Belfast Telegraph

Same-sex issue isn't only thing on Church's agenda

The Church of Ireland General Synod convenes today, with clerical pensions and closing schools high on the agenda. Alf McCreary reports

The Church of Ireland General Synod, which begins in Dublin today, heralds the beginning of the Spring conference season, when the main reformed churches in Ireland get down to business.

This is the time when synods and general assemblies deal with all sorts of financial and other matters and it almost resembles a kind of spring clean of issues that have been building up for most of the previous year.

The annual conferences deal with important, but essentially routine business, with an eye on priorities such as budgeting, repair and upkeep of buildings and other matters which help to keep things in order.

Most church members have only a vague notion of what goes on in these annual assemblies, although reports of what happens are conveyed afterwards to local synods and church groups.

The responsibility for dealing with the churches at the national level is left largely to nominated lay delegates and clergy, who are usually the same people who attend year after year.

Sometimes the discussions become so bogged down by Church bureaucracy that those taking part seem to lose a sense of perspective.

This was illustrated some years ago, when the Presbyterian General Assembly decided to sell off its historic Church House in Belfast after a brisk debate and then spent a much longer time discussing alternative medicines. Luckily, the very unwise decision to sell off Church House was later rescinded.

Almost every year one or two major issues crop up and make media headlines. A good example this year is the Church of Ireland debate on same-sex issues. This controversy has been simmering since last summer, when it was reported that the Dean of Leighlin, Tom Gordon, had entered into a civil partnership with his long-time companion.

A special weekend study conference in March gave the Church breathing space to discuss the issue in depth, but the General Synod is now deciding how to move forward pragmatically, with a vociferous pro-gay lobby grabbing headlines.

However, there is much more to this General Synod than the gay issue. Some 450 delegates, representing around 400,000 members from 12 dioceses across Ireland, will deal with bread-and-butter issues, including funding, clergy pensions and education.

Given the state of the economies north and south, and particularly in the Republic, the General Synod will receive an updated account of the state of the clergy pensions fund. The budgetary cuts in the Republic have also put great pressure on education and the very survival of many of the smaller Church of Ireland primary schools.

The General Synod ends on Saturday afternoon and, later this month, it will be the turn of the Presbyterians, who will hold their General Assembly from Monday, May 28. One of the first duties will be the installation of the Moderator-elect, the Reverend Roy Patton, from Ballygilbert, who will succeed the Moderator, the Rt Revd Dr Ivan Patterson.

During the next few days, the Assembly will deal with its own core business and it is possible that the issue of same-sex relationships may also be raised.

Following the General Assembly, the Methodist Church will hold its annual meeting in Enniskillen next month to install the Reverend Ken Lindsay as its new president.

Major headlines may come and go, but the core business of the Spring assemblies provides the churches with the essential continuity that they need to carry out their unending mission.

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