Dublin: Presbyterian Church dismisses elder in same-sex marriage

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionSteven Smyrl said he was "worn out, distressed" over what had happened

The Presbyterian Church has dismissed a long-serving church elder as he is in a same-sex marriage.

Steven Smyrl has been removed as an elder from Christ Church Sandymount in south Dublin - a role he has held since 2007.

Mr Smyrl told BBC News NI that the church's decision was "like a kick to the stomach".

The Presbyterian Church said that as Mr Smyrl had appealed the decision, it would be inappropriate to comment.

Mr Smyrl has been a member of the Presbyterian Church for 30 years, mainly at Christ Church Sandymount.

He was ordained as an elder there in 2007.

Ruling elders take on a leadership role in the congregation, taking on a number of duties to assist the church minister.

Mr Smyrl has been with his partner, Roy Stanley, for 20 years, and they entered a civil partnership in 2011.

In 2015, the Republic of Ireland legalised same-sex marriage following a referendum.

That meant Mr Smyrl and Mr Stanley could get married, which they did in a civil ceremony in Dublin in November 2018.

"It made a great difference that I was able to say that Roy was my husband and not my partner," Mr Smyrl said.

"In fact, on the day when we were asked by the registrar how we were to be declared married, at the point when he said that we were married in the ceremony - did we want to be spouses, partners, husbands? - both Roy and I immediately said husbands.

"We hadn't even discussed that beforehand but that was the important part to us."

'No business of Presbyterians'

Earlier in 2018, the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church had voted to deny full membership of the church to anyone in a same-sex relationship.

Mr Smyrl said that he did not think that decision would affect his role in the church, even after his marriage.

"I live in the Republic of Ireland," he said.

"I have a fundamental constitutional right to form a civil marriage with the person of my choice and as far as I was concerned that was as far as it went.

"My marriage is a civil marriage, it isn't contracted in any church never mind the Presbyterian Church, so as far as I was concerned it was no business of the Presbyterians to question the fact that I had married a person of the same sex."

Image caption Mr Smyrl had been an elder at Christ Church Sandymount since 2007

However, at the start of April 2019, Mr Smyrl was contacted by the then moderator of the Dublin and Munster Presbytery, the Reverend Alastair Dunlop, who told him "a concern" had been raised about Mr Smyrl's position as an elder.

Mr Smryl asked for full details of the concern to be put in writing but, according to correspondence seen by BBC News NI, this was not provided until 21 May.

On that date, Mr Smyrl received a letter from Mr Dunlop, who is also the minister of Howth and Malahide Presbyterian Church, telling him that "we have been given to understand that you are in a same-sex marriage".

In that letter, Mr Smyrl was also informed by Mr Dunlop that a Presbytery Commission had been set up by the Dublin and Munster Presbytery.

A Presbytery Commission is a form of church court, which investigates a complaint and rules on any action to be taken.

According to the letter, Mr Dunlop was the convenor of the six-person commission, which also included three other Presbyterian ministers, the clerk of the presbytery and an elder from another church.

The ministers were the incoming moderator of Dublin and Munster Presbytery, the Reverend Helen Freeburn, the Reverend Frank Sellar - the minister of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church in Belfast - and the deputy clerk of the General Assembly, Jim Stothers.

'Sick to the stomach'

Mr Smyrl received more details of the complaint against him on 16 June, but was not told who had made it.

"When they sent me what had been submitted against me, I felt sick to the stomach," he said.

"There was a blank email, there were no words in it whatsoever. The sender's name had been redacted.

"It had about seven or eight images attached to it which were taken from social media.

"They were happy family events of myself and Roy at our civil partnership, at other events - a family holiday - and this was submitted by the complainant as evidence that we co-habited."

Mr Smryl said he felt as if someone had gathered a "Stasi" file on him.

"In a personal way, I was just, how can I say, worn out, distressed" he said.

"I couldn't understand how people that belonged to the same denomination as I did could possibly treat me in the way that they had done."

'Not compatible'

He was subsequently informed by a letter from Mr Dunlop on 18 September that he was being removed as an elder.

"The commission decided, on the basis of the clearly stated policy of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, that to be in a same-sex marriage is not compatible with being in ordained leadership of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland," that letter said.

"Mr Smyrl's usefulness as a ruling elder in a congregation has therefore been seriously impaired.

"It therefore removed Mr Smyrl from office in the congregation of Christ Church Sandymount... with immediate effect."

Mr Smyrl said he was astounded and hurt.

"The procedure they'd put me through over the past six months was hurtful enough and then simply to be dismissed," he said.

"The commission never once made any attempt to contact my own congregation in Sandymount and ask them what their view was.

"Were they up in arms that I was a gay man who was an ordained elder?

"If they had have done, they would have discovered that they weren't up in arms at all, that I had 100% support.

"So to be told that I was just dismissed, and in the context that every argument I had put to them over the six months was utterly ignored really just was like a kick to the stomach."

'Inappropriate to comment'

Mr Smyrl has appealed the decision to dismiss him to the church's general assembly.

He accused the Church of an abuse of process, discourtesy and a lack of pastoral care.

He claimed that the process had left him feeling bullied and harassed.

"I just couldn't believe that fellow Christians could treat me in such a way," he said.

BBC News NI put Mr Smyrl's comments to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

In response, a spokesperson for the Church said: "As Mr Steven Smyrl has appealed to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's judicial commission against a decision of a commission of the Dublin and Munster Presbytery, it would obviously be inappropriate to comment on any matter related to that appeal, or indeed, any associated accusations."