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Presbyterian Church in Ireland breaks ties with the Church of Scotland

Presbyterian Church in Ireland breaks ties with the Church of Scotland The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), the church of my youth, made two headline-grabbing decisions this summer, which have caused a headache for those who care about the denomination’s public image. The first decision concerns the PCI’s relationship to two other denominations, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church (of England and Wales, no relation to the URC in the USA), both of which in recent years have compromised on the biblical teaching concerning sexuality, especially the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and related issues. The General Assembly, which met in June, voted 255-171 on the following motion:

That the Presbyterian Church in Ireland should no longer accept invitations to the Moderator of the General Assembly, or any other formal delegation, to attend the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church and no longer issue invitations to those two denominations to attend the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.1

Cue a diplomatic crisis! But why did the PCI take this (long-overdue) step? The Doctrine Committee explains in its “Response to [the] Church of Scotland Theological Forum Report 2017” and, in doing so, highlights the fundamental difference in biblical interpretation between the liberal Church of Scotland and the PCI’s Doctrine Committee:

[The Church of Scotland’s report] rests on a distinction between the written text of Scripture and the living Word of God, the latter being associated with Jesus Christ who speaks to us in our hearts and consciences. According to this argument, we owe our allegiance to Jesus Christ the Word made flesh rather than adherence to the literal words of Scripture…conservative readers [tend] to focus on the words of Scripture and more inclusive readers [tend] sometimes to look through rather than at the words of the text.2

In response, the Doctrine Committee makes some profound observations: first, the liberal view of Scripture suggests a contradiction between what the Lord revealed to “the Spirit-anointed apostles” and His “present word to his church.” In reality, Christ’s word to His church is always the same—it is what is written in Holy Scripture! Any attempt to subvert the Word of God by an appeal to subjectivity is simply unbelief. Second, the liberal view of Scripture attacks its clarity: “Reformed churches still hold to the perspicuity of Scripture.” Third, the Doctrine Committee exposes the Church of Scotland’s hypocrisy, for the same denomination adopted a report on poverty, basing its findings on “the apparently plain and straightforward meaning of texts without the need for an anguished ‘looking through’ rather than a ‘looking at’ the words.” In other words, the Church of Scotland appeals to the text of Scripture when it suits her liberal agenda; otherwise, the text is discarded in favor of subjective opinions. Finally, the Doctrine Committee appeals to the Church of Scotland to “return to the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures,” an appeal that has so far fallen on deaf ears.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland adopts the doctrine committee’s report on same-sex couples and the sacraments

A diplomatic spat between two or three denominations probably would not have attracted the attention of the secular media, but the PCI’s second decision certainly did. For some reason that I have not yet discovered, the Doctrine Committee was asked to explain “what constitutes a credible profession of faith” in the specific instance where a same-sex couple might seek communicant membership or request baptism for a child. Why this would even be a question in a Presbyterian church is a mystery, but the Doctrine Committee dutifully took up the question. The Committee concluded:

In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children. We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.3

A motion was made to shelve the report at the General Assembly, which motion was defeated, whereupon after much debate the report was received.4

Media reaction to the PCI’s decision was swift. The Irish Independent warned, “Church says same-sex couples can no longer be ‘full members,’ nor baptise their children.”5 The Belfast Telegraph reported, “Presbyterian Church in Ireland votes to deny gay people full membership of the church.”6 Both newspapers, either out of ignorance or malice, make this seem like a new policy, but the Presbyterian Church had not heretofore permitted same-sex couples to partake of (that is, profane) the holy sacraments, at least not officially. This was not a new policy but the clarification of an existing policy and practice.7

Northern Irish politicians, some of whom are members of the PCI, were asked to comment. Alliance Party leader Naomi Long expressed her heartache over the decision: “I can only imagine the hurt this has caused to those from the LGBT community. It does not reflect the views of so many of us who love, respect and value you as family, friends and members of our community,” 8 she declared on social media. Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said, “I feel that the church has become a much colder house for me,” adding, “my attendance at church over recent months has not been anything to be proud of, so I am not sure that they would even miss me [if I left], but I am very uncomfortable with supporting those decisions.”9 The aforementioned Naomi Long opined, “It has made my church membership increasingly uncomfortable and has affected my attendance at worship because I come away angry and frustrated.”10 David Ford, former Alliance Leader and PCI elder, complained of a “mood of growing homophobia” and “a trend which is moving the church increasingly to the right.”11 Lord Alderdice of the British House of Lords resigned his membership of the PCI and wrote, “The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is no longer the spiritual heir of the Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century, and is instead becoming more like a present-day representation of those who lit the fires that burnt them.”12 Because the PCI excludes impenitent homosexuals from church membership, they are like the Roman Catholics who burned Christians at the stake?! The PCI response to Alderdice was to characterise his comments as “ungracious, unbecoming and deeply regrettable.”13

The Belfast Telegraph also featured the case of the Macaulay family of Portstewart Presbyterian Church. According to the article, the Macaulay’s daughter has been with her fiancée—another woman—for three years. When news broke of the PCI’s decision, the Macaulays resigned from the PCI: Mrs. Macaulay complained: “As a result of the vote last week [my daughter] has been excommunicated from her Church because of her God-given sexual orientation…. I am deeply hurt my daughter has been targeted in this way. I could not remain a member of a Church where I could no longer share communion with my daughter.”14 One is tempted to ask: did the elders know about the lesbian relationship, and if they knew, why was she not placed under discipline before the GA’s 2018 decision? The Macaulays claim to have found a new, welcoming church, The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Belfast, which is a Unitarian, non-creedal, LGBT+ affirming denomination. When family is more important than devotion to Jesus Christ, Christian discipleship becomes impossible (Luke 14:26) and further compromise is inevitable. Indeed, doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the blood atonement, and original sin, which the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians deny, are less important than their daughter’s comfort in the pew! In fact, since Portstewart and Belfast are about one hour and twenty-five minutes apart, the Macaulays appear quite devoted to error, since they are prepared, it seems, to make such a journey to attend worship in a false church. Would that professing Reformed Christians had a similar zeal for the truth in traveling to a true church! Mrs. Macaulay also urged fellow Presbyterians to reconsider their support for “an institution that’s making these sorts of decisions and causing this hurt and pain.” “It’s certainly like a group of fundamentalists,” she added.15 Notice the emphasis—not on her daughter’s sinful activity, but on the “hurt and pain” caused by the preaching of the demand of Christ for holiness!

Disgruntled former members are one thing, but there are also rumblings of discontent among the current membership and clergy of the PCI. Where does an aggrieved member go: does he lodge an appeal/ protest in an ecclesiastical manner? That would be the Reformed and Presbyterian way. Instead, some have run to the press and even to the authorities. Arthur Acheson, clerk of May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast, reported his own denomination to the Charity Commission to see if the PCI is breaching equality legislation by restricting membership: “This decision excludes people from being voting members of congregations, presbyteries and the General Assembly,” he complained. “It places an unreasonable restriction on the membership of the congregation.”16 Lawrence Kirkpatrick, professor of church history at Union Theological College, the PCI’s seminary, was asked: “What would happen if you had a gay student in a class where they’re looking at the theology or the ethics of homosexuality or trans issues and the like, and they are offered only one view theologically on that, and that view is that to be in a same sex sexually active relationship is sinful?” Prof. Kirkpatrick’s answer: “I would be horrified if they were getting that in our college.”17 Ironically, Stafford Carson, convener of the Doctrine Committee, is the Principal of Union College. Following the interview, Kirkpatrick was suspended. There were also calls for Queen’s University to sever its links with the PCI’s Union College, which not only trains the PCI’s ministerial students, but also provides theological degrees for non-Presbyterian students of Queen’s University.18

But perhaps the most shameful response to the controversy was an open letter to the media titled “A Cry from the Heart” written and signed by just over 230 teaching and ruling elders. The letter expressed “the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger currently expressed” at the PCI’s decision taken at the 2018 GA. “We hold,” the officebearers declared, “that any unnecessary narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives within the PCI will damage our credibility and limit our future.”19 In other words, these ministers and elders want a range of theological positions on homosexuality to be accepted in the church, until, of course, they gain the ascendancy: then they will expel the conservative, biblical view, which is always the tactic of liberals. They even claim that their stand is “a necessary consequence of [their] ordination vows, which [they] take with the utmost seriousness.” I must have missed the part in the ordination vows where, contrary to the Word of God and the confessions, signatories promise to promote the reception of homosexuals in the church! The PCI did not respond by suspending the officebearers who signed the letter, or by calling for their deposition, which would be the biblical and Reformed approach, but by issuing a statement:

In a Church with over 6,400 ministers and elders, we recognise that many will hold different views and some will choose to express them publicly in this and other ways…. People are free to debate in public, but it is the nature of the discourse that is important. Therefore it is worth positively noting that the 200-plus ministers and elders who were signatories, state that they were making their statement ‘as a prayerful expression of appropriate loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.’ Discussions will also, no doubt, take place within the structures of the church, in presbyteries and kirk sessions.20

This controversy reveals a number of uncomfortable truths about the PCI.

First, although officially the denomination made the right decision in severing links with the apostate Church of Scotland and barring practising homosexuals from the sacraments, there is little unity in the PCI on the subject. A significant section of the PCI membership, including a large number of officebearers, is unfaithful to Christ’s Word on this matter, which is not surprising to me. The PCI ordained women in the 1970s; the PCI maintains ecumenical ties with the Roman Catholic Church (the current Moderator accepted an invitation to attend a reception for Pope Francis in Dublin); the PCI is plagued with Arminianism and liberal views of Scripture; and within the denomination the so-called conservatives and liberals have lived in an uneasy relationship for years.

Second, if the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland is so divided over the subject of homosexuality, what will the remnant still faithful to Christ in that denomination do? Will they remain there with their children, or will God give them grace to worship elsewhere?

Third, how long will it be before Northern Ireland, following its neighbors in the south (Republic of Ireland) and the east (Great Britain) legalize same-sex marriage? Since the churches in Northern Ireland find it increasingly difficult to fight for the truth of marriage, the only barrier to same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland is the (as-yet-suspended) legislative assembly. “Put not your trust in princes [or politicians], nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help” (Ps. 146:3).


1 “The Church of Scotland News” website features a glum-looking Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Susan Brown—a female Moderator—lamenting that the PCI have taken such a step. “Susan Brown said agreeing on everything was not what was required of us as Christians: ‘Jesus called his followers to follow. He didn’t call us to agree on absolutely everything, but to be his sisters and brothers on the journey of faith, loving one another and letting that love be the outward sign of our belonging to him.’” Notice Brown’s undefined, vague “love,” a love that is devoid of truth, whereas I Corinthians 13:6 says, “charity rejoiceth not in iniquity [homosexuality is iniquity] but rejoiceth in the truth.” See “Regret over Presbyterian Church of Ireland’s Decision to Break Ties with the Church of Scotland” (June 6, 2018), https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/news-and-events/news/2018/regret-over-presbyterian-church-of-irelands-decision-to-break-ties-with-the-church-of-scotland.

2 “Doctrine Committee Report” in the Annual Reports of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (Belfast: 2018), 81-83.

3 “Doctrine Committee Report”, 84-89.

4 Rev. Cheryl A. Meban (another female minister) moved “that Section 3 of the Report of the General Council be received, with the exception of Appendix 2 of the Doctrine Committee Report, pages 84-89.” Appendix 2 constitutes the “Same Sex Couples and the Sacraments” section of the report. (See https://www.presbyterianireland.org/getmedia/4ca1db5e-ee80-4d2a-ab4e-655697bd8382/GA-Minutes-2018-Sessions-1,-2-3.pdf.aspx?ext=.pdf).

5 “Church Says Same-Sex Couples Can No Longer Be Full Members Nor Baptise Their Children,” Irish Independent, June 9, 2018, https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/church-says-same-sex-couples-can-no-longer-be-full-members-nor-baptise-their-children-36992656.html.

6 “Presbyterian Church in Ireland Votes to Deny Gay People Full Membership of the Church,” Belfast Telegraph, June 8, 2018, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/presbyterian-church-in-ireland-votes-to-deny-gay-people-full-membership-of-the-church-36989680.html.

7 The Belfast Telegraph article begins, “The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has voted in favour of a new policy which means anyone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a full member of the church and their children cannot be baptised.” The Irish Independent article quotes from a church statement: “it was outlined that ‘members were not discussing whether to prevent anyone from attending worship, coming into church, receiving communion, or having access to pastoral care, as our Church is open to all.’” Notice that since the PCI practices open communion, its policy of barring certain sinners—such as impenitent homosexuals—from the Lord’s table is almost impossible to implement. Close communion, as outlined in Heidelberg Catechism, LD 30, Q&A 81-82, is necessary lest “the covenant of God [be] profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation.”

8 Belfast Telegraph, “Presbyterian Church in Ireland Votes,” June 8, 2018.

9 “MLAs Feel Uncomfortable Giving Support to Presbyterian Church,” Belfast Newsletter, June 15, 2018, https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/mlas-feel-uncomfortable-giving-support-presbyterian-church-1021663.

10 Belfast Newsletter, “MLAs Feel Uncomfortable,” June 15, 2018.

11 Belfast Newsletter; June 15, 2018. David Ford was removed from the eldership in his local congregation because certain members were upset about his public support for same-sex marriage. He retains the office of elder, but because the other elders refuse to work with him he does not exercise the office. When Presbyterian and Reformed church polity is discarded, such bizarre compromises are the result.

12 “Presbyterian Church Now Like Those Who Burnt the Martyrs: Lord Alderdice,” Belfast Newsletter, June 12, 2018, https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/presbyterian-church-now-those-who-burnt-martyrs-lord-alderdice-1022927.

13 Belfast Newsletter, “Burnt the Martyrs,” June 12, 2018.

14 “Couple Resign from Presbyterian Church As Same Sex Ruling Row Escalates,” Belfast Telegraph, June 11, 2018, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/couple-resign-from-presbyterian-church-as-same-sex-ruling-row-escalates-36996069.html.

15 “Woman Who Quit Presbyterian Church Over Same-Sex Ruling Urges Others to Examine Their Support for Institution,” Belfast Telegraph, June 12, 2018, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/woman-who-quit-presbyterian-church-over-same-sex-ruling-urges-others-to-examine-their-support-for-institution-36999891.html.

16 “Watchdog is Called in to Investigate Whether Same-Sex Ruling Breaches Charity Regulations,” Belfast Telegraph, June 14, 2018, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/watchdog-is-called-in-to-investigate-whether-same-sex-ruling-breaches-charity-regulations-37008215.html.

17 BBC Radio Ulster “Talkback,” June 13, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b5t5r0.

18 “Should Queen’s University Break Its Link With the Presbyterian Union Theological College,” Slugger O’Toole, June 12, 2018, https://sluggerotoole.com/2018/06/12/should-queens-university-break-its-link-with-the-presbyterian-union-theological-college/ and “Queen’s University of Belfast Reviewing Links to Presbyterian College as Professor Suspended,” Belfast Telegraph, June 27, 2018, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/queens-university-of-belfast-reviewing-links-to-presbyterian-college-as-professor-suspended-37053480.html.

19 “Top Presbyterian Members Sign Letter Criticising Same-Sex Ruling,” Belfast Telegraph, July 6, 2018, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/top-presbyterian-members-sign-letter-criticising-same-sex-ruling-37086097.html.

20 “Open Letter in Today’s Media – PCI statement,” Presbyterian Church in Ireland Press Office, July 6, 2018, https://www.presbyterianireland.org/News/2018-News-Archive/July-2018/Statement-in-relation-to-an-open-letter-in-today-s.aspx.