Suffer the little children - baptism and Irish Presbyterians


Yesterday, the General Assembly the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) voted to exclude (literally excommunicate) LGBTQi+ members and to refuse baptism to the children of same-sex couples. It comes after the decision to break relations with the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church in Great Britain because of their decisions to move towards inclusion of LGBTQi+ people.

I began my Christian life in the PCI. Both my parents were Presbyterians and I was baptised by one of their ministers. I ended up a Methodist, first by accident, then by conviction, but have never forgotten my Reformed heritage. But I also remember growing up in the North in the late 1980s when, despite homosexuality being decriminalised there in 1982, the Presbyterian Minister who chaired our school's Board of Governors made sure that any reference to homosexuality was blacked out in A-level biology text books.

Many have been shocked and appalled by this decision. But the reality is that discussions like this have been taking place in local churches across Britain for some time. In more than one Methodist Church, the idea that the child of a same-sex couple should be baptised has necessitated a discussion at the Church Council. As far as I know, when it comes to the baptism of an unmarried couple's child, or the child of a single parent, or the child who has been adopted, or the child who has been born through assisted conception or egg donation, Church Councils have not been consulted, and the offering of God's blessing has not been contingent on a majortity vote. To question whether a child can be baptised is not only antithetical to the evangelical Arminianism of the Methodist tradition - for all my Lord was crucified - but also ends up in tacit agreement with those Irish Presbyterians who say that the children of same-sex couples are somehow defective or tainted.

Like many LGBTQi+ people, I am an incredibly proud parent of an extraordinary son. It is so often assumed that being gay somehow means being sterile and incapable of producing a child. I do remember an occasion when I was asked to speak to a group of 'liberal' Christians about LGBTQi+ inclusion in the Church and mentioned that I was a parent as wel as being gay. The day proceeded with small groups and feedback until, over coffee, an ordained person came to offer personal feedback from his small group. 'We spent the whole of our small group talking about the fact you were a parent,' he said. 'So was it natural or by adoption?'

I was so shocked by the question, I answered. Only later did I get a chance to reflect on the experience and it occurred to me that this was, another example of the biologizing of same-sex relationships. If I had been a heterosexual and announced I was a parent, it would never have occurred to church folk to ask how it came about. The deep sensivities around conception would have been honoured and the focus would have been on the child. Likewise, when the Church has reported on LGBTQi+ relationships, it normally talks about 'human sexuality' (as if we need to make clear we are not embracing the whole animal kingdom in our discussions). In doing so, the Churches can avoid the real questions about love, commitment, sacrifice, family and relationships that frame talk of heterosexual relations.

My own Church, British Methodism, is also talking about same-sex relationships at the moment. For the last quarter of a century and more, we have attempted to frame rules and policies upon which a diverse and divided church can agree. Whilst we acknowledge that we live with contradictory convictions, we are still struggling to do it well, in a way that honours all consciences and not just conservative ones. Delay and indecision comes with a price, and it is one borne almost exclusively by LGBTQi+ people and our children. God alone knows how many members (actual and potential) we have lost because of our unwillingness to engage in difficult conversation or to reveal our true colours. I know that, since the publication of the interim Conference report, we have lost at least two more. These are the unseen casualties of delay and indecision.

To refuse baptism to a child on the grounds of who their parents are is a violation of the gospel. It is discrimation of the most pernicious kind and reveals a theology of the church as the arbiter and dispenser of grace, something rejected at the Reformation. We are not the custodians of God's blessings, dishing them out to the deserving and worthy. We, like every other sinner, are grateful beneficiaries of God's generosity, who recognise that our inclusion can only be possible if everyone else is included too.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ ...

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