When the pastoral and political collide


This week the General Assembly of the Irish Presbyterian Church passed a report from its Doctrine Committee clarifying a phrase from its Code relating to what constituted “a credible profession” (the main basis for church membership).  Pretty much an internal matter to which, you would think, no-one outside the church would pay much attention.  However, because the Report was prompted by a query relating to those established in same-sex relationships, it would be fair to say the Report was front-page news.  As a later Statement from the church emphasised, this was not about excluding people from worship, church life, or even communion.  The church’s position on an Open Table for all who love Christ and seek to live according to His will, is clear and remains unchanged.  So too is the church’s position on marriage.  When these issues appear to collide, obviously much pastoral wisdom and loving conversations are required.  However the nuances were lost on most of the readership inside and outside of the church.  As a result I find myself frustrated both with my church and its, at times, ham-fisted processes; and at the usual intolerance of the culture and it insatiable demands that the church compromise to satisfy the demands of those, many of whom have no desire to be part of it anyway,,,,,,  This was my immediate response on social media which I reproduce here for those who have asked.

On the one hand….. I am aghast at the stupidity of our church in debating this very internal matter in public.  We are victims of our own arrogance.  Trapped in a Christendom mindset that thinks society cares a jot about what we have to say, we forget that the media will only report if it provides an opportunity to mock and ridicule and tear down.

How many of the other hundred plus reports outlining good news stories of mission and compassion will be reported or remembered?  Exactly. I rest my case. To  discuss this in front of a watching public that knows nothing about either church government or sacramental theology is crass foolishness. We could have written the headlines before the debate began.

So-called “affirming denominations” are a minority within a minority precisely because they are an aberration, an anomaly, a contradiction: and not one of them is growing

On the other hand….  I am bewildered at the naivity of those who were shocked or saddened by this, or who think that this decision is “news”.  “News” would have been if the church had changed its position.  There’s nothing to see here.  I’m amazed that those who shout loudest about allowing people to “be themselves” are not prepared to let the church “be itself.”

There are over 100 denominations in Ireland.  Those who think differently from the PCI on same-sex marriage can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Extrapolate globally and that minority is even smaller.  Extrapolate back through 2 millennia of history and it’s virtually invisible.  So-called “affirming denominations” are a minority within a minority precisely because they are an aberration, an anomaly, a contradiction: and not one of them is growing.  Yet to listen to some, it seems that they expect the PCI hypocritically to stand up and shout “We thank you Lord that we are not like other churches…”

On the one hand….I am frustrated by the short-sightedness of those who think that orthodoxy is best served by passing resolutions and creating legislation; who feel that a vote secures ‘soundness’.  It doesn’t.  Soundness rests in our actions as well as our words; we have said (rightly) that we want to love and welcome everyone regardless of orientation, and that this policy does not preclude that; well, the hard work starts now, and because of how this has been handled and reported, it has just got a whole lot harder.

It is said you can’t legislate for stupidity; it’s equally true you cannot legislate for wisdom.

By intertwining pastoral guidelines with policy-making, we have further complicated an already complex minefield in the middle of which are real people.  It is said you can’t legislate for stupidity; it’s equally true you cannot legislate for wisdom.  And the real and diverse pastoral situations involved here require great godly wisdom. To give just one example, when same-sex couples come to faith and ask how they and their children should live as disciples of Jesus there’s going to be an awful lot of Presbyterian head-scratching.  It’s not in the rule-book folks!

But on the other hand…. I am dumbfounded and face-palming till I’m sore at how, after oceans of ink have been spilled on this subject, so many still can’t make the most basic of differentiations between feelings and actions, between orientation and behavior, between inclination and choice.  We are not animals.  We make moral choices.  Headlines trumpeting about the “banning of gays” may be click-bait, but they do a lot of harm to individuals and to the church.  Yet it doesn’t change the simple fact.  This Is Not About Orientation.

Meanwhile, there are the forgotten ones… (who) chose a road less travelled

So yes, the media will sensationalise this; yes, the LGBT community both the minority inside and the majority outside the church, will not be satisfied until we completely affirm their view of marriage, identity and sexuality; yes we will feel misunderstood and misrepresented, but it is a misrepresentation that we ourselves have colluded in, so it is no time for self-pity.  Meanwhile, there are the forgotten ones: those who are same-sex attracted but who accept that their primarily loyalty to and identity in Jesus Christ mean that they choose  a road less travelled.  They are not at home in the noisy world of LGBT identity politics, but neither are they always at home in the church and it is imperative that after the talking has subsided we ensure that the road of obedience they have chosen is not, for them, a lonely one.



  1. Terence · · Reply

    I streamed the debate. Senior respected ministers who had a major role in our N.Ireland troubles resolution, and others, didn’t see this as an internal matter, but as a hard response against the current culture. The assembly was warned clearly in debate by some of its own pastors and those engaged in the dialogue committee as to the potential public response, and more importantly the reaction of those LGBTI folk who gave of their time and selves to meet and share with the dialogue committee. Betrayal of tryst comes instantly to mind. And for those communicant members who, like me, may not think (after due study of scripture and in good conscience) as those on the doctrinal committee do, it seems there’s no room for ongoing debate. It was also clearly stated by some that this didn’t show the inclusion that Jesus modelled. I agree with your assessment that there was an arrogance about the need to pursue this internal policy, and in my opinion it torpedoes relationships, and to continue the metaphor has put a hole above and below the waterline of the PCI ship that will prove very difficult to repair…some may even jump ship! It seems that women may be the next ‘doctrinal’ housekeeping to be addressed in the future with internal mumbling around revisiting women’s ordination. I hope I’m wrong about that one, but local experience of this in my own congreagation makes it credible enough!

  2. Thank you for putting into words my thoughts and feelings over the past week.
    I agree with your frustrations with how those outside of church have responded as well as those who argue for significant liberalisation. However I expected little less.

    But most of my frustration has been at the clumsy and, in my opinion, unnecessary posturing of the denomination.

    I was not always a member of PCI so often don’t understand it’s ways of working and wouldn’t label myself a Presbyterian. But have stuck with it because of my local congregation.
    This debate and the way it was handled means my denomination is actively hindering my work and witness with LGBT colleagues and friends. I’ll think twice before saying what church I attend as it’ll raise questions it wouldn’t have done before.
    Face palming was my “go to” often as I watched events unfold.
    Will be borrowing the phrase “legislate for ‘soundness’ ” and a few others that encapsulate my thoughts.
    Anywatly, thanks again

    1. Thanks for your encouragement . We both know I’m sure tithe it is difficult enough personally and as congregations to navigate the hard discipleship issues- they way of the cross ad sacrifice that the Lord calls us to. But we don’t need church structures to make it even harder. Of course a lot of the faux outrage is coming from people who are no longer, or never were members of the PCI; and who forget that the position of 90% of other churches is the same- the others just get on with life quietly or have a better PR department!!

  3. Martin Baxter · · Reply

    Hi Monty,

    I have been reading some of the online responses to Fraz’s Facebook post, your post and the post from the CorryMeela Community.

    I am not 100% certain as to what exactly the PCI decided to do last Friday but I guess I have a question that I am not certain I hear very many people discussing in PCI or in the PCC for that matter.

    I am guessing that the PCI has maintained its doctrinal belief that “practising” homosexuals is a sin – an act / lifestyle counter to God’s god creation.

    Unfortunately for LGTBQ et al their sins are very visible and public.
    As such it is “easy” to pronounce an act of judgement upon them and restrict their access to the sacraments of grace.
    What confuses me in all this is I thought we were all sinners saved by grace and in fact NONE of us come to the table as sinless beings. Most of our sins are not visible to others. Does that mean we are getting away with it and it is OK to pronounce a judgement on others despite the fact we have a log sticking out of our own eyes?

    Please don’t hear this question the wrong way. I am not in any way sharing my doctrinal belief on this subject. But what frustrates me is that our procedures / practices have this idea that some of us have the “right” b/c our sins are not as bad as others. Yikes – that scares me!

    Did anyone discuss the likes of this at PCI when this subject was being debated?

    Your brother in Christ

    1. Thans Marty Rather than fall into the same trap I accuse our church of doing and try to deal with sensitive internal pastoral matters in public, I will PM you my longer response. Sufficient to say here that I believe, and it is consistent with the PCI report, that sin is sin- no hierarchy. Also it was not about banning from the Table- When a person whoever they are takes communion that is between them and God (1 Cor 11) The issue was admission to church membership on the basis of a credible profession of faith, and what constituted a credible profession in this instance, bearing in mind the church’s clear understanding of marriage

      It was a Catch-22 I can understand the accusations of hypocrisy in that there are other public ongoing sins that don’t seem to affect church membership (in which case the answer is surely to be more consistent in discipline towards repentance, not less 1 Cor.5); however accusations of hypocrisy would also be completely merited if our practice of church membership was at odds with our view of marriage.

      Re the baptism issue, it was not saying anything about the child (there’s hardly a PCI minister who hasn’t refused or delayed the baptism of heterosexual couples because of no credible profession). The public media didn’t understand the difference between an Anglo-Catholic view of baptism (where the child would seem to be disadvantaged through refusal) and a Presbyterian covenant view where that child can still receive baptism at a later time on profession of faith regardless of who the parents are.

  4. […] Elsewhere; “I’m amazed that those who shout loudest about allowing people to “be themselves” are not pr… […]

  5. Monty,
    Thank you!

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