SOAPBOX: The Presbyterian Church in Ireland – reforms needed

Steven Smyrl is a professional genealogist, lecturer, author, and former elder in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

This week’s meeting in Belfast of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) prompts me to reflect on my experience at the hands of the church since the momentous decision at the 2018 General Assembly to exclude gay couples from full membership and their children from baptism.

That decision culminated in a highly public controversy about my same-sex marriage, and my subsequent dismissal as an elder. It was personally traumatic and still dominates my life. But the whole affair has wider implications which the church would do well to ponder.

Disrespect

It is clear from newspaper and social media comment that across Ireland, many people have been shocked by the way PCI conducts its business, disparaging people who, in good conscience, disagree with aspects of church policy. They particularly abhor the disrespect some members of Dublin & Munster Presbytery have shown toward a long-serving female colleague, notwithstanding her wealth of scholarship and decades-long pastoral experience.

Her crime? Allowing pastoral care of LGBTQ+ people to be guided by Christ’s command to “Love one another” (John 13:34).

Scandal

Nevertheless, the Dublin Presbytery decided that “the minister and Church Council [of my local church in Sandymount, Dublin] have caused scandal injurious to the purity and peace of the Church” by supporting and endorsing my “sexually immoral” gay relationship.

This harsh, condemnatory language used in PCI’s communications caused particular offence. Church Council members, with decades-long service, were outraged to be accused of causing scandal and damaging the church, having done nothing more than act conscientiously in accordance with the ‘Code’ (PCI’s constitution), which affirms that “It is the privilege, right and duty of every person to examine the Scriptures” using their “God-given right of private judgment.”

Authoritarianism

One leading Dublin elder, writing in the Irish Times, likened the judicial process to “kangaroo courts” ordering “ecclesiastical kneecappings”, while another observed that “Command and control, and sanction from on high, is not the Presbyterian way”. These comments discern growing authoritarianism by church leaders, and their questionable and sometimes oppressive use of certain procedural devices to impose discipline. My case certainly provides plenty of evidence to support such claims.

Secrecy

My case was conducted entirely through ‘private session’, a facility intended to provide protection in case of personal vulnerability or to guard against false accusation. But the confidentiality it bestows is being used increasingly to stifle open debate and dissent, to avoid scrutiny, and (quite shockingly) to shield office-holders from accountability.

Control of procedure

Furthermore, rules and guidelines are applied selectively: rigidly insisted upon when they suit, ignored when inconvenient. By tight control of documentation, decision-makers are often denied sufficient opportunity to give important matters proper consideration. For instance, too often papers are circulated at – and only for the duration of – a meeting, and there is evidence that, on occasion, crucial documents have even been withheld. As the subject of a Presbytery investigation, more than once I had to resort to GDPR to obtain documents containing personal information about me.

Lack of accountability

One of the most frustrating aspects in my dealings with PCI authorities was their resistance to challenge and refusal to justify decisions. Protests and objections about unfair or incorrect procedure were routinely batted away, leaving me with a deep sense of injustice.

This lack of accountability extends all the way to the top. The ultimate church tribunal is the Judicial Commission, which hears appeals only if their stated grounds are “adequate and appropriate to be heard”. But there is absolutely no clarity about how such judgements are made, and often verdicts are handed down without comment, explanation or justification. Appellants are left wondering how decisions were reached, or what evidence was considered worthy.

Disrespect for Irish law

One of the most hurtful features of the documents released to me through GDPR was the demeaning use of inverted commas when referring to my ‘marriage’. It denotes a clear disrespect for Irish civil law as well as for the Irish electorate’s overwhelming endorsement of marriage equality in 2015. In addition, Presbytery criticised our minister and church council for failing to “challenge” me about my same-sex relationship, despite the fact that to do so would contravene my right to privacy in family life, guaranteed under the Irish Constitution. PCI’s legalistic claims of ‘qualified privilege’ do not absolve it from respecting the civil law. The church accrues financial benefits from its status as a registered charity, so one wonders how the Charities Regulator would view such blatant disregard for civil authority.

Root-and-branch review

PCI’s intolerant behaviour is relatively new, perhaps driven by increasingly dominant fundamentalists. Many long-standing Presbyterians detect a strongly misogynistic and homophobic streak in their preaching. They find this abhorrent, bereft of the central message of the Gospel.

If PCI is to recover any credibility and stem the leaching from pews it must recognise the urgent need to conduct a root-and-branch review of its structures and procedures, taking notice of contemporary standards of dignity, respect, transparency and accountability, which, not least, reflect the fundamental Gospel principles of charity, love and grace.

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