by Steven Smyrl, a married gay former elder in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
I was ordained an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) in 2007. The PCI is the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland, and also has a significant presence in the Republic. Until about 25 years ago the PCI was, in the Irish context, regarded as a middle-of-the-road, mainstream Christian denomination, and even moderately liberal among the island’s Reformed Churches. It had begun ordaining women as early as 1976. But in the intervening years more and more of its newer, younger ministers have been openly espousing hardline conservative views, notably in relation to women’s ordination and LGBTQ+ issues.
Nevertheless, until 2019 as a gay man I have felt nothing but acceptance and support within my local congregation and from many ministers and elders (albeit discreetly) across the Dublin & Munster Presbytery (akin to a diocese in other denominations). So when I married my same-sex partner, Roy, in November 2018 in a civil ceremony, I was delighted to receive warm words of congratulation and encouragement from fellow Presbyterians, including ministers and elders.
However, my delight was short-lived.
Just six short months later Roy and I were distraught as we found our marriage under siege, belittled and disparaged by a small group of evangelical zealots, all PCI ministers attached to the Dublin & Munster Presbytery. It was the beginning of a relentless quasi-judicial process which left me feeling demeaned and dehumanised by a Presbytery Commission, whose campaign to remove me as an elder was conducted without mercy, it would seem on the basis that the ‘ends justify the means’.
Where did all this come from?
Homophobia has been growing within the Presbyterian Church of Ireland for years, all part of the toxic mix of religion and politics emblematic of Northern Ireland. This came to a head a few years ago when those opposed to female ministers and elders as well as LGBTQ+ rights finally got their hands on the Church’s levers of power. The result was the adoption, at the 2018 General Assembly, of a motion subsequently widely decried as homophobic. This stated that due to their supposed “outward conduct and lifestyle” gay people were forthwith excluded from church membership unless they voluntarily submitted to living lives of destructive, self-imposed solitude. In addition, their children were to be denied baptism. And astonishingly, because this was in the realm of ‘religion’, this sort of blatant discrimination could be openly imposed without, it was thought, fear of legal reprisal.
In such an atmosphere it was my misfortune to be the first victim to fall foul of this resolution.
Out of the blue I received a phone call from two leaders of Presbytery, demanding that I meet them alone to discuss “concerns” about my position as elder. Though I sought further information then and in the following weeks, this was repeatedly denied – the clear intention it seemed was to ambush me in a face-to-face meeting. I had to rely on my own tenacity and GDPR Subject Access Requests to eventually discover that the issue was in fact my marriage. I was astonished to find that two ministers in Presbytery had colluded in producing a dossier of ‘evidence’ of my gay relationship (a tactic, as reported in the Belfast Telegraph, reminiscent of the East German Stasi).
Presbytery was prevailed upon to set up a formal Commission, though without ever being informed what was to be investigated. Four months later it issued a Finding dismissing me solely on the grounds that my same-sex marriage was incompatible with eldership. All of the arguments and submissions I had made in my defence were ignored or rejected: it appeared that proof of my marriage was the only relevant issue.
Yet, I had discovered (through GDPR) that my detractors had obtained my marriage certificate a week before the Presbytery meeting that had established the Commission, and they therefore could have sought my removal there and then, without any trauma or drama. But they withheld this evidence, which meant I was still subjected to a humiliating and stressful formal enquiry. It felt like a ‘show trial’ intended as a warning to all others.
My experience of the Commission was traumatic, and had a profound effect on my physical and mental health. From the start I felt like a prey being pursued by a pack of wolves. My own concerns were ignored, and none of my responses were given any respect or attention; the Commission merely seized upon nuggets that they could use to back up the outcome they had it seemed pre-ordained. What is more, procedures were often insisted upon when they suited, and discarded when they were inconvenient. The balance of power was horrendously skewed – most telling was the demand that I should appear before the Commission of six senior church officials, alone apart from “a member of the church not qualified as a lawyer … in a supportive, non-speaking capacity”.
In all their dealings with me the Commission showed a total lack of compassion, grace and empathy. It felt as though there was a growing vindictiveness when I failed to cave in to their expectations. Even when made aware of the effect their tactics were having on my health, which was supported by medical certificates, they continued in their relentless pursuit. (Sadly, the effect on my health has been long-lasting: I was recently admitted to hospital with a suspected stroke, due to on-going stress.) It seems that the overarching imperative was always to enforce their current orthodoxy, regardless of whether individual lives were crushed in the process.
The Commission’s Finding generated considerable attention from the national print and broadcast media over several months, in which its actions were repeatedly described as oppressive, unethical and dehumanising.
This seemed to enrage Church authorities even further, prompting them to set up a second Commission (still ongoing), primarily focused on interrogating the minister and church council of my local congregation because of the constant support they had shown to both Roy and myself over many years. Answers have been demanded to 43 of the most divisive questions imaginable, seeking private and personal information without any regard to the confidential nature of pastoral care. The questions appear to have been contrived with the express intention of provoking conflict between the minister and members of the church council so that each might inadvertently incriminate themselves or each other.
The way I have been treated by the Commission has convinced me that PCI is a church deeply infected by personal and institutional homophobia, which leads it to act in a fundamentally unchristian manner. I have sought justice and accountability from church authorities, but have been rebuffed at every turn. I therefore felt I had no option but to make a formal statement of complaint to the Garda (Irish police) under hate crime legislation. At the time of writing, my complaint is under active investigation.
While this story has yet to run its course, without doubt the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will, by its appalling actions, only prove to have caused irreparable damage to its own already tarnished reputation.