The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) made two decisions at its General Assembly last week that have caused some consternation. On Wednesday PCI made a formal break with the Church of Scotland because of its more liberal approach to gay marriage, and then on Friday they decided that those living in same-sex relationships cannot be communicant members because they cannot be regarded as making a “credible profession of faith.” As a result of the rules on baptism in the Presbyterian church, the children of such couples cannot be baptised.
Both decisions are erroneous.
The Church of Scotland
Such a formal break in a deeply ingrained historical relationship is utterly unwarranted and PCI has been incredibly short-sighted in breaking over an issue that is not – according to any historical creed – a Christian fundamental. There are many areas in which Christians disagree – some far more serious than this one – and to grandstand on the back of it in this way is to move in an isolationist and narrow-minded direction. Moreover, it reduces the chance of influencing the Church of Scotland and – dare I say it – actually learning from them. If the Church of Scotland is deemed (quite rightly) to be a Christian denomination, then cutting off such close historic ties is immensely uncharitable and has the potential to lead to further splits within PCI itself. Frankly, it looks petty-minded, smacks of an inability to accept difference, and is all the more baffling in light of the fact that the incoming Presbyterian Moderator has chosen the theme “Building Relationships” for his year in office. The Church of Scotland has remained with an outstretched hand in the hope of resuming the friendship, and surely PCI can learn a lesson here in Christian charity.
In dealing with the second decision I won’t debate the ethics of homosexuality, homosexual relationships, or gay sex. Let’s grant PCI’s contentions: that gay sex is sinful, that same-sex relationships are sinful, and that God’s ideal is marriage between a man or a woman. Even by PCI’s own lights it is a huge mistake to disbar those in same-sex relationships from full membership. The decision lacks grace, misunderstands the nature of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, it dehumanises gay people, and smacks of elitist self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
In a cultural context in which members of the LGBT community have been on the receiving end of horrendous homophobic abuse at the hands of the church it is thoroughly opprobrious to single out homosexual relationships for censure. There are many in the church guilty of serious sins who can nonetheless participate as full members because we are willing to overlook them. Bob regularly loses his temper and continues to make excuses for himself. Jane gossips and continually defends herself as passing on prayer requests. Gary the worship leader is arrogant and boastful and engages in false humility to cover it. Tommy is a bigot whose low opinion of Roman Catholics is only marginally higher than his opinion of homosexuals. Pastors readily abuse their own authority and when challenged get defensive. Sometimes only years later they come to see just how bad their behaviour is. We excuse all these faults in ourselves or others, but fail to extend the same courtesy to homosexual Christians. When it comes to those in gay relationships shouldn’t we trust Christ to shape and mould them to his image over time just as he does with us? Instead, PCI has created an arbitrary hierarchy of sin, wherein the sins of LGBT people are viewed as worse than others. That will always sound self-righteous, hypocritical, and homophobic. This was a great opportunity to positively engage LGBT church members and rejoice that Christ is working within them and extending grace to them as they seek to live faithfully for him (even though we might disagree with them on a single moral issue). Instead the church has – on the back of a rather severe Doctrinal Committee report – adopted a position of hypocritical, haughty disdain.
Grace is sadly missing from PCI’s decision. We are all works in progress and, crucially, have many things wrong with us that we aren’t even currently aware of.
In my exchanges with others about PCI’s decision I have been told that “genuine Christians” will “repent,” just like Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” Stafford Carson – the Principle of PCI’s Union Theological College – rather sniffily opined that the life of a Christian should be marked by obedience to Christ. What this response ignores is that repentance and sanctification are processes, not single events. When people convert they don’t suddenly become aware of all their faults and sins at once. No Christian – not even Professor Stafford Carson – is a work of sinless perfection and perfect obedience. Moreover, surely part of obedience to Christ is humility, and whatever humility means it surely includes an awareness that we might well be wrong about a point of theology or biblical interpretation.
Furthermore, many gay couples don’t agree that their relationships are sinful, so it isn’t as if they are “sinning wilfully,” as one person put it to me. Some more conservative Presbyterians have claimed that the issue is about the authority of Scripture. However, many gay couples agree with the authority of scripture, but they interpret certain passages differently. Christians disagree over many issues – and many of these issues are ones which I think are far more scripturally clear than this one. So, if a person confesses Jesus as Lord, if they are growing in Christian maturity, if they are valuable members of the church who care about the welfare of the other members, why are we denying them full membership? Even the inner circle of Jesus Christ himself included those who were to betray or deny they knew him.
There are many occasions when elders are right to be long-suffering about the public faults and sins of others. Many new converts, for example, can’t reasonably be expected to change overnight, and frankly we need to get rid of the notion that a sinner who converts on Saturday will come to church on Sunday looking and living like a brand new creation from the off. One church I know of was attended by a recently converted couple. They were living – and sleeping – together, had kids, but were not married. The church leaders didn’t discipline them. They were patient. They allowed them room to grow in maturity and understanding, to develop Christian friendships in the church, and then approached them with a question “hey, guys, why don’t you two get married! We’ll even help you pay for it!” And that’s what happened. Pastorally, this church got it 100% right, in my view. Sadly, there are some churches that would have sat them down, laid down the law from day 1, and probably would’ve never seen them again.
Some Presbyterians fear that permitting those in same-sex relationships to take full membership would amount to an endorsement of their lifestyle. However, that simply isn’t the case. Firstly, being in a same-sex relationship does not mean being in a sexual relationship. Even if it did, allowing them to be full members is not to publicly endorse a lifestyle PCI disagrees with any more than it agrees with the sins and faults of any other member or group of people who are entitled to full membership. For example, I am a communicant member of my local congregation and yet I publicly disagree with my church on numerous points of theology and practice. Moreover, I can be arrogant and condescending. This doesn’t disbar me from communion, nor does it mean PCI is affirming my views or behaviour. So, we’re not asking PCI to endorse same sex relationships. We’re asking them to be gracious towards people with which they disagree who are clearly brothers and sisters in Christ.
PCI has fallen into a familiar trap that dogs conservative evangelicalism: the inability to view homosexual people as anything other than homosexuals. Bob isn’t primarily viewed as an honest businessman who gives generously to the church and feeds the homeless. He’s viewed primarily as “Bob the homosexual.” No matter how great Bob is he will always be viewed by many Christians as nothing other than “gay;” a second-class Christian, if Christian at all. We have got to get away from this dehumanising practice and begin viewing people holistically. Being gay isn’t the defining characteristic of anyone, and it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a blight that nullifies or casts a shadow over everything else that’s good about a person. This is exactly what PCI is guilty of. They have effectively said “we don’t care what else is good about your life, your confession of Christian faith cannot be credible.”
These decisions demonstrate that PCI has a long way to go to reach out to LGBT people. The decisions were retrograde and unhelpful, and risk alienating not only those outside its walls but the many progressive voices within. Thankfully PCI already has a friend – the Church of Scotland – standing ready and willing to teach what it has learned. Now, how serious are they about “Building Relationships?”
Stephen J. Graham