Presbyterian Church Punishes Ford for Marriage Equality Vote

Alliance Annual Conference 2011The 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.

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  • PeterBrown

    I don’t want to bang on about it but the terms of subscription to the Westminster Confession in PCI (which once upon a long time ago I too subscribed) are a bit more nuanced than you suppose.

    And what you imply against David Ford, that his subscription on ordination to eldership committed him to a view of marriage… well, (in the words of Jimmy Somerville) “It ain’t necessarily so.”

    If you’re really interested in this there’s good stuff on what subscription means in “Challenge and Conflict:
    Essays in Irish Presbyterian History and Doctrine” by Principal JLM Haire. There’s the 1974 General Assembly statement about what subscription means.

    Interestingly, marriage is one area among others where the PCI (and even the Reformed Presbyterians) follow the WCF since it prohibits marriage within degrees of kindred that the civil law allows. And guess what? PCI follows the more liberal civil law on the matter.

    Anyway, you’re quoting out of context. The WCF wasn’t addressing gender, since the question wasn’t being asked in 1646. The point being made is:

    “Marriage is to be between ONE man and ONE woman” (my emphasis).

    If we wanted to quote bits of Confession out of context I could offer a bit from few lines later:

    “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent.” 🙂

    As I’ve said before it’s those who have behaved so disgracefully towards David Ford who should be disciplined, not him. And in the final analysis I would gently suggest that there are many things far more central to the Christian gospel than any particular theology of relationships.

  • Rory Carr

    If, as you argue, McNeilScott,

    The WCF wasn’t addressing gender, since the question wasn’t being asked in 1646…

    why bother to mention at all that, ““Marriage is to be between one MAN and one WOMAN” (my emphasis this time)?

    You are surely not suggesting that, ” the question wasn’t being asked in 1646…” because homosexual congress was unknown in those times ?

    You really are stretching credulity with this line of defence, but then I think you already know that.

  • Rory,

    You misidentify my line of defence (as you put it).

    My argument with those who insist that David Ford cannot with integrity be both an elder of the PCI and a supporter of equal marriage is that they (deliberately or otherwise) misrepresent what subscription to the WCF actually means both in practice and, since the 1974 Statement of Assembly, in the PCI’s own understanding. I have yet to hear of anyone being disciplined for not adhering to “limited atonement”, for example, though I am sure that contrary doctrine is preached weekly from a hundred pulpits in the land. And PCI, as I pointed out, doesn’t itself follow this article when it comes to prohibited degrees of kindred.

    You are surely not suggesting that the Westminister Divines inserted these words to cover the present debate? (That would be stretching credulity.)

    In any case, the primary reason that the half-sentence (and it is a clause of a longer sentence) “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman” (no emphasis) is not about same-sex marriage is because the rest of the sentence addresses the issue of polygamy and polyandry.

    Though, as I said, parsng the text of the WCF isn’t really the point. But I hope you liked my bit of the WCF

    “It is lawful for all sorts of people to marry who are able with judgment to give their consent.” (Which IS a complete sentence, by the way!)

  • Comrade Stalin

    PeterBrown,

    Fair enough.

    Can I ask you a question. Do you believe the Pope is the anti-Christ ?

    If not, then how can you be qualified to be an elder ? The Westminster Confession is very clear on this matter, is it not ?

  • PeterBrown

    Scott

    I don’t think I need to add anything to what Rory has pointed out except to say that I cannot find an online version of the 1974 statement although I suspect I have a hard copy of it somewhere

    CS

    Although tempted to respond to this by stating it’s a little early is his papacy to be coming to that conclusion and that he deserves a little more time to prove himself the 1974 statement deals with this point specifically whereas it does not give a get out on marriage – so presumably you are happy to be consistent about punishing those not adhering to party policy now even though D Ford has not yet been punished by PCI?

  • Rory Carr

    Let us, McNeilScott, momentarily and only for the sake of argument, accept that the half sentence , “ “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman…” is to be read in the context of rulings on fun stuff such as polyandry and polygamy then, even so, we cannot escape the stark stricture that (if we remove the number) marriage is to be confined to union between “MAN and WOMAN”.

    As to your neat little snipping from the WCF on “all sorts of people…” (which I most certainly did enjoy – well spotted) I am afraid that I am obliged to see your Jimmy Somerville and raise you my John McEnroe – “You cannot be serious !

    You may well be right in your interpretation of how the WCF’s freedom of conscience ethos ought properly to have been applied in this instance but, to paraphrase no greater authority than Father Jack Hackett, “That would be a theological matter” and really what we are concerned with here is the commitment of opposition to same-sex civil marriage we understand that David Ford gave to a particular congregation that assisted in his appointment to the leading lay position of Elder of their church and that congregation’s perfectly understandable pique on learning that not only had Mr Ford not been frank with them but that he was now publicly rubbing salt into the wounds of their deception.

    So this then is, I have argued, not about one’s position on equal rights for gay couples to civil marriage (I shall declare mine if anyone cares to know but it is not relevant to this debate), nor about an attempt by leading members of one Presbyterian congregation to stifle freedom of conscience but simply (as Peter Brown has already so quietly but forcibly argued) a matter of David Ford’s integrity.

    Or lack thereof.

  • theblackman

    PeterBrown,

    The WCF isn’t the route to go down here. A better argument contra Mr Ford would be his submission to scripture as the sole authority for faith and action. On those grounds an argument could easily be constructed and debated against any sexual relationship outside the marriage covenant. Moreover its defence then rests on the authority of scripture, will Mr Ford submit to the authority of scripture?

  • Rory,

    I accept that your John McEnroe trumps my Jimmy Somerville in that you accurately suggest that I am not maintaining that the Westminster Divines intended to support equal marriage in either of the snippets we have been bandying.

    You say
    “really what we are concerned with here is the commitment of opposition to same-sex civil marriage we understand that David Ford gave to a particular congregation that assisted in his appointment to the leading lay position of Elder of their church and that congregation’s perfectly understandable pique on learning that not only had Mr Ford not been frank with them but that he was now publicly rubbing salt into the wounds of their deception.”

    Is it so? Was he explicitly asked about same-sex marriage at election to the eldership and said he was against it? If so, I conceed that your case is strong. Though we all develop in our thinking (or as Barak would have it “evolve”… but that’s a whole other can of worms in some parts of NI Protestantism!)

    I haven’t been persuaded that subscribing to the WCF in the normal manner (explored already) commits him to oppose equal marriage and that, therefore, his current situation calls his integrity into question.

    I still think that in the longer run this kind of episode is symptomatic of a crisis of culture in PCI that inhibits honest theological discussion. David Ford’s position on same-sex marriage is not without support in world Presbyterianism. That may come as news in Second Donegore, but it is so.

    Personally, I would hate to be in a church where everyone thought exactly the same as I do on same-sex marriage as on other things. And if churches are not to split into a thousand pieces there has to be some mutual respect and forebearance.

  • David Crookes

    Agree 100%, theblackman. Once you walk away from the Scriptural thou-shalt-not, you’re left with do-what-thou-wilt, and the whole idea of a Christian community evaporates. If Mr X is allowed to delete all the Sodom-and-Gomorrah stuff, Mr Y the kleptomaniac will feel entitled to delete lines like LET HIM THAT STOLE STEAL NO MORE.

    Professing Christians who have ceased to believe in certain parts of the Bible should expect to be treated like members of a golf club who have ceased to believe in certain rules of golf.

  • Crubeen

    I’m all in favour of equal marriage rights for the gay community.

    I assume they will take those equal rights to heart and accept the equal responsibilities that go with the equal rights …. and breed, in the common way that this has been done since Moses was a baby.

  • tacapall

    Can those who believe in religion not stick to the one rule that should guide the moral philosophy of all mankind – Do not do to others, what you would not like others doing to you. Its ridiculous to suggest that every being must breed in order to fulfill some predetermined destiny, every human being should have the freedom to choose their own destiny, as long as what they do does not break that one rule above. It is Christianity and religion that impedes mankind from achieving freedom and destiny.

  • babyface finlayson

    David Crookes
    You’ve been quiet lately!
    I asked theblackman this question but answer came there none.
    Is it considered right by Christians to try and influence legislation regarding personal morality.
    If we are compelled by law to follow God’s moral rules where is pur freewill?
    Surely Christ did not get involved in matters of civil law.

  • babyface finlayson

    That should be ‘our freewill’. Useless digits.

  • David Crookes

    Bless you, babyface, other duties have kept me busy of late. The answer to your question is yes. The Lord DID involve himself in a matter of fiscal law when he said, ‘Render unto Caesar thie things that are Caesar’s.’ He also articulated a much more stringent standard of marital fidelity than what was accepted by contemporaneous religious leaders.

    Many Christians who have no interest in starting up a religious tyranny ascribe the relatively recent proliferation of children with ‘special educational needs’ to the breakdown of Christian marriage. They believe that the number of those children will increase markedly if GM becomes a common phenomenon.

    I hate the whole idea of a religious tyranny whose priestly thought police are obsessed with controlling everybody. That sort of tyranny still operates in certain individual congregations, from Northern Ireland to South America, and wherever it does people are not notably more ‘moral’ than most other people.

    Let me ramble from your question for a moment. PC is a modern religion, and religion is all about controlling people. We need to watch that we don’t allow a PC thought police to tell us what to think about. Consider two modern obsessions: charging some octogenarian with a forty-year-old act of child abuse IF HE IS OR WAS A PROMINENT PERSON, and making someone a national pariah for sending a silly tweet message IF HE OR SHE IS A PROMINENT PERSON.

    Now back to other duties. Thanks for your question.

  • David Crookes

    Bless you, babyface, other duties have kept me busy of late. The answer to your question is yes. The Lord DID involve himself in a matter of fiscal law when he said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’ He also articulated a much more stringent standard of marital fidelity than what was accepted by contemporaneous religious leaders.

    Many Christians who have no interest in starting up a religious tyranny ascribe the relatively recent proliferation of children with ’special educational needs’ to the breakdown of Christian marriage. They believe that the number of those children will increase markedly if GM becomes a common phenomenon.

    I hate the whole idea of a religious tyranny whose priestly thought police are obsessed with controlling everybody. That sort of tyranny still operates in certain individual congregations, from Northern Ireland to South America, and wherever it does people are not notably more ‘moral’ than most other people.

    Let me ramble from your question for a moment. PC is a modern religion, and religion is all about controlling people. We need to watch that we don’t allow a PC thought police to tell us what to think about. Consider two modern obsessions: charging some octogenarian with a forty-year-old act of child abuse IF HE IS OR WAS A PROMINENT PERSON, and making someone a national pariah for sending a silly tweet message IF HE OR SHE IS A PROMINENT PERSON.

    Now back to other duties. Thanks for your question.

  • Framer

    Anyone got chapter and verse on the Presbyterian Church’s opposition to decriminalisation in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s?
    And is it still their official position?

  • theblackman

    babyface finlayson,

    Apologies for my shirking of the answer for your question a few days back. Honestly, it vexed me somewhat as I mulled it over.

    Where is our freewill if we hold to these moral and legal rules?

    Perhaps I’d use the example of road speed limits, we need them to point to safe limits of speed, ensure safety and restrain us from our reckless desires. They then give freedom within their constraints and we recognise their benefits.

    I believe that Scripture’s moral laws give people and nations such a guide and they restrain us from the excesses of our many desires. So from my perspective, these moral laws actual bring a measure of freedom for nations. I would consider them to be part of God’s common grace to the world.

    By all means tear out the parts that you don’t like but the Church, in love, will always point back to these moral laws set forth in ancient book. We can do no other and if we are in the majority then we would seek to order society under these laws.

  • You don’t need Churches to tell you what is “moral”. Most people and many other creatures have an innate sense of what is “right” and what is “wrong”. I am not a member of any religious sect and I do my best to follow my innate senses. As I have said before, two people of the same sex getting married does not affect me or diminish my heterosexual marriage.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Peter,

    Although tempted to respond to this by stating it’s a little early is his papacy to be coming to that conclusion

    The WCF doesn’t seem to make any provision to take time to form a conclusion on the matter.

    and that he deserves a little more time to prove himself the 1974 statement deals with this point specifically whereas it does not give a get out on marriage

    But doesn’t the 1974 statement say that in general terms it is not necessary to strictly adhere to the letter of every provision in the WCF ? The gentleman McNeilScott referred to this earlier. How can you on one hand use the 1974 statement to defend yourself and on the other deny its interpretation in cases such as this ?

    And while we’re here, Ford may well believe that a marriage within his church must consist of only one man and one woman, and indeed he may well spend time “upholding” this belief. But voting to ban it is not merely an upholding; it’s enforcement, using the apparatus of the state to enforce religious doctrine. Is this really what is expected of Presbyterian elders ?There surely must be other examples of Presbyterians in government who do not cross this line ?

    Talking of banging the rulebook, this kind of situation is exactly why the Orange Order doesn’t discipline members who attend the funerals of murdered police officers. You can’t enforce a rigid and inflexible interpretations on the issues that some members feel strongly about.

    – so presumably you are happy to be consistent about punishing those not adhering to party policy now even though D Ford has not yet been punished by PCI?

    A political party with an electorate spanning the community is not even remotely comparable to a church, as I said already. I find it extremely disturbing that people around here do not understand basic concepts such as this, or the concept that there must be separation between church and state. 80% of us are not Presbyterians and the PCI has no business expecting that its doctrine be enforced anywhere outside of church property.

    The party policy (and the legal changes) do not require people to agree with gay marriage. It’s asking that other people be allowed the freedom to have it if they wish.

    A reality of political parties is that policy is generally expected to be upheld. Unlike in the DUP, where post-dated letters of resignation are obtained, this is done in a slightly more soft way; anti-party types such as Judith Cochrane are simply going to find nobody to canvass for them, and nobody to vote for them in their next selection meeting. Especially in East Belfast, where a betting man would certainly take a punt on the possibility of a competition in the selection meeting particularly in the event that the popular sitting MP and party deputy leader loses her seat.

  • babyface finlayson

    theblackman
    Thanks for the considered reply.
    The example you use of road speed limits is not quite apt I think. Speed limits help prevent us not only harming ourselves but also other members of society.
    As Joe points out, the behaviour including marriage of two gay people is harmful to no-one else. Even if you believe it to be sinful it would condemn only them.
    A better analogy might be the law on wearing seatbelts which usually affects only the wearer. That one bugged me for some time, but I can accept it now as a very small infringement of my personal freedom. One instance where the nanny state has got it right.
    The point is, as you say, we are talking about things you believe, things from your perspective. What you believe has no bearing and should have no bearing on other peoples personal morality.
    Would you make gluttony illegal?

  • DC

    Comrade, a possible deputy leader challenge from Judith Cochrane?

  • Comrade Stalin

    It would have been highly unlikely even before she embarked on the route of trying to overturn the policy supported by 80% of the party council delegates.

  • DC

    She abstained – what’s wrong with that?

    What about Trevor, what a guy!

  • Comrade
    “A political party with an electorate spanning the community is not even remotely comparable to a church, as I said already.

    Heartily agree… but institutional confusion abounds! David Crookes tells us that a church is like a golf club!

    “Professing Christians who have ceased to believe in certain parts of the Bible should expect to be treated like members of a golf club who have ceased to believe in certain rules of golf.

    Would it be too flippant to observe that the Royal & Ancient update the rules of golf once in a while?

    No…I must not tread on thin theological ice…

  • Comrade Stalin

    It is at this point a massive cliché but I will ask anyway. How do those who say (David Crookes) that all the rules must be followed deal with the various requirements found in Leviticus and elsewhere about people with defects in their sight, people who wear clothes made out of mixed fabrics, etc ?

  • babyface finlayson

    Comrade Stalin
    I think that is a bit of a cliché by now and also a red herring.
    What is more interesting, to me at least, is the issue of churches trying to impose a code of morality through law. Not only is it wrongheaded it is not even scriptural.
    If David Ford has highlighted the necessary separation of church and state, then fair play to him.

  • Comrade Stalin

    bf,

    Agree with you about what the real issue is, but I’m nonetheless curious about the other thing and I don’t think it is a red herring. David Crookes compared faith to a golf club where you have to follow all the rules; but some of the rules are clearly nonsense so how does he deal with this ?

  • David Crookes

    The large body of laws which applied to ancient Israel is not relevant here. Several New Testament Scriptures characterize homosexual conduct as altogether wrong.

    What happened yesterday? Many of our MLAs voted in accordance with their Christian consciences. If a sufficient number of electors is offended by that fact, all of these MLAs will lose their seats at the next election.

  • babyface finlayson

    Comrade Stalin
    “but some of the rules are clearly nonsense so how does he deal with this ?”
    Good luck with that one. You know as well as I do that any discussion on rules as laid out in the OT quickly descends into a matter of differing interpretations.
    Christians know how to bat away such apparent contradictions.
    David
    Should Christians be voting to inflict their views on the private lives of others? Let’s make all sin illegal, see how that works out.

  • David Crookes

    No, babyface, but Christians are allowed to vote coolheadedly against things which they honestly believe will destabilize their own societies irremediably. If Christian legislators get it wrong, electors can vote them out.

    That is as far as you can go in a democracy.

    Some angry persons scornfully attack both the MLAs who vote in a certain way AND THE ELECTORS WHO SUPPORT THEM. Such angry persons come across to ordinary people like me as proponents of a minoritarian dictatorship.

    It is a fact that several MLAs and many electors feel a sympathy in their hearts for flags protesters who recently committed illegal acts. I can deplore that fact, but I have to address it in a democratic manner.

    Illegal activity can threaten democracy. So can the conceit of people who believe themselves to constitute the intelligentsia. Democracy is a balancing-act.

  • theblackman

    bf,

    “Should Christians be voting to inflict their views on the private lives of others?”

    Absolutely within certain ranges! Just as secular humanists are free to try and impose their beliefs and morality on me. How can we decide who is right- the gay marriage proponents or the one man/one women crowd? I believe I am right and you believe you are right so who decides?

    How can you get what you want and I also get what I want on this seemingly irreconcilable issue. Maybe the answer is for the state to get out of the marrying business, and let anyone, anything declared themselves “married”. Or if forced then the Church could decline to be agents of the state and Christians refuse to recognise any marriage outside the bible’s definition.

    “What you believe has no bearing and should have no bearing on other peoples personal morality.”

    Of course what I believe has a bearing on other people’s morality. The very existence of another narrative in morality forces me to consider my actions and the justification behind them. Is one wrong and the other right?

  • babyface finlayson

    theblackman
    I have no problem with you or anybody trying to convert me to your beliefs. I can just say no.
    If you manage to get a law passed saying I must attend church every Sunday well I would not be so happy. And I doubt if you would want to do so.
    Yet you are content to allow legislation to prevent people behaving in a way that could do no harm to anyone except perhaps to their own eternal souls.
    Maybe as you say the state should get out of the marrying business.
    Or better yet the church should get out of my business.
    And in saying that I mean no disrespect to you or your beliefs.
    As for David’s point about being able to vote legislators out, the system just doesn’t work like that.
    People vote on a range of issues and though they may support Sinn Fein’s stance on this issue they may not feel able to vote for them for a variety of other reasons.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Just as secular humanists are free to try and impose their beliefs and morality on me.

    Nobody should be free to impose their beliefs on anyone. People are free to attempt to convince others of their beliefs. Not the same thing.

    As for the state, it should have no role except where a common good is a stake. No common good is upheld by keeping same sex marriage illegal.

    Legalizing same sex marriages is not imposing anything on anyone. It is deregulation – not regulation.

    David C

    No, babyface, but Christians are allowed to vote coolheadedly against things which they honestly believe will destabilize their own societies irremediably

    But, taking things back to the topic, the issue is not and never has been about people believing that David Ford is acting to destabilize society.

    Maybe the answer is for the state to get out of the marrying business, and let anyone, anything declared themselves “married”. Or if forced then the Church could decline to be agents of the state and Christians refuse to recognise any marriage outside the bible’s definition.

    Why on earth would the church want to be agents of the state ? And who wants to dictate to Christians what kind of marriage they must recognize ? As has been pointed out more times than enough, divorce is legal but the Catholic church and its adherence do not recognize the marriage of divorcées. Why would you even think there is an issue here ?