RESPONSE TO ‘A cry from the heart’
This document ‘A cry from the heart’ issued to the media on 6 July 2018, was signed by 36 Ministers, 21 of whom are retired – 18 from active parish ministry and 3 from alternative ministry. Of the 15 active ministers who signed 13 are in parish ministry and 2 in alternative ministry.
196 Elders signed but the vast majority come from just 19 congregations. In a Church consisting of 536 congregations, 5,913 Elders and some 490 Ministers, the 232 signatures represent only a very small minority of the ministers and elders of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
This document ‘A cry from the heart’ is both confusing and unclear. Many fellow Presbyterians are confused about the content and purpose of their action, as it does not specifically state what those who signed are trying to achieve, and therefore is open to the allegation that the signatures are attempting to overthrow or undermine the democratic decisions of the General Assembly.
Those who signed the document are duty-bound, in the interests of clarity and openness, to answer some important questions that arise from their statement.
What was the cause of ‘the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger’ highlighted in this document?
Was it the decision not to continue the ceremonial relations with the Church of Scotland? A decision democratically reached by a vote of 255 to 171, or was it the decision to accept the report of the Doctrine Committee where only twelve members dissented – Eight ministers, three of whom are retired, and four Elders. Or was it both?
This raises a fundamental question about the ‘decisions which have prompted such a level of concern’. Was it the decisions which prompted this, or the media clamour now ably supported by the issue of this statement?
The statement, ‘we hold that any unnecessary narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will damage our credibility and limit our future’, is quite alarming.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is bound, both morally and legally, to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which all those who put their names to this letter signed, “as a confession of my faith”. The Westminster Confession prevents such a ‘narrowing of the range of acceptable theological perspectives’, as it does similarly to any ‘broadening’. There is freedom of conscience within the parameters of the Confession.
The writers go on to state that; ’unnecessary narrowing . . . will damage our credibility and limit our future’. The real question is who is the judge of our credibility? The context of this statement suggests that it is the society in which we are called as a church to serve, rather than ‘the Lord Jesus Christ, the sole King and Head of the Church’.
Faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ takes priority over what is acceptable to modern society.
What is meant by ‘appropriate’ loyalty? Is loyalty to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland only ‘suitable or acceptable for a particular situation’? How can this ‘appropriate loyalty’ be equated to the ordination promise of all Ministers and Elders to ‘yield submission in the Lord to the courts of this Church’?
The real issue at stake is an issue of authority, in both the life of the Church and the individual Christian. As far as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is concerned: “It is the privilege, right and duty of every person to examine the Scriptures, and each individual is bound to submit to their authority.” (Code Par. 11)
I can well understand those ‘churches’ who do not accept the supreme authority of scripture, shaping their theology and practice in order to accommodate the morals of modern society.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, however, states: “The Word of God as set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and the supreme standard of the Church.” (Code Par. 10)
Both these statements are read at all Ordinations of all Ministers and Elders, including the 232 who signed ‘A cry from the heart’.
Similarly all Ministers and Elders are required, prior to ordination, to answer in the affirmative the following questions:
“Do you believe the Word of God as set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the only infallible rule of faith and practice?”
Elders are asked specifically:
“Do you accept the Westminster Confession of Faith, as described in the Statement from the Code, read by the Clerk, to be founded on and agreeable to the Word of God; as such do you acknowledge it as the confession of your faith; and do you accept the Catechisms compiled by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster and received as the Catechisms of this Church?”
And, “Are you resolved, through God’s grace, firmly and constantly to adhere to the fundamental doctrines of the faith set forth in the said Confession and Catechisms so long as you remain an elder of this Church?
Ministers are specifically asked:
“Do you promise, in conformity with our Subordinate Standards, to uphold the Reformed doctrine, worship, government and discipline of this church and, by the grace of God, to do so in a spirit of love towards all your brothers and sisters in Christ so as to preserve the peace and unity of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland as part of the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ?”
“The Presbyterian Church in Ireland adheres to the fundamental doctrines of the faith, set out in the Supreme and Subordinate Standards of this Church. Do you promise to teach them and defend them to the utmost of your power, against all error?”
“Do you accept the Presbyterian form of Church government to be founded on and agreeable to the Word of God, and do you promise to yield submission in the Lord to the courts of this Church and to take your due part in the administration of its affairs so long as you remain a minister of this Church?”
As the reader will observe these ordination questions provoke further questions in the light of this statement ‘A cry from the heart’.
Firstly, how can anyone sign these beliefs and yet call for or endorse ‘same-sex marriage’ as a ‘credible profession of faith’? The Westminster Confession states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman”. The General Assembly in 2014 underscored this truth by a resolution which stated that marriage is “exclusively between one man and one woman”.
Secondly, if ministers and elders are to “yield submission in the Lord to the courts of this Church”, does the signing of ‘A cry from the heart’ not negate such a promise? It was pointed out at the General Assembly in 2018: “Decisions of the Assembly are final and binding upon the whole Church, but a member of the Assembly who dissents from a decision may require a statement of the fact of his dissent to be recorded in the minutes, although he shall not thereby free himself from obligation loyally to implement the decision so long as it stands unaltered.” (Code 104 (3))
Thirdly, as ministers promise to “preserve the peace and unity of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland”, does signing “A cry for the heart” not negate that promise?
Personal credibility surely requires that we are serious about the promises we make and declare ourselves willing to be bound by them for whatever time we serve as ministers and elders in the Church of Jesus Christ.
A shorter version of this article appeared as an Opinion piece appeared in the Belfast News Letter on Wednesday 12 September 2018