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Church of Ireland split fear over Irish cleric's civil partnership

By Alf McCreary

The Church of Ireland row over gay clergy is unlikely to diminish, despite the warning by the Primate Archbishop Alan Harper that the furore could lead to " significant division" within the Church.

Major divisions with the Church of Ireland on this issue have been there for some time, but the news that the Dean of Leighlin Tom Gordon entered into a civil partnership has brought the issue into much sharper focus.

The Dean, originally from Portadown, and his partner of 20 years held a ceremony in a registry office in July.

Four evangelical groups within the Church of Ireland claimed this week that "a significant number of both ordained and non-ordained members of the Church expressed sorrow that a serving cleric has entered a civil partnership with another man".

The groups ask pointedly if Dean Gordon's relationship is celibate, and state: "If this does include sexual expression, then what are the implications for his pastoral and diocesan roles?"

After some Anglicans publicly expressed fears that this could cause a North-South split, the Primate issued a statement underlining that: "This has sharpened the debate and it does have the capacity to be a source of significant division."

Archbishop Harper said that Dean Gordon's civil partnership presented a "new situation", but he stressed: "All clergy should be more than aware that this is an unresolved and, frankly, a contentious issue in the Church."

He also said that while he hoped that "any suggestions that the Church might split are premature", he said that opposition to civil partnerships had been relatively strong in the North, but the Republic had been more relaxed.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Canon Ian Ellis, editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, said that the repercussions of Dean Gordon's civil partnership with the prior knowledge of his bishop, the Rt Rev Michael Burrows, "and without assurance of a celibate lifestyle, have been sweeping".

Ellis said that the during the long crisis in the Anglican Communion over same-sex relationships, the Church of Ireland had been held together by mutual regard and restraint.

He claimed, however: "The situation which has now developed clearly jeopardises that more settled co-existence of different groups in the Church."

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