14 June 2007 Edition
Equality : Paisley remarks and Presbyterian Assembly
Presbyterian church debates homosexuality
BY LAURA FRIEL
In an episode of the American soap about a fictionalised White House administration, The West Wing, a fundamentalist Christian who cites the Bible as justification for labelling homosexuality “an abomination” is taken to task by ‘President Bartlet’.
Bartlet debates the significance of Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22, by citing Exodus 21.7, Exodus 35.2 and Leviticus 11.7. Bartlet is pointing out that there are many seeming obligations in the Bible to which we no longer adhere.
I know it’s a smart-ass answer and as a person of no religion I’m not presuming to tell anyone how to read their Bible. I mention the anomalies only to make the point that the debate is political and not religious.
Otherwise we’d be facing the scary possibility of clerical lobbying in equal measure in support of slavery, judicial stoning and the death penalty for working on the Sabbath.
But all of this shouldn’t be used to diminish the real difficulty some people of religion are currently facing in trying to square the circle of recognising the political imperative of human rights, equality and tolerance while at the same time demanding the right to discriminate against homosexuals on religious grounds. It’s an untenable position but not one easily abandoned.
Of course the whole difficulty was made infinitely worse by the kind of comments indulged in by Ian Paisley Jnr the other week. During an interview with the Dublin based magazine Hotpress Paisley Jnr described himself as “repulsed” by homosexuality.
The Stormont Junior Minister was quoted saying “I am pretty repulsed by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and, without caring about it, harm society. That doesn’t mean to say that I hate them, I mean, I hate what they do.”
Paisley Jnr subsequently refused to apologise or withdraw his remarks but attempted to ‘clarify’ his position.
“I do not hate anyone. I was not brought up to hate anyone. I was asked for my view. I do not think my answer was outrageous or offensive. If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary the definition of repulsion, it is disgust. That is my personal opinion and I was honest,” said Paisley jnr.
Paisley’s remarks preceded a scheduled debate by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland into the church’s attitude and policy on homosexuality. Paisley Jnr’s intervention was presented as off the cuff remarks of an honest, some did say misguided, man exercising the right to freedom of speech.
The Irish News editorial characterised it as “an honest answer to a direct question”. The Newsletter reported “messages of support from across the world” in support of Paisley Jnr’s freedom to “express his views”. “More than two thirds of the 3,500 people who responded to a poll on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show” supported “his right to air his thoughts,” reported the Newsletter.
But his comments not only pre-empted the scheduled debate within the Presbyterian Church, it also ring fenced the terms of the debate by unleashing popularist homophobic attitudes within the wider media. It could be said that the DUP gave public permission to the expression of some of the worst kind of homophobic nonsense to be aired without incurring the political cost of actually saying it themselves.
The media debate gave sustenance to rejectionists within the church and fired a warning shot across the bows of the progressives. It was within this context that the debate by over a thousand delegates to the Presbyterian General Assembly took place.
The debate followed recommendations by the Church’s board of social witness urging the Assembly to adopt guidelines for “pastoral care of homosexuals”. Unfortunately recognition of “homophobic attitudes” within the church and calls for an “environment of love, acceptance, patience, forgiveness and grace” were undermined by an adherence to a “traditional scriptural view on homosexuality”.
Introducing the recommendations Rev. Bobby Liddle from Lisburn said labelling gay relationships as wrong changes nothing.
“It may preserve our theological ‘street cred’ but it really does very little for those struggling with feelings and issues that have potential to disrupt, even destroy their families, their church involvement, their friendships, possibly their employment and even their lives,” said Rev. Liddle.
The dilemma of attempting to juggle a “traditional scriptural view” with, no doubt genuine, attempts at greater toleration plays itself out in negative anti gay messaging in which homosexuality is depicted as “individual tragedy”. It’s repackaging homosexuals as victims rather than sinners.
But even this was a step too far for Rev Kenneth Patterson from Castledawson who criticised the report for failing to call for “the need for true repentance on the part of homosexual sinners”.
“Homosexuality is a sin, a sin of a most grievous kind. I know of no other sin which caused God to destroy whole cities in ancient times, but that is what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah,” said Rev. Patterson.
Meanwhile First Minister Ian Paisley moved to defuse the controversy sparked by his son’s remarks on homosexuality. As a junior minister in the OFMDFM Ian Paisley Jnr’s remarks were in direct contravention of his duty to promote equality and human rights. But it was left to Ian Paisley Snr to set the record straight.
“The OFMDFM is totally committed to promoting equality and human rights. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are completely opposed to any form of discrimination and harassment against any citizen and so are all in our offices,” Paisley told the Assembly.