Compassion and compromise sorely lacking in same-sex marriage debate
Following the result of Australia's postal vote this week, showing 61% were in favour of same-sex marriage, the country's Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, vowed it would be legal by Christmas.
Australia is a long way away, as I realised during several journeys to Sydney and back, but the issue of same-sex marriage is right among us, and it continues to be one of the most crucial issues facing the mainstream churches.
The Church of Ireland, at its General Synod this year, and the Presbyterians, at their June General Assembly, once again clearly confirmed their stance that marriage is only between a man and a woman.
However, a Helen's Bay rector opened the debate again locally with a strongly opinionated letter published in the Times on Wednesday.
Canon Timothy Kinahan wrote: "Over the centuries, the Church has been complicit in causing untold harm to people whose sexuality was outside what was then considered the mainstream.
"Harm to people harms the Body of Christ and also harms the whole body of society.
"It makes our faith harmful, which is inexcusable. Tradition isn't always right."
Canon Kinahan elaborated on these views when I talked to him for a follow-up interview for the Belfast Telegraph.
He said: "I feel strongly that the Church in general, including the Church of Ireland, has marginalised people and in many ways has uncritically reflected the social norms of the day.
"My reading of the Gospel is that in today's society, with the scientific reading of sexual orientation, we can no longer regard homosexuality as an aberration, or a sickness or a sin."
That is a courageous and strong statement for a rector at a time when the Church of Ireland across this island is deeply split. Equally brave and controversial is his assertion that tradition is not always right. Canon Kinahan is a realist and he says that other Christians will disagree with his views, but he asks people to realise that "part of the Christian journey is to learn to disagree, yet to walk together in faith".
Such views will indeed be strongly refuted by a large number of other Church of Ireland clergy and laity, but Canon Ian Ellis, the respected former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, managed to strike a balance that should be an example for other churches.
He said: "The Church, while holding to the traditional doctrine that sexual relations are between one man and one woman, should be able to recognize that there are genuinely held but different views.
"People in the Church should never seek to hurt or harm one another or anyone else."
This is an admirably balanced approach, and so too is the excellent booklet published recently by the Methodist Church on the subject of human sexuality.
Its tone is summarised by its title "Developing Good Conversation on Difficult Questions. It stresses: "It is important that this discussion is seen primarily as a conversation within the body of Christ - those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement are our Christian neighbours."
This approach is in contrast to that of the Presbyterian Church, which has an unseemly judgemental approach to this topic.
I listened closely to the debate on this at the General Assembly in June this year, and while there were sensitive contributions on both sides, there were harsh remarks from some people who should have known better.
To be fair, the conservatives have every right to their views, but they need to express these in a way that shows the utmost sympathy for church members and many others who are struggling silently, and often with great loneliness and pain, to deal with their sexuality.
Canon Kinahan put the point well when he said: "Jesus treated people as equal in the eyes of the law.
"There is also an important principle involved, whereby we should ask ourselves, how we would like to be treated if we were gay?"
There is a need for people on both sides, in and out of the churches, to show more human concern for each other in this difficult debate.