Church rejects civil unions but vows to stop homophobia

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has rejected calls to allow ministers to bless civil partnerships.

A resolution at the Church’s General Assembly in Belfast asked for a re-emphasis of the church’s view on marriage while another seeked moves to address homophobia.

The final report emphasised marriage “ordained by God to offer lifelong companionship in a committed relationship of a man and woman, while also recognising that Civil Partnership legislation, although making no claim to providing marriage for same sex couples, “mirrors marriage regulations challenges the uniqueness of marriage as a God-given ordinance.”

It also described media portrayal of civil partnerships as gay marriage as “unhelpful.”

The report also quoted the 1979 General Assembly which stated that “The Holy Scriptures clearly condemn homosexual practices, as they also condemn heterosexual immorality,’ and the 1999 Assembly, “there continues to be a misunderstanding of homosexuality, a spirit of judgementalism and even homophobia exists which is not proper in the Christian Church.”

The original resolutions attached to this section of the report asked the Assembly to “express concern regarding the increasing acceptance of homosexual unions” and “affirm that society can only be strong and happy where the marriage bond is held in honour.”

An additional resolution asked the Assembly to direct ministers not to bless civil partnerships. It read, “The General Assembly affirms the broad agreement of the Church, as expressed at the 1979 General Assembly regarding homosexual relationships and directs that ministers and licentiates shall not conduct Services of Blessing in the context of a Civil Partnership.”

Last month the Church of Scotland agreed to allow its ministers to bless civil partnerships.

Ministers also agreed to address homophobia, the report said, “The General Assembly requests the Church and Society Committee to examine the nature and scope of homophobia within our church and society, and report their findings to the next General Assembly, with a view to developing more sensitive and effective pastoral care.”

Several speakers addressed the Assembly on this issue, among them Dr Ken Newell and Reverend Simon Henning.

Dr Ken Newell said, “Because gay people are part of our families, churches, work-teams and friendship circles, we need to cherish them, just as we do other people. We need to cherish them, we need to understand more accurately what life is like for them emotionally, psychologically and practically.

“[In our churches] there is an underlying issue of homophobia and even homohatred that we need to examine in the light of Christ and His Word and be unafraid to challenge… the Church and Society Committee could do a great service to our Church and community by helping us to examine ourselves in the issue of homophobia.”

Reverend Simon Henning said, “We have a Christian and Biblical duty of care to everyone who comes in through the doors of our churches, gay and lesbian people; as well as their families; and indeed our own congregations.

“Sadly homophobia is a reality for tens of thousands of people in Britain and Ireland. People have been murdered – because of homophobia. People have contemplated suicide, in fact 25% have made a serious attempt – because of homophobia. People suffer depression and other mental illnesses – because of homophobia.

“We as a Church, need the resources this Report will provide to inform and shape ever more sensitive and effective pastoral care.”

Another additional part to this amendment, which sought to define homophobia was not passed. The addition read, “understanding homophobia to mean an irrational fear or hatred of homosexual persons and recognising that such fear and hatred is unworthy of any Christian”. To start to define homophobia was not thought helpful by the Assembly.