To the Presbyterian Church in IrelandJune 9th, 2018
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.
These words from Song of Solomon echoed around the world at Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Bishop Curry’s sermon brought them to life with a quintessentially un-English exposition on the power of love. His words about fire set ancient St George’s Chapel ablaze:
If humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love – it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
King Solomon, was presented as the wisest man in the world when he wrote the Song of Solomon. And his wise words tell us that love is an unquenchable fire.
So, I find completely unfathomable yesterday’s decision by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to excommunicate LGBT church members in relationships and deny their children baptism.
What are the policy reasons for this? Do they expect LGBT church members to split from their partners in order to retain their membership? We know that many waters cannot quench love, so this is not what will happen.
Instead, I expect LGBT members of Presbyterian congregations to stop attending church. Some may move to more welcoming and affirming congregations. Others will simply stop attending church altogether and fall away from the faith. In the words of Jesus Himself:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Matthew 23:13
Some have said that the decision to deny baptism to children of LGBT couples to be particularly pernicious. But that is to misunderstand the distinctives of Presbyterian theology as it relates to baptism: that infant baptism is part of God’s covenantal promises to the children of believers.
Whereas in the Anglican church, parents make promises on behalf of the child (promises which are then confirmed at confirmation), in the Presbyterian Church, parents make promises on behalf of themselves to bring the child up in the “knowledge and admonition of the Lord”. There is no confirmation service in the Presbyterian Church. As one church minister explained to my teenage mother “because you have nothing to confirm”.
So, the decision on baptism is aimed squarely at LGBT parents who, it must deem, are incapable of bringing their children up in the “knowledge and admonition of the Lord”. This is clearly absurd. When was the gospel message ever constrained by the person delivering it? When the first person to witness the Resurrection was Mary Magdelene? With St. Paul’s track record on murdering Christians?
I could wax lyrical about the wonderful LGBT Christians I know – and how much I have learnt from them about the Christian faith. I could talk at even greater length about my cousin Stephen Glenn, who as a Northern Irish Presbyterian and gay man, is directly affected by this ruling. I could tell you about his suicide attempts and the many years/decades he spent in counselling trying to change his sexuality so he could live up to his own church’s teaching.
But I fear the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is a long way of being willing to listen to that. After all, by all accounts, it hasn’t really listened to its own LGBT members on this issue.
So I know I must address them on their own terms. On the basis of their own theology and witness.
My parents married on 15th July 1972 at First Derry Presbyterian Church in Londonderry. The church was targeted during the wedding service. The Church survived under IRA siege for decades. It took decades of painstaking listening and peacebuilding to get through that. It meant reaching out and building bridges. It meant painful soul searching and reflection. It meant abundant humility, love, grace and mercy. It meant being more like the Good Samaritan and less like the Pharisees. It meant an incarnational faith that was willing to wash people’s feet and serve people unconditionally.
In 2011, First Derry Presbyterian Church invited Martin McGuinness to the service to celebrate the restoration of the church that had been paid for with cross-community fundraising. There is no doubt that Mr. McGuinness had a hand in the targeting of the church on 15th July 1972. Even I choked seeing images of him shaking hands with the Rev. David Latimer. It was an image that challenged me on my willingness to accept reconciliation. Were there people that even I believed were beyond God’s grace and redemption? Of course not. There is a wideness in God’s mercy.
And if First Derry Presbyterian Church can invite Martin McGuinness to a church service, then surely the Presbyterian Church in Ireland can embrace within its arms its own covenant children who identify as LGBT. Loyal church members who have, in some cases, served the Church wholeheartedly for decades. Helped in the Sunday school and the Boys Brigade, served on the worship team and in some cases served in overseas mission.
As the Westminster Confession of Faith states:
ALL THOSE that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have His name put upon them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry, Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a Father: YET NEVER CAST OFF, but sealed to the day of redemption; and inherit the promises, as heirs of everlasting salvation.