Debate sees predictable outcome in stance over same-sex marriage
One of the most divisive issues in Church life is that of same-sex relationships and this was highlighted yet again in the Church of Ireland General Synod in Limerick last week.
After a two-hour debate, which was wide-ranging and at times very moving, the Synod voted down by the narrow majority of 176 to 146 a motion to soften the Church's attitudes to same-sex marriage and its relationships with the gay, lesbian and transgender community.
The only surprise was that the result was so relatively close, but even so the outcome was fairly predictable. This issue has been around for a long time and it is likely to remain on the agenda for quite some time to come.
The General Synod accepted unanimously a clumsily-titled committee report on 'Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief'.
This was compiled after four years of consultation inside and outside the Church of Ireland.
The report failed to point to an agreed way forward and the General Synod handed over the hot potato to the poor old House of Bishops to see what they can do.
There was much polite language and sensitive comment in the report, but a hard-headed observer could well conclude that in real terms it did not add up to a row of ecclesiastical beans.
The Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the outgoing Dean of Belfast the Very Rev John Mann, admitted that there were "fundamental and deep-seated differences" between its members and this reflects the divisions within the Church itself.
It was also significant that only one of the Church's 12 dioceses made use of a resource rack offered to help with the discussions on sexuality and Christianity which were meant to take place at grass roots level.
This would suggest that people have already made up their minds and that some are fed up with all the talk about the subject.
In the debate, which was chaired sensitively by the Primate, Archbishop Richard Clarke, there were also divisions between clergy and laity in the more liberal south and the conservatives from the north.
This division was not absolute, however, and one delegate from the Armagh parish said that gay and lesbian people were not demanding support for same-sex marriage, but backing in the debate for a more Christian and caring attitude to their situation.
However, divisions between north and south are nothing new, and I discovered this years ago when writing the biography of the then Primate Archbishop Robin Eames.
Some members from the south were miffed that Eames had accepted a peerage, though they would not go on the record about this.
One thing I like about the Presbyterians is that they air their red-blooded differences in public, whereas the Anglicans tend to do this much more in private.
However, full marks are due to the members of the Church of Ireland who have tried for several years to address publicly the issue of same-sex relationships, whereas the Presbyterians so far have reduced themselves to insulting their more liberal Scottish colleagues by refusing to allow their Moderator to attend the Church of Scotland's General Assembly in Edinburgh.
One of the positive aspects of the Church of Ireland's report on sexuality and Christianity is that they intend to keep the conversation going, despite the failure so far to find an agreed way forward.
They found that within the Select Committee the members learned to "disagree respectfully" with one another and while it was not possible to agree "it is possible to understand one another better".
The members recommended that the Church of Ireland in general should consider this approach and I believe that they would be wise to do so.
Same-sex relationships remains an issue on which there is not going to be an agreement any time soon within the mainstream denominations, and any church that chooses to push this to a final 'win or lose' vote would be in grave danger of splitting up.
In the meantime the best they can do is to agree to disagree, while displaying much more understanding than some members have shown so far about the feelings of those people in loving same-sex relationships.