Church of Ireland ‘turning blind eye’ to clergy flouting gay rules

People gathered at the Central Count Centre in Dublin Castle in 2015 for the historic announcement of the gay marriage referendum.
People gathered at the Central Count Centre in Dublin Castle in 2015 for the historic announcement of the gay marriage referendum.

A Church of Ireland cleric has slammed his own denomination for allegedly teaching traditional marriage in public but privately “turning a blind eye” to gay clergy engaging in sexual relationships.

Rev Stephen Neill – a passionate supporter of LGBT rights in the Church of Ireland (CoI) – made the allegations in this week’s edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette.

It is understood to be the first time such explosive claims have been made with such frankness about the inner workings of the CoI.

According to rules in the CoI and sister Anglican denomination the Church of England (CoE), defining oneself as gay does not preclude anyone from becoming a cleric – nor even from entering a civil partnership – so long as those involved give an undertaking to remain celibate within the arrangement.

But Rev Stephen Neill from Celbridge, near Dublin, says that the rules are being widely flouted in the CoE by clerics who publicly claim to be in celibate gay relationships which are privately sexual – and all with the full collusion of CoE bishops. Rev Neill goes on to say that the CoI is in “exactly the same dishonest position”.

His comments were prompted by the Bishop Nicholas Chamberlain of Grantham, who last week became the first Anglican bishop to openly declare his homosexuality – and that he was in a relationship, which he said was celibate.

Rev Neill said the bishop’s relationship was “the worst-kept secret in the church”.

Bishop Grantham’s ‘secret’ was also known to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Lincoln and many others.

Rev Neill went on to quote CoE cleric Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain, who stated that “quietly” across the CoE “clergy are getting married or converting their civil partnerships to marriage; gay ordinands in sexual relationships are getting the nod through while appearing to comply with the selection procedures; and clergy are having sex in their civil partnerships”.

Rev Andrew Foreshew-Cain had said last month: “Priests are offering services of blessing and thanksgiving to gay and lesbian couples and parishes celebrating with them. The bishops all know this and many even collude in the dishonesty around the current position with private words of support and public obedience to the official line.

“One recently married priest I know of was invited into the episcopal study, handed his letter of discipline and then the bishop’s wife arrived with two gin and tonics – and as she said ‘Congratulations’, the bishop toasted the new couple.”

Rev Neill, whose father is the retired Archbishop of Dublin, said he despaired over the lack of honesty in the CoE – “but we in the Church of Ireland find ourselves in exactly the same dishonest position”.

He added: “There are, just as in the Church of England, many informal arrangements and turnings of a blind eye in our own Church of Ireland”.

He went on to affirm that he was one of those who “fervently believe that same-sex relationships should be recognised and affirmed without qualification by our Church”.

Scott Golden, Chair of CoI LGBT lobby group Changing Attitudes Ireland estimates there are some 65 gay clergy in the CoI out of 500 overall.

But Rev Dr Alan McCann, Rector of Holy Trinity in Carrickfergus and treasurer of conservative CoI lobby group ‘Reform Ireland’, challenged Rev Neill’s claims – and called on the CoI bishops to clarify what is happening in the wider denomination.

“He speaks of a blind eye being turned to such arrangements in the CoI,” Rev McCann said, “If that is the case, and he doesn’t document them, then the House of Bishops need to be honest with the church that they have such a policy in place. If such a policy is in place and they are turning a blind eye to sinful relationships amongst the clergy then they are failing in their vows as Bishops and that would place many of us in a very difficult relationship to our bishop [assuming they were turning a blind eye to such].

“I have not heard of such a protocol or guidelines existing in the CoI.”

He believed Rev Neill was raising the issue as he and other liberals had been “emboldened” by the Bishop of Grantham revelations about his gay relationship. He also believed liberals had been emboldened by the fact that no disciplinary action has been taken against Dean Tom Gordon from Carlow and the Bishop of Cashel and Ossory who appointed him. Dean Gordon revealed he was in a civil partnership in 2011 and remains a CoI cleric in good standing.

Rev McCann added that Rev Neill and others are departing from Scripture and from the historical teaching of the church, reaffirmed in General Synod 2012. “He can advocate change but he cannot change the teaching of Scripture and to do so is heretical”.

He added: “Mr Neill has called for honesty – and that is a good thing. The shadowboxing is coming to an end and we cannot ignore the fact that a realignment is happening all across the Anglican Communion and the CoI will not be immune from it.”

A CoI spokesman said it was not “appropriate” to comment on the “dialogue” between the two clerics.

“However, with regard to the question of there being any policy of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the sexual relationships of clergy, I would confirm that there is no such policy in the Church of Ireland.”

There has not been any disciplinary action taken towards the Very Revd Tom Gordon or his bishop, Michael Burrows, he said.

He reiterated that the Church passed a resolution at its General Synod in 2012 by 245 to 115 votes which clarifies that marriage “is between a man and a woman”.

The spokesman said that after same-sex marriage was enshrined in law in the Republic of Ireland last year, bishops wrote to clergy there and “encouraged restraint by any cleric who might consider entering a same-sex marriage, for the sake of unity and in order to be respectful of the principles of others”.

The letter acknowledged that “all are free to exercise their democratic entitlements once enshrined in legislation” but that members of the clergy are “bound by the ordinal and by the authority of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland”.