A TRADITIONAL Christmas Day service between Portadown's two main Presbyterian churches, stretching back over half-a-century, has been ended - because one of the ministers is a woman.
First Portadown (Edenderry) extended the invitation to Armagh Road for this year's Christmas Day united service, which has alternated between the two churches for as long as anyone can remember.
But the Edenderry minister, the Rev Stafford Carson, has said that "in all conscience" he could not share a pulpit with a female minister - in this case the Rev Christina Bradley. - and has excluded her from taking part.
So the Armagh Road kirk session has declined the invitation in order to protect Mrs Bradley from what they see as discrimination and embarrassment, and have arranged their own separate Christmas Day service.
Mr Carson commented, "I have difficulties of conscience with the ordination of women, based on the Letters of Saint Paul in the New Testament. I am saddened that the united service will not be taking place this year.
"It is nothing personal and we want the everyday friendship and fellowship between the churches to continue."
Mrs Bradley said, "I have to say that I feel hurt and discriminated against. The Lord created man and woman equally. The Lord called me to be a minister and I answered His call.
"Prejudice against women ministers is, in my view, based on the social climate of Biblical times, 2,000 years ago, not on the Writings in the Scriptures. This is the 21st century."
She added that, in the Lutheran Church in Germany where she was brought up, a minister had once objected to a woman minister being elected Regional Bishop.
"He was told that if he didn't agree he knew where the door was," she recalled. "The Presbyterian Church in Ireland sanctions the ordination of women, yet allows prejudice to continue by an opt-out clause for people who disagree. It's doesn't add up."
Both ministers, though, agreed that the kirk sessions - the ruling elders - of the two churches should get together early in the New Year and try to find a way forward, but conceded it would be difficult to agree on a compromise.
Stafford Carson and Christina Bradley were installed in their respective churches in the same month, June 2005. Since then, neither has occupied the other's pulpit.
The Christmas tradition had been shared as far back as people can remember - through the ministries of the Revs Gordon Young (1944-47), William Craig and Desmond Knowles on the Edenderry side, and George Wynne (1936-51), Robert Nesbitt Caswell, William Magee and Campbell Wilson from Armagh Road. And there were other united services along the way.
But on the night of Mrs Bradley's installation in June 2005, Mr Carson declined to preach at the service. Tradition in the local Armagh Presbytery states that the last minister to be installed in the Presbytery - in this case Mr Carson - should preach for a new cleric, but he declined "as a matter of conscience".
Since then - for one reason or another - the Christmas services have not been united. The first one (2005) fell on a Sunday and both churches had separate services. And last year, with Christmas on a Monday, Edenderry felt that the pressures of services on Christmas Eve were enough, although Armagh did have a Christmas Day service.
This year, though, the cracks could not be papered over, and although the Edenderry session sent an invitation to Armagh Road, Mrs Bradley sought clarification and it was confirmed she would not be permitted to play any part. Thus, the invitation was "sadly declined".
"It has been the tradition for the 'away' minister to preach the sermon, while the 'home' minister conducts the service," said Mrs Bradley. "Stafford Carson and I had a long talk about it. He was the essence of courtesy, but the bottom line is that I am not welcome in his pulpit.
"It is sad to see such a long-standing tradition terminated. It has been an excellent tradition . I would have been proud to continue it, but I am precluded from doing that.
"In Faith, I studied for the ministry to which God called me. I am a woman and cannot change that. This discrimination against women is created by society, not by God."
Mr Carson said that he was saddened the Armagh Road session could not see its way to accept the invitation that was sent out "in Christian love and fellowship".
"Armagh Road is in the liberal wing of Presbyterianism and I would ask them to live up to that liberality and come to Edenderry on Christmas Day.
"I stress this is not personal against Mrs Bradley or against Armagh Road, with whom my congregation and I have an excellent relationship on a personal level.
"I, too, am saddened at the end of such a long and fruitful tradition of united services and am sorry to see it end, but I believe that the Bible - especially in the Letters of Saint Paul - is specific on this issue and therefore I must follow my conscience.
"We believe that the 'home' minister taking the complete service, including the sermon on his or her own, would work on a practical level."