Posted: 2019-11-21

The Church's dismissal of Steven Smyrl as an elder shows that the DUP are not the only dinosaurs in Northern Ireland's jurassic park


THE Scottish planters who arrived in Ulster in the 17th century were mostly Presbyterian, a reformed church governed by elected assemblies of elders or presbyters (from the Greek word ‘presbyteros’ meaning senior or elder). As J.C. Beckett suggests in The Making of Modern Ireland, a greater part of both Antrim and Down were transformed into ‘a sort of extension of the Scottish lowlands’.


Scottish Presbyterianism was founded by John Knox who in 1560, with five other ministers, drew up a Confession of Faith which was passed by the Scottish Parliament. It condemned the Catholic Church as the ‘kirk malignant’ and denounced the celebration of the mass as a blasphemy. An even more explicit statement of Scottish Presbyterianism was found in the Second Book of Discipline, drawn up in 1578, six years after Knox’s death. Here was expounded the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In matters of faith and morals, the Church as representative of the heavenly kingdom had preeminence. 


The basic tenets of early Presbyterianism were: a theology as much of the Old Testament as of the New; a self-righteous hatred of Catholicism; a materialistic outlook in which God and Mammon go hand-in-hand; an ethic of thrift and hard work; a repressive, killjoy morality; an indifference or even hostility to culture in its highest expressions; and a belief in the subservience of the state to the church on matters of faith and morals.


Ulster Presbyterians attacked Cromwell’s toleration laws in 1649 in A Necessary Presentation as ‘an innovation overturning of unity in religion, and directly repugnant to the word of God’. John Milton’s ire was raised. What particularly annoyed him was that these ‘blockish Presbyters’  from ‘a barbarous nook of Ireland’ were daring to “brand us with the extirpation of laws and liberties; things which they seem as little to understand as aught that belongs to good letters or humanity”.


In the late 18th century a more liberal wing of the Presbyterian Church emerged. Indeed some of the Belfast Presbyterians were among the most enlightened people in Ireland and played a leading part in the foundation of the United Irishmen. Samuel Nielson, William Drennan, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas McCabe and Henry Monro were all born Presbyterians; indeed, both Neilson and Drennan were sons of Presbyterian ministers.


This more progressive moment didn’t last. When Henry Cooke in 1835 persuaded the General Synod of Ulster to make subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), which defined the pope as the ‘Antichrist’, compulsory for all ministers and elders, he was re-establishing Puritanism at the heart of Presbyterianism after a period of relative freedom in the previous fifty years. Since then, while there have been periodic shifts towards liberalism, the reactionary faction has generally dominated. The creation of the Free Presbyterian Church in 1951 under Iain Paisley moved the main church further backwards  in order to compete.


In June 2019, at its annual meeting in Belfast, the ‘blockish presbyters' decided to reaffirm ‘traditional values’ in the face of trends in the wider society. They voted for a new policy that anyone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a full member of the church and their children cannot be baptised. The church also voted to loosen its affiliation with the Church of Scotland over its stance on same-sex relationships which allows partners in same-sex relationships to serve as ministers or deacons in congregations that approve of it.  By 255 votes to 171 it also voted to stop inviting Scottish Moderators to the Irish General Assembly, and refused to send the Irish Moderator to the Scottish Assembly. These isolationist measures have been described as a ‘theological brexit’ from the church of which Irish Presbyterians were a 17th century off-shoot.


Then in September came the Church's dismissal of Steven Smyrl as a Presbyterian elder because he was in a same-sex marriage. He was told that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s “clearly-stated policy” is that “to be in a same-sex marriage is not compatible with being in ordained leadership".


Clearly, Irish Presbyerianism has stepped back into the Dark Ages. It has become a cold house for gays. Presbyterians should put a notice in every church door: "homosexuals, keep out". 


The church claims that its position on marriage and human relationships is based on the teachings of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. The New Testament “unambiguously regards homosexuality as contrary to nature, understood as God’s created order”.


This is fundamentalism gone mad. It is also based on ignorance. Homosexuality is common throughout nature. Most liberated Christians also know that not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. In Leviticus you are forbidden to wear clothes made of both linen and wool. In the same text, you mustn’t plant more than one kind of seed in a field. And you are forbidden to eat shellfish or pork. These prohibitions show that the Bible is of its time but certainly not for all time.


To forbid the baptism of gay children seems both odd and cruel. Ministers baptise thousands of children of heterosexual parents who have no intention of bring them up as faithful Christians, yet they must deny it to those who want to do so because they happen to be gay. And why do they baptise the children of divorcees when ‘Holy Scripture’ expressly forbids divorce. As Jesus says, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder”.


Repeatedly, those who support these measures against gays say that they love them and welcome them to attend services so long as they are not practising. That’s like saying that we welcome motorists so long as they don’t drive a car. It’s ridiculous. Is that what Jesus meant when he said: “love thy neighbour as thyself”?


The criticisms of these decisions as intolerant, narrow-minded and backward-looking are increasing daily. Several prominent Presbyterians have resigned from the church, already struggling with numbers, down from 370,000 in 1975 to 210,000 today. Of course, like martyrs of old, the reactionaries will stand their narrow ground. Indeed, they may go further and make the ordination of women the next target. Alas, the DUP are not the only dinosaurs on display in Northern Ireland’s jurassic park.


Brian McClinton, November 2019