A north-south divide emerged within the Church of Ireland last night as Synod members voted down a proposal to change its attitude to same-sex unions.
The annual gathering rejected the motion to soften its stance and understanding on same-sex marriage, and its relationships with members of the gay and lesbian community. However it has tasked the Bishops with examining the further theological differences, with a view to proposing a way forward.
After a wide ranging and moving two-hour debate at the annual meeting in Limerick, the governing General Synod voted by 176 to 146 to reject the motion, which was aimed at developing a public thanksgiving service for legally married same-sex couples. There were 24 abstentions.
The breakdown was as follows-clergy 56 for, and 72 against; laity 90 for and 104 against. There were nine clergy and 15 laity abstentions.
Almost every speaker against the motion was from Northern Ireland with Rev Trevor Johnston of Connor diocese describing the motion as “impossible” adding that “inbuilt into it is discrimination against those who didn’t act on their same sex attraction”.
Canon Maurice Elliott of Down and Dromore diocese also spoke against, saying he believed passing the motion would be “immensely detrimental” to partnerships with other churches in the Anglican communion, and Rev Barry Forde of Connor diocese said “there is a theological issue at stake” and that the motion “impinges on Canon 31” concerning the church’s traditional teaching on marriage.
Rev Alison Calvin of Kilmore diocese – which straddles the border – said at times “I feel I am being bullied. It’s not fair that my deeply held convictions are portrayed as those of a narrow-minded bigot”.
Speaking for the motion Rev Brendan McCarthy, of Kilmore diocese, said he had come to believe he had been wrong concerning LGBT people and that he had been in part a cause of their pain, “unintended but real”, while Rev Gillian Wharton of Dublin diocese claimed the same arguments which had been used to oppose women priests were now being used on same sex issues within the church.
This is the latest development in a long-running controversy, after a Church committee presented its report on “Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief”, which took four years to complete.
The motion was proposed by Dr Leo Kilroy from Wicklow and seconded by Rev Brian O’Rourke from Portlaoise. It asked the church to develop “sensitive pastoral arrangements for public prayer and thanksgiving with same-sex couples” at key points in their lives, including marriage.
The motion also called for an acknowledgement by the church of the “injury felt by members who enter into loving, committed and legally recognised same-sex relationships, due to the absence of provision for them, to mark that key moment in their lives publicly and prayerfully in church.”
The findings of the Committee which produced the Church’s major Report on Human Sexuality and Christian belief highlighted the deep divisions in the Church and in the Committee.
Last year the Committee produced a resource pack to aid discussions at diocesan level, but admitted that only the Diocese of Meath and Kildare had held discussion groups.
The Select Committee recommended that the Bishops should further examine the theological issues in an attempt to find a way forward. The report was accepted unanimously by the General Synod, and the whole issue has now been passed over to the Bishops to chart a way forward for next year’s Synod.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Canon Ian Ellis, editor of Church of Ireland Gazette, said: “The tone of the debate was respectful on both sides of the discussion and the debate was very sensitively chaired by the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke.
“While I believe that couples who enter into such same-sex relationships need to be reassured both that the Church respects their love and care for each other and that they are not barred from receiving holy communion, I believe that the kind of public liturgical celebration that was envisaged in the motion could easily have given rise to confusion over the Church of Ireland’s teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Scott Golden, of Changing Attitude Ireland, a church group which favours liberalisation, said: “We hope people will see this not as a defeat, but as a debate to be revisited. It’s encouraging to note that views are changing.”