Sunday, July 07, 2019

Presbyterianism and dissent

Following General Assembly discussions on what dissent within our denomination means, for the July/August edition of the Presbyterian Herald magazine, I looked back through history at how dissent has shaped the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Full magazine available to read online for £1.20.

Dissent has long been part of the Presbyterian tradition. The still-quoted phrase “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter” is a reminder of those on this island who opposed state interference in religious matters, and refused to conform to the established Church of Ireland.

While internal dissent has been foremost to the minds of many over the last few years, the denomination has a strong legacy of external dissent. Roger Courtney’s book Dissenting Voices contains the remarkably rich and varied stories of 300 Presbyterians who over 400 years showed courage and leadership, integrity and conviction.

Presbyterians signed the Ulster Covenant and the women’s Declaration, were involved in the Society of United Irishmen, helped revive the Irish language, formed communities of reconciliation, sought justice and protection for the vulnerable, and call on politicians to exercise balanced accommodation and recognise their collective responsibility for the common good.

At its meeting in October 2018, the General Council appointed a task group to draw up a report on Presbyterian decision-making and the place of dissent following a summer of kirk session meetings, letter writing, media comment, anger and frustration by some about decisions taken concerning the Church of Scotland and the communicant membership of same-sex couples and baptism of their children.

Dr Bill Addley rose to speak at this year’s Assembly and congratulated the task group on their draft report which will now be sent down to presbyteries for comment. The former professor of Practical Theology went on to provide his perspective on the internal dissent that is a regular and recurring feature of the denomination: “It struck me recently that about every 50 or so years there’s a crisis or a controversy which threatens to create a division or a split in the church.”

He explained to me afterwards that “the Arian controversy in the 1820s showed the limit of dissent because having questioned the whole deity of Christ, the 17 ministers seceded to form the Remonstrant Synod [which would later emerge as part of today’s Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland].”

Fast forward to the ‘organ wars’ that followed the 1861 installation of a harmonium in Enniskillen Presbyterian Church. Opposition to this innovation in worship worked its way through Presbytery and Synod until the General Assembly debated the matter in 1868. Some expressed the view that there was nothing in the laws of the Church to prohibit organs, while Dr Henry Cooke argued that they were “alien” to true Presbyterian worship. Writing about this period in 2007, Very Rev Dr Ken Newell noted that “for 30 years hostile pamphlets flew to and fro, angry letters were written to the press, and some ministers who espoused the changes were labelled ‘apostate’”.

In 1873 the General Assembly banned organs, and a movement emerged to stand against “this pollution of organs, the growth of stained-glass windows and the building of spires”. But they still kept being installed and, in 1888, 200 ministers threatened to leave the denomination. A five-year truce was negotiated.

Dr Addley noted that “every year the Assembly passed a resolution condemning the innovation, and every year a large number of churches ignored it and no action was taken against them. And eventually, in 1891, the General Assembly decided to ‘pass from the question’ and that’s where it was left. They just resolved it by parking it.”

The next major crisis was the heresy trial where charges were brought against Assembly’s College Rev Professor Davey in 1926 for holding and teaching allegedly liberal doctrines contrary to the Word of God and the subordinate standards of the Church. After a long trial, he was acquitted and the appeals brought to General Assembly in 1927 were dismissed.

By the 1970s, the controversy was about membership of, and subsequently withdrawal from, the World Council of Churches. Some members of today’s General Assembly will remember arguing vociferously on one or other side of that prolonged argument.

“Those who initially dissented from the decision to remain in the World Council of Churches came back every year and eventually they won. They wore down the others who said this is really diverting us too much and it’s not as important as other things.”

The desire for the denomination to stay together proved stronger than the wish to continue to disrupt and divide.

And now, nearly 50 years later, the church is divided over how to react to another set of issues.
In the moments following June 2018’s General Assembly decision to change the nature of the formal high-level relationship with the Church of Scotland and United Reformed Church, 81 members of the House recorded their dissent and their names were noted in the Assembly minutes.

Two days later, another 16 members recorded their dissent in the minutes at the decision to receive the report of the Doctrine committee which suggested that the children of same-sex couples could not be baptised due to the need of the parents to make a credible profession of faith.

“The Assembly has done things with which I haven’t agreed” Dr Addley admitted. “I have never thought that signing a document of dissent added anything and so I never have. What you’re doing is disassociating yourself from the decision so that everybody knows you were kosher … But you [still] have to obey.”

Before the summer, the Clerk of Assembly Rev Trevor Gribben, acting on behalf of the General Council, issued a letter to all ministers concerning a number of matters. One section recognised that debate and discussion could take place outside the formal structures of the church, whether privately or in more organised ways. However, the letter cautioned against bringing the Church “into disrepute” by speaking in public in a way that might cause “scandal injurious to the purity or peace of the Church”. Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, he clarified that ministers were not being censored: “People are free to debate in public – it is the nature of that discourse that is important.”

Former moderator Very Rev Dr John Dunlop summed up his stance, saying: “I think you can be a dissenter without being a deserter.”

By early July, 232 teaching and ruling elders signed a letter entitled ‘A Cry from the Heart’ to “acknowledge, and indeed share, the profound sense of hurt, dismay and anger currently being expressed in the wake of decisions taken at our 2018 General Assembly.” (In the interests of transparency, I should acknowledge that while having no part in the writing or signing of the letter, I was approached in a professional capacity to circulate that letter to the Moderator, Clerk and Irish media outlets.)

In mid-September, another letter with 602 signatures of Presbyterians sought to express “loyal dissent and the need for continuing public discourse” around the breakdown in inter-denominational relations and asserted the “long held right of Presbyterians to exercise their God given right of private judgement.”

Some voices noted that hundreds of ministers and thousands of ruling elders – the majority – hadn’t signed any letters or made any protest.

In his letter, the Clerk offered advice on how to change decisions of the General Assembly and the Presbytery of South Belfast proposed a Memorial that if successful would have allowed a vote in June 2018 to rescind last year’s decision to break high-level relations with the Church of Scotland. With 187 votes (35%) cast for and 353 against (65%), the prayer of the Memorial was not granted.

Of course, dissent operates at many levels and on many planes. The reports from the Council for Training in Ministry expressed dissent about the import of Queen’s University’s changing relationship with Union Theological College, and presented an alternative narrative that challenged the review process.

It’s surely natural and to be expected that the denomination will sometimes dissent against the state and other authorities? “If the church doesn’t dissent it’s not being true to the gospel” said Dr Addley, “because there are fundamental issues where we differ from the state.”

Dr Dunlop notes in the foreword to Courtney’s book: “all institutions, including churches, are led, or indeed misled, by people like ourselves”. History suggests that dissent may sometimes be part of upholding and promoting standards distinctive to Presbyterianism on this island. Or it may be part of a process of discernment around the need for further reformation. But it doesn’t inevitably have to lead to division.


Maurice Dixon said...

what a croc of shit. Believe the standards or join the Non-Subscibers. Its the only thing of integrity to do

Liberal Christian said...

The motto of the 16th reformers was I believe "semper reformanda". That is to say the Reformation as a process did not end with Luther, Calvin and Knox. It is a continuing process, as the world changes, and a Reformed Church, while being still true to the Word of God, must adapt to the changing world.

This explains the continuing schisms among the reformed Churches, and among Protestant churches more broadly. In our modern globalised world, which Christian domination most clearly follows the Word of God? If Christ is looking down from above, which Christian church would he feel is most closely following the truth?