Churches are facing major challenges

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The vexed subject of same sex marriage (SSM) is going into overdrive, with an Alice in Wonderland ‘curiouser and curiouser’ ring about it. There is a welter of diverse opinions emanating from the Christian churches - as diverse as the colours of the rainbow.

Here in Portadown, those opinions are as different as black is from white. And it asks searching questions on the diminishing influence of the churches. Are they being left behind by society? Are they giving a lead on burning social issues? Or are they fiddling around over an issue that has been blown out of all proportion, while much of the world starves and the western world is being tainted by corporate greed?

For example, local cleric Rev Christina Bradley is being questioned on Friday by the ultra-Conservative Armagh Presbytery (of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, or PCI) to explain her support for the Republic’s overwhelming vote for same sex marriage. Her statement is at variance with the PCI’s policy, and she is being called to account.

She insists that her statement referred to civil and not religious marriages – that it was against discrimination and supported equality. But that doesn’t fit with a church which allows male ministers to ban women clerics from their pulpits – as First Portadown (Edenderry) infamously did with Mrs Bradley. (Free Presbyterians in the town, by the way, have dismissed gays and effeminates as indulging in heinous sins and will not make the Kingdom of God unless they repent).

The Anglicans seem to be in a true state of confusion. The Church of Ireland north of the border is strongly opposed to SSM, but down south, Portadown-born Dean Tom Gordon, who is in a civil relationship, wasn’t even slapped over the wrist by his bishop, and is highly respected by his diocese in County Carlow.

Anglicans in Scotland are further down the road. Led by Primus (Archbishop) David Chillingworth, former Rector of Seagoe, the Synod in Edinburgh took the first step towards marrying same sex couples and allowing their own clerics to enter into such marriages – with a conscience clause invoked and respected.

However, the churches generally are wielding less and less influence with the people. One only has to study the emptying pews and the ageing congregations to fear for their long-term future – unless there is a revival along 1859 lines.

But such a revival would have to have a much deeper understanding of the hearts and minds of the communities. Social values are changing – not always for the better. But the churches, if they are to inculcate true values of selflessness, generosity of spirit and service into the hearts and minds of the people, must change their approach. More outreach is essential.

Dean Tom Gordon made a telling statement recently when he suggested that the churches were becoming too hung up on the SSM issue and would be better occupied in tackling the poverty and equality all around them.

Profound words. Too many churches have become a holy huddle with little influence on the communities at large.