If respect were shown to conscience, it would relieve growing alienation between PCI and her sister churches, writes Rev Eric G McKimmon in the News Letter
I am saddened by the decision of the general assembly not to invite the Church of Scotland moderator to the next general assembly; nor, indeed, the moderator of the United Reformed Church.
I was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) and I retired as a minster in the Church of Scotland, having served congregations in both churches.
The historical connection between the churches goes back to the very beginnings of Presbyterianism in Ireland and it is hard to understand how or why this schism had to take place.
Of course, there are differences with regard to same sex marriage; but I cannot see why diversity should be an occasion for division; surely, our tradition of respect for conscience should cover a matter as personal as whom one loves and to whom one commits one’s life.
The general assembly decision to deny communion to those in faithful, loving, same sex relations and to refuse baptism to their children imposes a pastoral burden alien to inclusive minded Kirk Sessions and ministers.
Of course, some may police the issue willingly, being of the opinion that such relationships are inconsistent with a traditional interpretation of the Bible. But other ministers and elders will find it impossible, in conscience, to apply the general assembly ruling.
I know several of these ministers, former colleagues in the PCI, who find themselves in this position.
Like me, they follow the ancient precept that ubi caritas ibi Christus: where love is, Christ is. In other words, faithful, committed, loving relationships are a sign of the Kingdom of God in people’s lives.
The way of celibacy may be the calling for some in the service of the Kingdom of God; but for most, heterosexual or homosexual, deep, meaningful relationships are gifts from God.
Whatever the Bible says by way of condemnation of irresponsible or abusive relationships (heterosexual or homosexual), it does not have relationships of love and commitment in mind.
This humane interpretation of the Bible may not convince traditionalists; but it is a fact that, over the last two decades, many have come to a more accepting attitude, not least because of meeting people of diverse sexual orientation in the community, in their churches and sometimes in their families. Many have made this journey and many more are still on it.
My plea to my conservative friends in the PCI is this: please accept, or, better still, affirm the differences that pertain amongst fellow Christians on the matter.
Recently, I read again a book written by Professor Robert Corkey. For the benefit of younger readers, Robert Corkey (1881-1966) was a minister, former moderator, Professor of Christian Ethics in the Presbyterian College Belfast, Unionist MP and Senator, as well as minister of education in the Stormont government, 1943-1944.
In his retirement, in 1961, Professor Corkey published A Philosophy of Christian Morals for Today.
It is a valuable read for many reasons, not least because of its unambiguous affirmation of the supreme place of conscience in Christianity.
He writes, though the mind of Christ is the ultimate external authority, “Christian churches, however, have always striven to make it clear that the authority of Christ did not displace or supersede the authority of an individual’s convictions.”
Here is a voice from the past, indeed an honoured voice of a former moderator, that can help the church at this present time. If respect were shown to conscience, it would go a long way in relieving the growing alienation between the PCI and her sister churches.
It would ease the sense of oppression felt by liberal minded members in congregations. Where conscience is respected, humans, in their diversity, are respected; and God, who gave us conscience as a guide, is honoured.
Rev Eric G. McKimmon, Cupar, Fife
Published in the News Letter, July 3, 2018