Women in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland have expressed hurt and dismay over remarks by the incoming Moderator Reverend Sam Mawhinney, who is due to take up the role in June.

In a recent BBC Interview, Reverend Mawhinney said he was not in favour of the ordination of women - which is a policy of the denomination.

The Presbyterian Church of Ireland has said the PCI permits those, who it says "genuinely and sincerely differs from that position", to hold a different view.

The disagreement centres around the role of women in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

On the surface, and for women of other Christian faiths from the outside looking in, the PCI appears to promote equality between men and women.

Indeed, a PCI spokesperson said: "The clear, longstanding settled position of the General Assembly is that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland ordains men and women on an equal basis."

There are women ministers, women elders, women moderators in local presbyteries and women who preach.

The PCI also permits those who "genuinely and sincerely differ from its position to hold a different personal view".

The incoming Moderator expressed his to the BBC almost two weeks ago.

He admitted that he was not in favour of the ordination of women. This has led to discussion and debate around women's role in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

The PCI has just over 200,000 members on the island of Ireland, 90% of whom are based in Northern Ireland.

To understand the role of women in the church it requires going back to the 19th century when women moved into areas of leadership around prison reform, issues of temperance and caring for other women who were in prostitution.

At the same time in the church - mostly within evangelicalism (spreading the word of the Christian gospel) - independent mission bodies called on people to make the gospel known.

People within the reformed Protestant traditions were encouraged to engage in missionary work.

According to Ex-PCI Moderator Reverend Dr Trevor Morrow, for every one man that offered, 10 women offered to go.

"So, the situation was that in that context of Africa or China or wherever mission work was going on, women were doing things they were not really permitted to do back in Ireland or Britain or in Europe or America.

"They were preaching, they were teaching, they were posturing, they were involved in evangelism and establishing churches, etc. So, the combination of the social factors and the missionary factors of the church, I think were key elements in causing folks like the Presbyterian Church to go back to the scriptures and say, have we got this right."

According to Reverend Dr Morrow, examination of scripture led to the view that women could exercise authority in the church and "rule with men"; after all, there were women apostles, disciples and deacons who worked alongside Jesus.

Women in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have held roles of responsibility for some time. Women elders for example were first elected 100 years ago, 50 years later women began to be ordained as ministers.

This was enticing for women exploring their faith.

Katy Lumsden didn't grow up in a very "churchy" household in Scotland. It wasn’t until she came to Ireland that she joined the Presbyterian Church.

The irony of leaving Scotland to become a Presbyterian in Ireland is not lost on her.

When she arrived as a student, she picked up the bible for the first time and was "captivated" by the "the noise, colour, clamour and scandal of the New Testaments".

Her nearest congregation was Abbey Presbyterian, locally known as Findlaters Church on Parnell Square where she was welcomed by the late Reverend Alan Martin and his wife Francis.

"I saw their leadership in action, and it just brought the gospel to life for me, I really came to cherish those long-held Presbyterian traditions of democracy and dissent.

"And I was very proud to talk about those to people who didn't know about Presbyterianism and to experience their reaction. Everything is voted for and accounted for, and we had women ministers.

"People were looking in and saying, you're really progressive. I was so proud of that," said Ms Lumsden.

Emeritus Professor Ruth Whelan grew up in a staunchly Catholic household. She found herself moving towards the French Reformed Church as a young adult studying in France.

The sermon and reflection on scripture are central to the reformed tradition. However, since her return to Ireland, Professor Whelan said she has been frustrated by the quality of preaching in the Presbyterian Church.

"I sit there and think I’m listening to a fossil, it’s like something you might have heard 50 years ago," she said.

It’s evident that both women are saddened by the view of the incoming Moderator.

"Being someone who's Presbyterian by choice, that will never leave me," said Ms Lumsden.

"But also, being a person of faith that will never leave me either. Having come from a place where those two things were aligned. I’ve found that I'm now in a situation where the actions and the words that are coming to us from higher up in Presbyterianism have in effect divorced my faith from my church, and that's really sad for me."

Professor Whelan points out there should be room for the views of everyone, considering it is a community of dissent.

"There's a verse in the Psalms that has always really appealed to me: 'Thou hast brought me into a broad space', and the Presbyterian church in Ireland that I knew in my youth was a broad space. And now it's become so tight and right and narrow. It appalls me," said Prof Whelan.

Following Reverend Mawhinney's comment on the ordination of women, Dr Whelan, along with 167 others, co-signed a letter which was authored by Steven Smyrl and sent to the current Moderator Reverend Jim Kirkpatrick as well as the Clerk of the Ballymena Presbytery describing the comment as "completely inappropriate".

The letter was also sent to the media.

Steven Smyrl was once an elder in the church at Sandymount, but his same-sex marriage led to his removal by Church authorities in 2019.

The congregation he belongs to now, is solely under the governance of the Methodist Church in Ireland.
Given his history with the church, could the letter be construed as a legacy of his situation? Has he beef with the church?

"I maybe have had a bit of a beef in relation to how I was treated about my own situation, which was my removal as an elder because of my same sex marriage. And while I never denied that the church had the right to remove me as an elder, I had disputed the process itself. I found it was really intrusive, and objectionable.

"But does that mean that I have a beef with Sam Mawhinney in relation to the ordination of women as ministers? Well, yes, a beef, but nothing to do with the way I was treated, it was more to the fact that I can't understand how 50% of humanity are now being told by the Presbyterian Church that a policy of ordaining women for the past 50 years is now somehow in question. Yet it's the settled position of the church," said Mr Smyrl.

Responding to the letter, a spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said the correspondence came to the Moderator "in quite a strange way, in that it was released to media outlets at what appears to be almost the same time".

"This perhaps implies that the purpose of the letter was primarily for the benefit of the media and not simply a request for the Church to look into a particular issue," said the spokesperson.

It went on to say that it appeared the main author of the letter "is in fact not a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Clearly a number of others who have signed it are not members of the PCI either".

Since the letter was published, Mr Smyrl said Presbyterian ministers and elders had contacted him to say they were in sympathy with it but felt they couldn't add their names to it publicly because they were worried about implications from church authorities.

While Reverend Mawhinney's view caused hurt and distress to some members, some view his honesty as helpful.

By opening the lid, he has arguably enabled the PCI to regroup and think about its future. After all, many women have not ruled out expressing their disquiet by walking away.

Kate Lumsden said it helped that words had been put on something that women had been experiencing for several years.

"It seems to me to come from a place of fear, but I don't know what that fear is. Jesus, not only purposefully, but very meticulously placed women at the heart of ministry and they not only ministered with him, but they ministered to him. As a denomination, as people of faith, it really baffles me, it dismays me that we’re not living that out."

Professor Whelan equated the church’s response to the letter as similar to a large corporation - "'bat it away' until they are forced to pay attention".

Despite the division and hurt, Reverend Trevor Morrow who is a friend of Reverend Mawhinney’s "and a brother in Christ", believes the dispute can be settled.

Reverend Morrow was the last Moderator based in the Republic of Ireland 23 years ago, so he has experience of the role to which Reverend Mawhinney has been appointed.

He has also written a book on why men and women are equal to serve in the leadership of the presbyterian church called 'Equal to Rule’.

While it doesn’t surprise him that "Sam holds the view he was articulating", he points out there is only one view in the church, not two.

Despite that, as part of the church’s tradition, people are permitted to dissent from that, "provided that dissent does not seek to hinder the implementation of the law of the Church".

"Sam, as incoming Moderator, is perfectly entitled to hold those convictions. But here I am speaking as a church man, I'm a man. I've tried in my response and reflections to think what it must be like for a woman who is an elder?

"And you can understand why women particularly would feel anger, pain, distress even, when that is being articulated publicly," said Dr Morrow.

The ex-moderator expressed regret over the situation.

"I think to be fair to Sam, he did not want this to be an issue. It's just he was asked for his personal views, and he expressed it. And now it has become a source of real division and debate within the church."

So, what should happen next?

Dr Morrow equates it to a family dispute. Listening and discussion is required.

"We must handle this as family with respect and honour each other, even when we profoundly disagree. So, if we handle it like that, it's not a backward step," he advised.

He also suggested going back to scripture.

"Often what happens in a church, we move into groupthink. What I think this is a help for is, to make us go back and to examine and to wrestle with the text of scripture. And to see why we, as a Presbyterian Church in Ireland, hold to this wonderful mutuality and egalitarianism within our church, that it is biblical.

"It is the most faithful position to Christ, in my opinion. That's the way forward," added Dr Morrow.