Lord Alderdice resigns from Presbyterian Church

By Stephen Walker
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

  • Published
Lord Alderdice
Image caption,
Lord Alderdice was a elder in the church for three decades

Former Assembly speaker Lord Alderdice has resigned from the Presbyterian Church.

The peer, who was a Presbyterian elder, said it is because he disagrees with a series of the Church's recent decisions.

He is particularly concerned with the Church's decision to loosen ties with the Church of Scotland due to its views on same-sex relationships.

He is also unhappy about its decision to leave the World Council of Churches.

In a statement, Reverend Trevor Gribben, clerk of the General Assembly and general secretary of the Irish Presbyterian Church, said that any resignation from the Church is to be regretted.

Now same-sex couples cannot take communion and their children cannot be baptised.

'A difficult and painful decision'

Lord Alderdice is steeped in Presbyterianism. The son of a minister, he was an elder in the church for three decades.

He told the BBC programme The View: "It is no longer possible for me to defend the position of the Presbyterian Church.

"It is no longer possible for me to feel that it is an appropriate expression of my faith and so I have decided - after thirty years as an elder and a lifetime as a member of the Presbyterian church - to resign from the eldership and membership of the Presbyterian church.

Image caption,
Lord Alderdice has sent a letter of resignation to the Presbyterian Church

"That is a very difficult and painful decision, but it is one that has come about over a period of time watching the direction of things."

The former assembly speaker, who is leaving his Northern Ireland home and moving to England, has sent a letter of resignation to his own church in Belfast.

Rev Gribben said Lord Alderdice has "a right to his own opinion, even when they differ from the clearly agreed position of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland through our General Assembly" and wished him well on his move to England.

'Marriage is about more than love'

Former Presbyterian moderator Reverend Stafford Carson helped to formulate the Presbyterian Church's policy on same-sex marriage. He sat on the church's doctrine committee that backs the current policy.

He told the BBC: "What we are saying is that to live in a same-sex relationship does not cohere with the teaching of Christ with regard to marriage and sexuality.

"We believe marriage is much more than just about love. There is a whole structure, there is a whole purpose to marriage that has to do with family. That has to do with procreation. That has to do with God's will for us."

Reverend Carson who is the current head of the Union Theological College in Belfast, also said: "All of us are struggling with regard to our sexuality. We all need the loving support and encouragement of other Christians around us and that happens within the church."

'Many will now leave'

Lord Alderdice is the most high profile person to quit the Presbyterian Church in recent days. It is understood other members are considering leaving.

Media caption,

Rev David Latimer

Others like Lynda Kane have left the church in recent years.

She studied in Belfast and planned to be a Presbyterian minister, but left the Church because she felt LGBT members were being treated badly.

Now training to be a minister in the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church, she thinks many will now leave the Presbyterian Church.

She said: "I certainly think a number of people that I know of will find it hard to stay.

"Essentially they have been excommunicated. There is no place for them there or for their children.

"And I think to reconcile that as a believer will be incredibly fraught and very difficult. So I would envisage quite the mass exit."

Dr John Dunlop, who is a former Presbyterian Moderator, said the issue of same-sex marriage is complex. He said that those unhappy with last weeks decision should stay within the church.

He told the BBC programme The View: "It would diminish the Presbyterian Church if large numbers of people decided to leave.

"I am not advocating leaving myself. I think you can be a dissenter without being a deserter, so if you can hang in there and maintain your point of view within the fellowship of the church. That is the best thing to do."

There are fears that if people do leave this would hit an already shrinking Presbyterian congregation.

Image caption,
Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick says the Church is losing 3,900 people a year

Professor Laurence Kirkpatrick is a lecturer at the Union Theological College in Belfast.

He said: "I have done the statistics. We are losing 3,900 people per year.

"I have projected that is the average for the last twenty years. If that continues we have got fifty five more years before the last Presbyterian switches the light off. It is as bad as that. 2073 will all end if the trend of the last twenty years continues. Pretty shocking for any organisation."

'No plans to change the role of women'

The Church loosened ties with the Church of Scotland because it takes a different view on same-sex relationships. There are now concerns that the General Assembly will change its policy on the ordination of women.

Lord Alderdice said: "I believe the same people that took us out of the World Council of Churches and lead to these decisions last week will also want to make changes in the position of women as ordained elders and ministers in the church."

However, Stafford Carson said there are no plans to change the role of women.

He said "I don't think so. I don't see that happening. I don't hear anyone discussing that. I think that is pretty much something that has come from outside of the church.

"At the present time the Presbyterian Church in Ireland ordains women to the eldership and to the ministry and that is a settled conviction of the church."

The past week has been anything but settled. Inside and outside of the church there are deep concerns about what is happening.

Northern Ireland's largest Protestant church has faced many tests. This one has exposed the fault lines in public like never before.

See more on this story on The View on BBC One Northern Ireland at 22:40 BST on Thursday.