The News Letter and the Antrim Guardian have both reported that Justice Minister David Ford has ‘agreed’ to step down from his duties as an elder at Second Donegore Presbyterian Church in County Antrim, as a result of his vote in favour of civil marriage equality.
This seems to have been the result of what has clearly been quite serious pressure in what the News Letter describes as “months of private meetings” at the sub-regional body to which Second Donegore belongs, Templepatrick Presbytery. Although the News Letter reported that the Presbyterian Church “stressed that the politician is not being disciplined”, that reads to me like chop logic. While the formal stage of any disciplinary process may not have been opened, my (admittedly limited) understanding of Presbyterian church order is that the presbytery is the level of organisation at which the disciplining of an elder would take place. A formal disciplinary process would, on a point of doctrine as opposed to a criminal or financial issue, almost certainly be preceded by a series of fact finding meetings. That sounds suspiciously close to what has happened here.
Ford’s ousting and the deliberate leaking of the matter to the Antrim Guardian is, of course, already a form of punishment. Anyone who knows David Ford knows how important the church is to him and his family. On a personal level, I can well imagine how painful it would have been to me to be ousted as Churchwarden in St. George’s due to a political decision I had made. This is a nasty business.
With another vote on marriage equality scheduled to come before the Assembly next week, the message to other Presbyterian legislators is crystal clear. Vote for gays to get married in the Assembly on Monday and you can expect to be punished in Church on Sunday. There were a few surprising abstentions in October’s vote on marriage equality from Presbyterians who might have been expected to vote in favour – the most obvious being Alliance’s Judith Cochrane and ex-UUP now Independent MLA John McCallister. Two UUP MLAs, Danny Kennedy and Roy Beggs Jr., specifically cited their membership of the Presbyterian Church as a reason for voting against civil marriage equality in the Assembly Chamber, as did party leader Mike Nesbitt in comments at the time of that debate.
There are clearly serious implications for the nature of democracy in Northern Ireland if legislators are going to be punished in church for how they vote on a matter of civil law. These are even more serious in the case of cabinet ministers. And let us be clear, the debate on marriage equality relates to civil law only. The right of Churches to decide their own policies on this matter is not remotely under threat, any more than the Roman Catholic Church’s right to refuse to remarry divorcees has been threatened by civil divorce.
In a deeply divided society like Northern Ireland, the separation of church and state is vital. The case for the creation of Northern Ireland as an entity rested on the fear that the rights of Protestants could not be guaranteed in a self-governing Ireland likely to be dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. That fear, as it turned out, was entirely warranted. The principle cuts in all directions. The 80% of Northern Ireland’s population who are not Presbyterian should not have the doctrines of that Church imposed upon them by law – and many of the 20% of the population who are Presbyterians have little wish to live in a theocracy.
We have plenty of experience of theocracies on this island. My own Church of Ireland, in the Ascendancy period, was the architect of probably the nastiest and most discriminatory of them all. The lessons of history – including some quite recent history – stare us in the face. We are fools if we ignore them.
Those opposed to marriage equality should be as concerned as those in favour by the dangers in pursuing courses of action like that which has proceeded in County Antrim. I am not a Presbyterian, therefore the doctrines of that Church ought to be none of my business. But if the Presbyterian Church is going to bully politicians in attempt to impose its doctrines through the laws of the land, then all of a sudden they are my business. If you use your Church as a political weapon, it will inevitably become a quite legitimate political target. I would think all of us, regardless of our position on civil marriage equality, have an interest in ensuring that does not become the case.
As a final aside, here’s an example of the cancerous level of homophobia in parts of Northern Ireland society. From the Antrim Guardian report, here are the words of a man who, like most cowards, requested anonymity – “I couldn’t stomach sitting in the same room as him so I haven’t been back for three months now.” This is how he reacts to a heterosexual, married, man who voted for civil marriage equality. Imagine how he’d react if a 15 year old girl in the guide troop or Bible study was inadvertently outed?
I could say more. I could talk about how the same people who claim to be deeply concerned about imposing what they claim are ‘Biblical’ standards on homosexuality (Christ’s silence on the matter notwithstanding) are mostly silent when it comes to Bibilical standards on the right use of money, distribution of wealth or cultural chauvinism. But this is supposed to be an article about the separation of church and state, so I’ll leave those discussions for another time.