Dissenters want Paisley gone

Ian Paisley's decision to share power with Sinn Féin is alienating his flock. And as his position for moderator comes up for re-election, the Reverend is in for a rough ride.

Free Presbyterians never miss an opportunity to cry Satanism. They are always on the look out for devilish activity. But it's rare indeed for them to turn the devil-detectors on each other. Yet that's exactly what Ian Paisley and his critics within the church have been doing, in an unholy row over Paisley's Democratic Unionists entering government with Sinn Féin.

In the May edition of the Free Presbyterian church's official organ, The Revivalist, Ian Paisley reminded his readers that, “it is the ploy of Satan to attack those whom God has signally appointed and specially anointed as leaders in His work.

“The tactics of Satan have not changed and the Bible was written that we might be prepared for similar satanic attacks upon the leaders of God's work today”.

Just in case the dissenters hadn't quite got the message, he added that, “there are ways to deal with disputes in the Church and that way is clearly not the way of slandering God's leadership… The Christian is clearly instructed that the party who has some criticism to offer should seek out his brother or sister and talk to them face to face”.

Paisley is well-known for his overweening ego: recently, in the preamble to a grand, visionary, equality-extolling speech at Stormont, inspired by the American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, he said, “Like another King, I have a dream …” .

And it's not as though he ever does things by halves; if he's going to reprimand the infidels, by thunder, he'll do it properly. Yet this zero-tolerance attempt to stamp out criticism within his church by invoking both satanism and his own God-anointed status – laced with an implicit “come on, if you're hard enough” braggadocio – is strong stuff even by Paisley's own standards.

The Free Presbyterians themselves are a highly conservative, fundamentalist denomination established by Paisley in Crossgar, Co Down, in 1951. Their defining characteristic is a wild-eyed opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, alongside a thoroughgoing Biblical literalism. Free Ps (as they are known in the North) attribute an extraordinary level of power and influence to Rome.

As academic Steve Bruce points out, for the Free Presbyterian, “Rome is not only totally evil but extremely effective. Where others might see a large and cumbersome bureaucracy … the dedicated anti-Romanist sees a well-organised and never-deflected attempt to promote Rome's aims”, which, according to Free P thinking, includes the spread of fascism and communism.

Issues of sexual morality loom large in Free Presbyterianism too, occasionally leading to surreal statements from the church's General Presbytery, such as a caution against “the latest manifestation of worldliness amongst professing Christians – line dancing”. According to the Presbytery, the seemingly innocuous formation dance, “is as sinful as any other type of dancing, with its sexual gestures and touchings. It is sensual, and not a crucifying of lust but an excitement to lust.”

This warning gave rise to the well-known Belfast joke: why do Free Presbyterians not have sex standing up? Answer: because it could lead to line dancing.

For Paisley, religion has always come before politics. But the question is now: could gaining the post of First Minister of Northern Ireland really cost him his role as leader of the church that provided the foundation and the inspiration for his political career?

The Rev Ivan Foster is Paisley's most voluble critic within the Free Presbyterian Church. A former trainee film editor with Ulster Television in Belfast, he was recruited to the embryonic church through a dramatic conversion experience, and became an enthusiastic supporter of Paisleyite politics. Later he served as the deputy leader of the DUP.

Proving that two can play at the Satan-referencing game, Foster says that “to join in league with Sinn Féin/IRA, as the DUP has done, is coming dangerously close to being linked to those two chief works of the one Christ called a murderer and a liar, the devil”.

In his attitude to Paisley, Foster adopts a tone of sorrowful reproach towards an old friend who has lost his way, rather than outright hostility. When it became clear that the DUP leader was going to take the plunge with Sinn Féin, Foster urged him to resign as Moderator, for the Free Presbyterian Church's own good.

“I would hope that Dr Paisley would consider [the church's] wellbeing and step down from holding the office of Moderator. I hope that he will give it consideration because there have been private requests communicated to him along those lines.”

Foster claims to have substantial support for his views within the church: “Judging by the number of phone calls that I received from Free Presbyterians throughout the whole of Northern Ireland, and not just Free Presbyterians, there are folk who feel that there has been an abandoning of a truly biblical position regarding murderers in government.” He adds that there is “unbelief that the man they have admired, supported and prayed for should now be engaged in everything that he opposed throughout the previous 30 years”.

Just how representative are Foster's views? Like cats in a bag, there's been the odd yowl or visible flash of claws – recently, it was reported that a Free P elder in Magharafelt, Co Derry, was suspended after challenging Paisley at a Presbytery meeting and “offering prayer against republicans in government” at other meetings – but for the most part, the Church has met Paisley's audacious move with stunned silence.

One anonymous Free Presbyterian minister, speaking to the Belfast News Letter, said: “Morally I feel it is wrong to have these people [republicans] in government. Dr Paisley and other leaders in the Church have preached this for years. Now, with the stroke of a pen, that moral judgment has been completely undermined by the DUP agreeing to share power with republicans. They have made a political decision, but it is at odds with what has been preached in church down the years.”

Well-known historian Clifford Smyth, both a former Free Presbyterian and a former DUP member, says that the “closed” nature of the church makes it exceptionally difficult to find out what's going on.

“You'd rarely even hear where and when Presbytery meetings are going to be held, let alone get an account of what happens there”. But he believes that the Free Ps are “a church in turmoil”, and that opinion against Paisley is hardening: “I was recently informed that if there was a free vote in Presbytery now, Paisley would lose.”

Smyth says he has anecdotal evidence of longstanding members resigning over power-sharing, and of congregations “voting with their feet” – moving en masse to other evangelical Christian churches. He believes that those who remain in the church are under a great deal of pressure to support the DUP's political line.

Unionist commentator David Vance was one of those who recently left the Free Presbyterian church. Writing on his blog, he decried the “depressing apostasy, the sheer rottenness” of the Church for not categorically condemning Paisley. “All I hear is the silence of the Free Presbyterian lambs”, he added darkly.

Vance says that it wasn't easy to walk away from his place of worship. Yet he found it “completely incongruous that a minister can stand up and condemn people for departing from Scripture in their lives at the same time as their Moderator embraces terrorists”.

He adds that he knows many other Free Presbyterians who are on the verge of leaving the church, but who are waiting to see if Paisley steps down as Moderator.

Other commentators suspect that Ivan Foster has felt left out in the cold for some time, that he is motivated by personal frustrations, and that few support his cause.

Of course, Paisley's own supporters dismiss any claims of incipient schism within the church, and while it's believed that a number of clergy and elders have expressed opposition to power-sharing with republicans at the church's Presbytery meeting, there has been no suggestion of any challenge to Paisley's Moderatorship. A motion that did question his position was withdrawn.

Free Presbyterian spokesman, Rev David McIlveen, insists that while there may be “difficulties in the minds of a number of people”, as he delicately puts it, the church will deal with those difficulties privately and internally. Urging a clear separation between church and state, he says, “I encourage people not to look to any political party. I don't believe that the church should be dragged into the mire of political intrigue; political parties change, but the church stays the same.” Besides, McIlveen asks, “who can say how long power-sharing will last?”

Rev Alan Smylie of Ballygowan Free Presbyterian Church in Co Down takes a similar view.

“As with any church, there are many opinions, but I never preach politics from the pulpit. I'm happy to see our own government now: I'm not all that enamoured with Sinn Fein, but the people have voted for that, and that's democracy.”

It's long been assumed that the Free Presbyterian Church is simply “the DUP at prayer”. But many observers believe that the description is no longer entirely accurate.

The DUP is now a large, modern political party, employing many workers who are far removed from its “country gospel” origins. And, at around 12,000 members, the Free Presbyterians make up only a tiny proportion of those who vote for the DUP.

Yet it's clear that the ill-defined moral boundary between the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church is giving the political party some awkward moments – most recently, in the outcry over Ian Paisley Jnr's comments that gay people “repulsed” him.

Despite the unhappiness in the Free Presbyterian Church, come September, when the Free Presbyterian Moderator's position comes up again for re-election, it seems likely that – as has happened every year since the Church's inception – Ian Paisley will once more be re-elected unopposed.

If he is, it will be a triumphant demonstration of his uncanny ability to ride two horses, the political and the religious, at once.