Presbyterians back report denying full membership to same-sex couples

Proceedings at this week's Presbyterian General Assembly were chaired by moderator the Rev Dr Charles McMullen. Picture by Mal McCann

A clear majority of the Presbyterian Church yesterday backed its doctrinal position on "marriage and human relationships" and its understanding around same-sex couples and the sacraments.

Debate around the issue at the denomination's General Assembly did, however, also express concern that it raised significant pastoral concerns, including whether Presbyterian congregations were genuinely welcoming and safe places for gay people.

The doctrine committee had been asked to prepare guidelines on whether same-sex couples could become communicant members of the Presbyterian Church or what should happen if they request the baptism of a child.

A detailed study of the issues 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."

The doctrine committee did stress that the Church must still "reach out with love and compassion" in a "posture of grace and welcome".

Proposing an amendment, the Rev Cheryl Meban, a chaplain at Ulster University, questioned whether the report properly balanced doctrine with pastoral care.

John Hunter, seconding, said he was worried that the Presbyterian Church had become "more harsh and judgmental" in recent years and "more concerned with breaking rather than building relationships"; 'building relationships' is the denomination's theme for the year.

The ensuing debate was largely characterised by speakers affirming the theology contained in the doctrine committee report but expressing reservations about how it would be heard in practice.

A contribution from the Rev Derek McKelvey captured this tension.

Stating that the Church's teaching on marriage was "crystal clear" and that it "didn't need to dance to the world's tune", he said there would be a perception that: "We might as well put up a banner outside our churches saying, 'Sinners not welome'."

The Rev Ian McNie said the same-sex issue was only being talked about thanks to "the increasingly aggressive propaganda of the news media".

He went on to cite, apparently without irony, a news media report which confirmed his view that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's position was also dominant in "Christendom".

How the Church should relate to those with whom it disagrees was a recurring theme at this week's meeting of lay people and clergy.

For example, the General Assembly agreed that its moderator should meet Pope Francis but not his counterpart in the Church of Scotland, presaging a split with the Irish denomination's 'mother church'.

Nor are Presbyterians the only Christians to have wrestled with sacramental discipline in recent weeks; it has come to the fore in the Catholic Church, too, in relation to whether those who publicly oppose its teaching should have access to marriage.

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