Belfast Telegraph

Inside the house of the Bishops

The Church of Ireland finally grasped the issue of gay clergy at a secret meeting in the Irish countryside. Alf McCreary reports

When the Church of Ireland bishops met for three days this week at a conference centre north of Dublin to discuss the thorny question of its approach to homosexuality, the proceedings were so secret that they would not even release the name of the venue afterwards.

It may have been held at Ballymascanlon House Hotel, just south of Newry, or at Greenhills in Drogheda, both of which are as convenient geographically as any venue for the 12 Anglican bishops from across Ireland.

The term 'House of Bishops' itself sounds like something from the Vicar of Dibley, or the old-fashioned view of the church as 'All gas and gaiters'.

This meeting would have been very different. The Primate, Archbishop Alan Harper, would have presided in a businesslike manner. As a former archaeologist, he has an eye for detail and a deep regard for the proper procedures of the church.

Harper - whatever he thinks personally about gay people - would probably have reminded his colleagues of his earlier statement that "as fellow human beings, homosexual people are entitled to be accorded the same respect and dignity as others".

The intense discussions, in a residential setting, would have been preceded each day by morning prayer, as the bishops tried to square the circle over a problem that seems intractable within the worldwide Anglican communion.

It arose several years ago when the American Episcopal Church appointed Dean Gene Robinson (inset below) as a bishop, in spite of pleas from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

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The current controversy in the Church of Ireland emerged this summer when it was revealed that the Dean of Leighlin, the Very Reverend Tom Gordon, had entered into a civil partnership with his male companion of 20 years.

In spite of the fine Christian sentiments of this week's residential discussions, the three-day meeting would have reflected the sharp divisions among the bishops - as well as the church at large.

All the bishops present would have briefed themselves exhaustively in advance. They would have been only too-aware that the Church of Ireland had not discussed the subject in any detail for nearly nine years, in spite of developments since in equality legislation and civil partnerships, and that they had to give a lead.

Members of the House of Bishops are, without exception, sharp cookies and recent appointments have cut the age-profile sharply.

Another key factor is that they represent dioceses from all over Ireland, where views about homosexuality differ greatly.

Their agreed statement revealed that, "Our discussions were frank and careful and, at times, painful." This is a euphemism for declaring that everything was on the table and that the issue of homosexuality - for too long the unmentioned elephant in the room - was faced unflinchingly.

No one is revealing the details of a discussion held within the framework of collegiality, but it is likely that two different views emerged both quickly and sharply on the first day.

Bishop Harold Miller, an articulate northern bishop from the Down and Dromore diocese, would have been the most credible spokesman for the conservative, evangelical view that homosexuality is contrary to scripture and that the Church of Ireland should not appoint to senior office a man who is in a civil partnership. On the other hand, Bishop Michael Burrows, from the southern diocese of Cashel, would have had some explaining to do about his decision to appoint Tom Gordon as Dean of Leighlin, while being aware of his same-sex relationship.

Would Bishop Burrows have outlined why he had no problem with such an appointment? What would have been the contributions of other, younger bishops, like the Right Reverend Trevor Williams of Limerick, with his experience of working with Corrymeela and BBC Radio Ulster, or the new Bishop of Tuam, the Right Reverend Patrick Rooke, a native of Dublin, but with a distinguished ministry in Northern Ireland?

And what were the views of the deeply spiritual and pragmatic Bishop of Connor, the Right Reverend Dr Alan Abernethy, or the scholarly Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, the noted theologian who recently moved to the Irish capital from the border diocese of Clogher?

Whatever the deliberations, it is clear that the bishops, in their own words "corporately agreed a way forward". The details are not yet clear, but will be revealed soon in a pastoral letter to the clergy.

A church-wide conference on the issue takes place next spring, but the controversy will bubble on.

There is a very deep concern among evangelicals and there is talk of holding a conference here next week to be addressed by an outside bishop, which may indicate a lack of confidence in their own House of Bishops.

It will be a surprise if Church of Ireland bishops produce a solution which has so far evaded the worldwide Anglican communion.

But whereas the Church of Ireland is now seen to be tackling this painful issue, the Presbyterian Church seems ill-prepared to react to the issue of gay clergy, which is going to confront them publicly, and sooner rather than later.

Alf McCreary is Belfast Telegraph religion correspondent


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