them— Rev Dr Liz Hughes
Rev Dr Liz Hughes, who narrowly missed being elected as the church’s first female moderator several years ago, said: “I was so disappointed, and I immediately thought of any young women who might have felt for some time that God is calling them into ministry – how utterly discouraged and confused they must feel. I feel hurt too on behalf of all my female colleagues who are pouring their hearts out in the ministry to which God has called them. How disappointed they must feel when they hear comments like this.”
However, if anyone thought that Dr Mawhinney might reconsider his position, his car-crash interview with BBC Radio Ulster several days later confirmed that there would be no turning back. His response to pointed questions on women’s ordination and same-sex issues was to retreat into unconvincing theological generalities which did not address directly these painful topics in language which ordinary people could understand.
Many might ask why the church finds itself with such a right-wing, rigid image in these modern days of diversity, but this is no surprise. In recent decades it has steadily moved from being a broad church into becoming a right-wing institution which is a cool house for the dwindling number of liberals who remain inside it, and are wary of speaking out.
Some observers claim that the rightward drift began when the church withdrew from the World Council of Churches several decades ago, and that this isolationist trend continued more recently when it stopped exchange visits with the moderator of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, its “Mother Church”. This was because of the Scots’ more tolerant attitudes to same-sex relationships.
The church has taken a firm line on this vexed topic, and while many Presbyterians agree that Christian marriage is between one man and one woman, they cannot forgive the harsh way that this is expressed by their church. There is also great dismay, indeed anger, at the bitter and hurtful manner in which this has been handled by the treatment of individuals within the Dublin and Munster presbytery who disagree with this position.
Ironically the then more liberal church was the first to ordain the Rev Ruth Patterson as a woman minister some 50 years ago, but years later when she was persuaded to stand twice for election as moderator, she fared badly. On the second occasion she was not given a vote by any of the church’s 19 presbyteries on the island.
This year there were only two candidates for election as moderator, both male, and this suggests that Presbyterian women and liberals are no longer prepared to stand for election because of their fear of possible future rejection.
Sadly, however, there will be many right-wingers who believe Dr Mawhinney’s remarks on women’s ordination are fully justified, and therein lies the pity.
For many years women in the church have not spoken out forcefully enough, and until they assert much more forcefully their rights as female Christians who are as equally entitled to ordination as men, they will continue to suffer from the dispiriting hardline opposition from those quarters which so blur the face of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in the 21st century.
Alf McCreary is a Belfast-based author and freelance journalist