Schism between DUP and Free Presbyterian Church over gay councillor signals politics secular direction of travel
The rift between the Free Presbyterian Church and the DUP over the party's selection of an openly gay election candidate highlights how these two traditional allies of Ulster Protestantism are not as close as they once were. Political Correspondent John Manley reports
SOME members of the DUP claim, with a certain irony, that if it hadn't been for a front page story in The Irish News last month revealing that the party had selected its first openly gay election candidate then they would be non the wiser.
Now it's public, however, Alison Bennington's selection is proving controversial among Christian conservatives in the Free Presbyterian Church, who historically regarded the DUP as the political expression of their religious beliefs.
The newly-elected Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council representative doesn't hide her sexuality and lives with her long-term partner.
It's 2019 after all and in any other context her sexual proclivities would be regarded as an entirely private matter.
But because this is the DUP and many senior party figures have in the past been openly hostile to the LGBT+ community, the issue is grabbing the headlines.
Ms Bennington's candidacy and subsequent election isn't the first time the DUP has been at odds with members of the Free Presbyterian Church, which was founded in 1951 by the party's late leader Ian Paisley.
Previously, the greatest schism between the two traditional bastions of Ulster Protestantism came in 2007, when under Mr Paisley's leadership the DUP decided to enter power-sharing with Sinn Féin. To many within the ranks of the party and its religious ally, going into government with those associated with the Provisional IRA was anathema.
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Jim Allister, a Free Presbyterian and one-time friend of Mr Paisley, was the highest profile defector, leaving the party he'd represented as an MEP for the previous three years and forming the Traditional Unionist Voice.
The move that was characterised by critics as 'going into government with terrorists' also led to a disagreement between Mr Paisley and elements within his church in Belfast. Ultimately, he was forced to step down as moderator and to leave Martyrs Memorial on the Ravenhill Road, where he had delivered hundreds of trademark firebrand sermons over previous decades.
But according to Ivan Foster, a retired senior Free Presbyterian minister and former DUP elected representative, the selection of Ms Bennington is "much more serious" than previous policies which have brought the party into conflict with Christian fundamentalists.
"This has a greater dimension than previous jolts due to the nature of this woman's lifestyle," he says in reference to Alison Bennington.
Rev Foster cites both the New Testament and Old Testament in support of what many people would regard as his arcane beliefs, arguing that the destruction of Sodom, as documented in the Book of Genesis, shows that God does not tolerate homosexuality.
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"For those who have been schooled in God's word, as Free Presbyterians have, this is something that cannot be imagined," he says.
Rogue DUP MLA Jim Wells, a member of the evangelical Baptist congregation, claims the decision to select a lesbian candidate is a "watershed" and has left many party members "deeply disoriented and puzzled".
"Scripture teaches us that all sexual activity should be between and man and a woman, within marriage," the South Down MLA says.
However, he concedes that those most outraged by Ms Bennington's candidacy "tend to be older members".
Ahead of the local government election earlier this month, the church's presbytery officers circulated a letter to the north's three dozen-odd Free Presbyterian churches.
While it did not make specific reference to the DUP, the target was clear. The letter, which for reasons that can only be speculated at was not read to all congregations, said the Free Presbyterian Church “underlines its opposition to all marital and sexual relationships outside the covenant of Biblical marriage”.
"Therefore, as a church we are saddened by the attempts of political parties to normalise and promote marital and sexual relationships that are in contravention of the clear teaching of scripture," it said.
The DUP's response merely said the party position, which supports "traditional marriage", had not changed.
However, critics within the Free Presbyterian Church believe the response is inadequate as it fails to address the role played by church members on the DUP executive, including Lord Maurice Morrow, East Derry MP Gregory Campbell and West Tyrone MLA Thomas Buchanan, in rubber-stamping Ms Bennington's selection.
It may be wishful thinking on the part of those Free Presbyterians who oppose the selection of a gay candidate but they believe the church authorities will be forced to initiate a "more robust" response against the senior DUP representatives who allowed the selection to go-ahead.
To a some extent Ms Bennington's candidacy and subsequent election is being blown out of proportion. After all, the Free Presbyterian congregation in Northern Ireland numbers at most 15,000, so even if all its members previously voted DUP but now chose not to, the effect wouldn't be catastrophic. However, the divergence between these two traditional allies represents a symbolic modernising trend in Northern Ireland politics and highlights how increasingly secular the party founded by a religious fundamentalist has become.
The Irish News asked to speak to Free Presbyterian Moderator Reverend Gordon Bane about the church's attitude to Alison Bennington's selection but he did not respond