“The Present Controversy in PCI”

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9 

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meets next week and will consider reports in the light of the public controversy following last year’s Assembly.

They will be asked to reaffirm that the “PCI is a Confessional Church” . . .  “there is a difference between members having freedom to hold/promote a range of views and elders/ministers having the same freedom” and that, “marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman”. 

The present controversy appears to have its origin in the reaction to the report of the Doctrine Committee to the 2018 General Assembly, which stated; “In light of our understanding of Scripture and the Church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith it is clear that same sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children.”

There are two aspects of this controversy which worry me. In the first place the apparent inability of those who publicly expressed their concern to consider the various Reports to the General Assembly on homosexuality since 1979. In the second place, their ineptitude in relation to the history of the attacks on orthodoxy over recent centuries. 

One wonders why the previous reports on ‘The Church and the Homosexual’ (1979), ‘Pastoral Guidelines: Homosexuality’ (2006), and the more recent ‘The Church and Human Sexuality’ (2013) did not generate a similar response. 

In commending the 1979 Report to the Presbyteries for study and comment, the Assembly considered it desirable: 

“to draw the attention of all people to the fact that the Holy Scriptures clearly condemn homosexual practices, as they also condemn heterosexual immorality, but as clearly declare to those so involved, the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ with the promise of forgiveness and strength in response to repentance and faith”.  

The 2007 Report stated: 

“as with all areas of sexual attraction, what we do about it as individuals is a matter of choice for which we are morally responsible.” 

This statement clearly emphasises the fact that the well-worn slogan that, “love is a human right”, is clearly wrong – love is a matter of choice, for which the individual is responsible. 

The 2013 Report stated: 

“The position that has been clearly and consistently adopted in PCI is that homosexual activity is not consistent with Christian discipleship, since it does not accord with the will of God expressed in his moral law.” 

It will be evident to any careful reader that the Report of the Doctrine Committee to the General Assembly of 2018 is consistent with these previous Reports. 

Why therefore have the signatories of both ‘A Cry from the Heart’ and ‘Creative Conversations’, not raised their voice in the past? Why do they seem to think that this is a ‘new policy’? 

In the second place, throughout the history of Presbyterianism in Ireland there have been various attacks on the orthodoxy of presbyterian teaching. This often arose, like the present attack on orthodoxy, under the guise of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ or the ‘right of conscience’. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith states: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship” (20:2). 

Every student of church history is well informed of the controversies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is surprising that we have escaped the repeat of this controversy in the twentieth century, but it has not been long into the twenty-first century to see it reemerge. 

The eighteenth century controversy involved the ‘right of conscience’ a phrase familiar in the present dispute. The Code reference to The Westminster Confession quoted by the “Creative Conversation Group” – ‘God alone is Lord of the conscience’ – was very deftly used by the New Light party in the 1700s to justify their position, but covering up their real belief and intent. 

The Code, quoted by the “Creative Conversation Group”, should be seen in its context:
“It is the privilege, right and duty of every person to examine the Scriptures, and each individual is bound to submit to their authority. Having formed a definite conviction as to what the will of God is upon any subject, it is each person’s duty to accept and obey it. In exercising this God-given right of private judgment, individual Christians are not to set their reason above the Word of God, or to refuse light from any quarter. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they are to use their reason to ascertain the divine will, as revealed in Scripture, and are to refuse to subject conscience to any authority except that of the Word of God. In the words of the Westminster Confession “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” (Code Chapter 1:3:11) (emphasis mine) 

It was this emphasis on reason and conscience, extensively used by the New Light adherents especially during the early part of the eighteenth century which led to an animated and passionate debate in the General Synod and a public pamphlet campaign which reached its zenith at the Synod meeting of 1723. 

John Abernethy of Antrim, the recognised leader of the Belfast Society, preached a sermon in 1717 based on Romans 15:5 ‘Let every man be persuaded in his own mind’. This seemed to be in line with the WCF chapter 20 clause 2. Behind this however, was a belief in the power of reason, in the liberty of every man to be persuaded in his own mind, an optimistic view of human nature and the innate ability of humanity to improve. 

During his ministry in Antrim he was described by Presbyterian historian David Stewart as, “the young minister of Antrim … a man of studious habits, heretical opinions, and remarkable ability.” 

It was suspected that many of the New Light persuasion were Arian. However, they were discrete about this since to deny the Trinity would bring legal consequences. 

The nineteenth century saw a repeat of the controversy of the previous century. This is perhaps better known because of the personalities involved. The Rev. Henry Montgomery represented those who opposed adherence to the Westminster Confession, while the Rev. Henry Cooke represented orthodoxy. 

Henry Montgomery’s slogan, ’No book but the Bible’ was very catching. When you scratched the surface however, it meant something quite different. 

Cooke regarded Trinitarianism as orthodoxy and any denial of the Trinity as heresy. Those who denied the Trinity were described as Arians. Arianism is the heresy denying the divinity of Christ, originating with the Alexandrian priest Arius (c. 250 – c. 336). 

It was not until Henry Cooke took up the battle in the 1820’s that the Synod of Ulster and therefore the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, was purged of New Light and Arian influence. 

What this history demonstrates is the danger inherent in the present attitude which challenges the authority of the doctrine of the Church and which uses the Confession selectively to justify its reasoning and actions. 

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland gets her doctrine from the Bible. The Church believes in the sole, supreme, and sufficient authority of scripture. Her understanding of scripture is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith, accepted by every Minister and Elder of the Church. 

The present stance of ‘A Cry from the Heart’ issued on 6 July 2018 and ‘Creative Conversations’ of 18 September 2018, bear all the hallmarks of the undying reasoning of the New Light and Arian controversies of the past. The Code quoted above is quite specific – Reason and conscience are subject to the authority of the Word of God. 

This New Light sentiment was further emphasised by Arthur Acheson, the Clerk of Session of May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast, when interviewed on Television, following the General Assembly’s acceptance of the Doctrine Committee Report. He stated that he did not follow the doctrines of the seventeenth century but the bible and his conscience. 

Truly “there is nothing new under the sun”.

Brian Kennaway (Rev)