Presbyterians vote to meet Pope but separate from Scottish 'mother church'

A series of votes by the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly yesterday mean its moderator, the Rev Dr Charles McMullen, can officially meet the Pope but not his counterpart in the Church of Scotland. Picture by Mal McCann

IN an afternoon likely to have confused casual observers, the Presbyterian Church yesterday made what appeared to be a series of contradictory decisions about its links with other Christians.

Within a few hours, the denomination's general assembly agreed that its moderator should meet Pope Francis when he visits Ireland in August - but that it should also sever ceremonial links with a Presbyterian counterpart, the Church of Scotland, while still collaborating with that Church in areas of "mutual benefit".

This means the Irish moderator - this year it is Bangor minister, the Rev Dr Charles McMullen - has been given the authority to meet Pope Francis but not the leader of another Presbyterian Church.

The same vote means the general assembly will also cut links with the United Reformed Church.

But it is the Scottish dimension which is most symbolic and which arguably represents a watershed moment in the life of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Proceedings unfolded with, at least by the generally plodding nature of Church assemblies, some drama.

Because the two sides were not easily separated when delegates were asked to voice their support for whether they should cease or maintain public links, a 'standing vote' had to be taken.

The proposal to end the relationship was passed by 255 to 171; the Rev Dr George Whyte, the principal clerk of the Church of Scotland, who was attending with its moderator, the Right Rev Susan Brown, then addressed the assembly of lay people and clergy.

"Having taken the decision, we have no choice but to leave; to assure you that we will continue to pray for you; and that if you should change your mind, then our door is always open," he said, with some emotion.

Dr Brown and Mrs Whyte, visibly upset, immediately left the assembly hall.

Yesterday's decision was the culmination of years of tension over the Church of Scotland's liberal approach to same-sex relationships, themselves a reflection of a different view of the authority of Scripture to that held by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Dr McMullen will meet the Pope.

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