Alliance MLA David Ford has been removed as an elder of the Presbyterian congregation where he has held the role for almost three decades after he publicly spoke out in favour of gay marriage.
In a highly unusual move, the former Stormont justice minister’s support for gay marriage has seen him taken out of the role in his local church – despite the fact that the Presbyterian Church of Ireland still regards him as “an elder in good standing” and eligible to hold that post in other congregations.
Mr Ford, who retired as Alliance leader earlier this month after 15 years at the head of the party, had voluntarily stepped aside as an active elder in the congregation three and a half years ago after a complaint about his stance on same-sex marriage.
Mr Ford has always argued that his support for same-sex unions was contingent on legislation making clear that churches would not be forced to conduct such ceremonies and “full protection for the rights of churches to define and practice their own beliefs”.
However, other elders in the church – whose official stance is to firmly oppose homosexual relationships – are understood to not have accepted that position and Mr Ford said that the situation arose because they “refuse to work with me”.
The final Presbyterian hearing into the matter was held on 3 October and two days later Mr Ford announced that he was standing down as Alliance leader.
However, Mr Ford told the News Letter that there was “absolutely no connection” between the two events and said that senior Alliance members had been aware from before the date of the hearing was known that he wanted to retire on 6 October as it was the 15th anniversary of him taking up the role.
The news that the veteran politician had been removed from the ordained role in Second Donegore (which is also known as Dunamuggy and is used as the local polling station) was publicly relayed to the congregation on Sunday.
At the end of morning worship on Sunday, the congregation of about 200 people was asked to remain seated.
It is understood that the Rev John Murdock, Clerk of Templepatrick Presbytery, walked into the church and read the decision of Presbytery to remove Mr Ford from his role in the congregation and the decision of the Presbyterian Church’s Judicial Commission – its highest appellate body – to refuse his appeal.
The commission found that “Mr Ford had placed himself in a position where it had simply become impossible for him to satisfactorily discharge his duties as a ruling elder in Second Donegore, due to a breakdown in relationships between him and the other members of the Kirk Session”.
The South Antrim MLA has not been personally disciplined but the decision to remove him as an elder in Donegore centred on fractured personal relationships in the session of the church.
In a statement today, Mr Ford said: “On 31 August I was informed that Templepatrick Presbytery had resolved to remove me as an elder in Dunamuggy, because the other elders in the congregation refuse to work with me.
“On 3 October my appeal was heard by the Judicial Commission (the highest appeal Court of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland) and on 12 October I was read its finding: ‘The Judicial Commission ... resolved that the decision of Presbytery be upheld. For the avoidance of doubt, ... David Ford remains an elder ... in good standing of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland ...’
“Unusually, despite refusing my appeal, the Judicial Commission also read to me a letter written to Templepatrick Presbytery on 12 October. In the letter, the Commission was critical of Presbytery for the way in which they had dealt with me, and directed Presbytery to address other issues of concern in Second Donegore as soon as possible.”
He added: “It is a matter of great sadness to Anne and me that both Presbytery and Session have failed to act to promote healing and unity within our church, despite repeated requests from us over the last nine months.
“I believed that, as an elder, I had a part to play in making our congregation fit for purpose. Unfortunately, Presbytery and the Judicial Commission have now made that impossible. It remains to be seen whether or not I have any role in Dunamuggy.
“I thank those members of the congregation and others who have supported Anne, our family and me in word and in prayer through the last four difficult years of church life.”
In a statement to the News Letter, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said: “This has been a difficult time for all concerned and we commend all involved, Mr Ford, the minister, Kirk Session [the minister and elders] and congregation of Second Donegore to the grace and peace of Almighty God.
“The Templepatrick Presbytery Commission principally sought to attempt to resolve issues between elders in the local congregation following Mr Ford’s publicly stated views on same-sex marriage.
“In the Templepatrick Presbytery Commission’s initial finding, it noted that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland does allow certain freedoms of conscience for her office bearers when they are operating in a different sphere, or communicating the views of a different organisation.
“The Presbytery therefore did not proceed with disciplinary charges on the grounds of Mr Ford’s articulation of the views of his political party.
“However, under the Code of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Presbytery Commission found that Mr Ford had placed himself in a position where it had simply become impossible for him to satisfactorily discharge his duties as a ruling elder in Second Donegore, due to a breakdown in relationships between him and the other members of the Kirk Session.”
It added: “After due process, and having heard from Mr Ford and from representatives of the Templepatrick Presbytery at the appeal hearing on 3 October, the Judicial Commission of the General Assembly upheld the finding of the Presbytery Commission, which had found that Mr Ford be removed from his role as a ruling elder of Second Donegore.
“For the avoidance of doubt, as was implicit in the finding of the Presbytery Commission, Mr Ford remains an elder without charge in good standing of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, under the care of the Templepatrick Presbytery.”