THE Church of Ireland is to hold a major conference in an attempt to ease growing tensions over its approach to homosexuality.
The decision emerged yesterday from a three-day meeting of the church’s 12 bishops in response to the crisis over the first civil partnership involving a serving Church of Ireland minister.
The conference, to be held next spring, will discuss same-sex unions but will not decide the church’s teaching on the issue.
However, last night the News Letter learned that disillusioned conservative and evangelical members of the Church of Ireland are planning their own meeting next week.
The meeting, to be held in Northern Ireland on Monday, is to be addressed by a visiting bishop from outside Ireland, as some parishes become increasingly unhappy at the Irish bishops’ leadership.
Yesterday’s statement by the bishops, the first joint statement since Dean Tom Gordon’s civil partnership emerged, made no overt mention of that partnership. It said that they had reflected on “current disquiet ... caused by disagreements on the matter of human sexuality”.
Implicit in the statement is the fact that the bishops disagree on whether to accept gay relationships. Some, such as the Rt Rev Harold Miller, believe that same-sex activity is sinful while others, such as the Rt Rev Michael Burrows, believe that it should be approved of within the church.
The statement said that the three-day meeting had been at points “painful” and that the bishops — who until now have been silent on the controversy — had agreed to “speak openly about our differences”.
A pastoral letter from the bishops will now be issued to individual churches through clergy in coming days. That letter will outline a process which will involve the ‘major conference’.
A representative of the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy declined to comment on the statement.
But Changing Attitude Ireland, which is campaigning for the Church of Ireland to accept gay partnerships, welcomed the move.
Secretary Canon Charles Kenny said: “Changing Attitude Ireland are happy to hear that the bishops are committing themselves to listening and speaking openly about these complicated issues.
“It is our hope and prayer that churchmen and women will respond to this call for serious and thoughtful seeking out of the mind of Christ for our day. We hope that the atmosphere at the proposed conference will make it possible for gay and lesbian church people, lay and clerical, to participate honestly in the discussion about human sexuality.”
Canon Ian Ellis, editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette, said: “Ultimately, the law of the church is decided by the general synod but I see the envisaged conference as enabling a wider and more face-to-face discussion among those of differing views than has been the case until now. The conference will in turn inform the mind of the general synod, assuming that the general synod will be asked to consider the issue.
“Some people will be relieved that there now is some space, but others wanted a clearer outcome from the residential meeting. However, we’ve got what we’ve got, and that is the start of a process that will be focused and will not be slow.
“While the conference is not due to be held until the spring, the intervening time clearly will allow for a proper preparatory process. I trust that the Gazette will be seen as a useful medium for the expression of all points of view and thereby make its own contribution.”