Church judicial action concludes: David Ford removed as elder in his congregation

david-ford-interview-stillOn Sunday morning a statement was read to Second Donegore Presbyterian Church congregation informing them that David Ford was being removed from his position as an elder in the congregation. The decision also noted that David Ford had not been personally disciplined.

In the spring of 2013, David Ford voluntarily stepped aside from his duties as an elder in Dunamuggy (as it is known locally) after concerns were expressed within the congregation about his support for marriage equality laws.

Back in September 2012 the Alliance Party had announced its policy position on same sex civil marriage. In a statement at the time, and followed up in media interviews, the then party leader said:

“Alliance has always stood for a progressive and equal society. Alliance will oppose any form of discrimination, whether it is based on age, race, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

“There are equality issues in allowing those in a same sex relationship to have only civil partnerships, which is seen as discriminatory. The motion also called for protection for faith groups, to ensure they are not forced to act contrary to their beliefs.”

For more than three years, processes around the complaints have been ongoing within the regional Templepatrick Presbytery, and an appeal finally reached the denomination’s highest court the Judicial Commission earlier this month. The appeal was refused.

While the process started with complaints about the compatibility of views held and expressed by one elder, it morphed into an investigation into that elder’s compatibility to serve on the congregation’s senior decision making body, known as the Kirk Session.

In a statement, David Ford said:

“On 31 August I was informed that Templepatrick Presbytery had resolved to remove me as an elder in Dunamuggy, because the other elders in the congregation refuse to work with me. On 3 October my appeal was heard by the Judicial Commission (the highest appeal Court of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland) and on 12 October I was read its Finding:

‘The Judicial Commission … resolved that the decision of Presbytery be upheld. For the avoidance of doubt, … David Ford remains an elder … in good standing of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland …’

“Unusually, despite refusing my appeal, the Judicial Commission also read to me a letter written to Templepatrick Presbytery on 12 October. In the letter, the Commission was critical of Presbytery for the way in which they had dealt with me, and directed Presbytery to address other issues of concern in Second Donegore as soon as possible.

“It is a matter of great sadness to Anne and me that both Presbytery and Session have failed to act to promote healing and unity within our church, despite repeated requests from us over the last nine months.

“I believed that, as an elder, I had a part to play in making our congregation fit for purpose. Unfortunately, Presbytery and the Judicial Commission have now made that impossible. It remains to be seen whether or not I have any role in Dunamuggy. I thank those members of the congregation and others who have supported Anne, our family and me in word and in prayer through the last four difficult years of church life.”

David Ford remains an ordained elder within the Presbyterian Church, under the care of Templepatrick Presbytery while he continues to worship in that area, just no longer able to serve on his local congregation’s Session. If he joined another congregation nothing stands in his way of being elected or co-opted as an elder onto their Session should the congregation so decide.

Asked to comment, a spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland acknowledged that “this has been a difficult time for all concerned and we commend all involved, Mr. Ford, the Minister, Kirk Session and congregation of Second Donegore to the grace and peace of Almighty God”.

The statement explained:

“The Templepatrick Presbytery Commission principally sought to attempt to resolve issues between elders in the local congregation following Mr. Ford’s publicly stated views on Same Sex Marriage. In the Templepatrick Presbytery Commission’s initial finding, it noted that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland does allow certain freedoms of conscience for her office bearers when they are operating in a different sphere, or communicating the views of a different organisation. The Presbytery therefore did not proceed with disciplinary charges on the grounds of Mr. Ford’s articulation of the views of his political party.”

It continued:

“Under the Code of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland the Presbytery Commission found that Mr. Ford had placed himself in a position where it had simply become impossible for him to satisfactorily discharge his duties as a ruling elder in Second Donegore, due to a breakdown in relationships between him and the other members of the Kirk Session”.

The statement reiterated that “for the avoidance of doubt, as was implicit in the finding of the Presbytery Commission, Mr. Ford remains an elder without charge in good standing of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, under the care of the Templepatrick Presbytery”

– – –

It is hard to believe that within a Christian community that is supposed to model loving relationships that it was not possible to heal the rift at the earliest opportunity given the mediation services available, never mind the Biblical imperative.

If sufficient grounds were not found to sustain the original criticism of this elder’s beliefs, it is also unfortunate that the broken personal relationships – perhaps caused by the protracted investigation and obvious fissure caused by one elder being singled out in a Session that numbers fewer than ten – became the focus of the dissent and judicial acrimony. In this case, a faith community has sadly proven itself to be more hurtful than the bruising political arena.

Gerry Lynch’s post from April 2013 is worth re-reading.

While this is an internal congregational and denominational matter, the pursuit of a high profile elder for more than three years with the ‘charge’ morphing over that period from criticism of his political opinion to suggesting a incurable breakdown in personal relationships will be seen as a test case.

It will worry many that what may be interpreted as having incompatible beliefs (which could be around any number of issues including moral ones) can be translated into being labelled as being an incompatible person.

And specifically, the decision to remove David Ford will suggest to the outside world that the Presbyterian Church is a cold place for anyone who is in favour of same sex civil marriage, a position that has increasing acceptance amongst Presbyterians in Ireland and other denominations.

Disclosure: I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church.

  • chrisjones2

    Evolution proved.

    Dinosaurs found alive and well in South Antrim!!!

  • Granni Trixie

    This case is a mystery to me as someone not into organised religion. At the same time I can see that it highlights differences in attitude to SSM in a faith community. How representative it is of Presbyterians is the question the Church needs to address. That and how best to deal with differences of this nature. ..this local level solution can’t be the way forward,can it?

    You know, though painful it probably is for individuals involved I’m sure something good can come of the debate this case is generating,

  • Kevin Breslin

    I would assume the Presbyterians are probably better at reflecting their own laity than Episcopalian ones like Catholics and Anglicans which are more top down.

    Disclosure: I’m not a member of the Presbyterian Church.

  • Sherry

    Well within their rights.

  • Korhomme

    I wonder how much of this is aimed at preserving the purity of the (Presbyterian) doctrine; so often, this seems more important than the well-being of any individual member of that particular community. A church’s defence of its amour-propre.

  • Granni Trixie

    Forgive my ignorance but can you expand? E.g. ‘The purity of the doctrine’ …which is?

  • Korhomme

    GT: it is a question of the sort; what is the Church? There are, for me, two answers. Firstly, it is a collection of people with similar beliefs. Secondly, it is an organisation, a structure with rules and procedures, and the members are expected to conform to these, to obey.

    The Abrahamic religions all have very similar and distinct views about sexuality. (You might well wonder where this emphasis on (the right kind of) sex comes from.) A simplistic view is that the population of Heaven should be increased by admitting the ‘pure’. Now you can be ‘pure’ in this sense if you remain virginal and chaste. Or if the flesh is weak, as it is for most of us, then you may only have sex with the approval of those in authority over you – ‘the Church’, only within a heterosexual marriage. Should you suggest that there might be alternatives, you are questioning the core principles and beliefs of ‘the Church’ and are thus theologically suspect. And you might therefore be suspect in other matters.

    As for the ‘right’ kind of sex, Vincent Nichols said a few years ago:

    “The moral teaching of the church is that ‘proper use of our sexual faculty is within a marriage, between a man and a woman, open to the procreation and nurturing of new human life’.”

    It might not be so clearly expressed, but I’d guess that many Presbyterians and other Protestants have a similar view.

    By even suggesting other things, you are thus questioning the moral structure of ‘the Church’ and its teachings.

    Which then is more important; the members of the organisation, or the organisation itself?

  • chrisjones2

    Yes…everyone has the right to demonstrate their own bias and stupidity

  • chrisjones2

    a dangerous assumption seeing todays poll result

  • chrisjones2

    I wonder if they start witch burning again, can they get a Tourism Grant

    I assume PSNI would not stop them as its a free expression of religious belief

  • Kevin Breslin

    Really?

    Were practicing Presbyterians polled?

    Are the two episcopal churches any more reflective of their laity on the basis of that poll?

    You’d get the odd minister but rarely a bishop in support.

  • grumpy oul man

    Yep, being a small minded bitter little fool is a right but its not mandatory!

  • Stephen_Glenn

    Disclosure: I’m a former member of the Presbyterian Church.

    The treatment of David Ford is sadly what members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland who have come out as LGBT+ have often faced personally. Despite the Church having approved so called Pastoral Guidelines for those with “same-sex attraction” (that is their own word) these are often not observed at the local church level.

    I my own personal experience it was when I objected to the Church hosting a petition against SSM on Easter Sunday of all Sundays, using the most misogynistic and crude article in the Daily Mail attacking Lynne Featherstone as part of the display behind the petition.

    Further disclosure: I was also someone who helped to form the Liberal Democrat Policy on SSM, including the phrase allowing faith groups to come to their own decision on whether they would or would not allow it (as not all faith groups are the same).

    Sadly Mr Ford’s church seems the same as my own and fails to understand forgiveness, grace and all manner of other things that Jesus taught and focuses on small minded human opinions based on mistranslations of complex words in the Bible (which somehow all seem to translate as homosexual).

  • chrisjones2

    Perhaps its now time for Mr Ford and others to consider if they wish to remain as members of a sect that behaves in the foolish and vindictive way and is so determined to reject basic human rights of fellow citizens.

    Can someone also remind me why organisations like this are allowed to claim charitable status and avoid paying rates taxes etc while they behave in this way?

  • ruhah

    So the folk of 2nd donegore with their particular moral distinctions are forbidden from applying them to the area of human sexuality?

  • chrisjones2

    No. but why should the wider community subsidise them

  • chrisjones2

    We dont know as they didnt ask. But they polled 1000 people so logically some 200 should have been Presbyterian

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well even so they’re not taking that much of an active role in their church or otherwise said church would be much different.

  • Korhomme

    We think of ‘charity’ as giving alms to the poor; perhaps a better definition comes closer to ‘love’. An organisation that, at least in part, works for the benefit of the common weal, for the public good is a ‘charity’.

    The Charity Commissioners’ remit extends, as I understand it, only to England and Wales. Here, in N Ireland, the tax authorities grant ‘charitable status’.

    There are plenty of organisations that are granted charitable status that I wouldn’t immediately think of as charities. I visited Winchester Cathedral a couple of years ago; when paying my entrance fee, I was asked if I was a tax payer, and saying that I was, I was asked to sign a form. Now, I thought this combination of Mammon and the Church of England was, well, odd; but I could later claim this entrance fee on my tax return.

    So, I guess the authorities see such organisations as doing something for the improvement of humanity. I might well question this, at least in some of their activities.

    So, I’m with Voltaire here; I may not like what you are saying, but I defend your right to say it; to do otherwise is censorship. But – a large but – I cannot accept any form of hate speech or incitement to hate or violence.