‘Dismay at CoI gay union’

The Rev Trevor Johnston (right), chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy
The Rev Trevor Johnston (right), chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy

EVANGELICAL Anglicans have accused the Church of Ireland of giving “mixed messages” to parishioners after a senior cleric entered a same-sex union.

In the first public criticism of the Rev Tom Gordon’s civil partnership, the Rev Trevor Johnston said that orthodox members of the church were “dismayed” and “sorrowful” at what had happened.

The Rev Johnston, who is chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, which represents about 70 Church of Ireland ministers, said it was “inadequate” for the church to attempt to side-step the implications of the development.

The backlash from traditional members of the Church of Ireland comes after the Rev Gordon’s partnership was hailed by gay rights campaigners as evidence that the church has changed its view on same-sex couples.

But the Rev Johnston, the Church of Ireland’s former chaplain to the University of Ulster, said that there was disillusionment among many in the church.

“I think there is distress that this has happened and great sorrow because it will be difficult to Biblically pastor those who genuinely struggle with the issue of same-sex relationships because of a mixed message.”

He said it was “very, very difficult” to see how the issue will now not be as divisive in the Church of Ireland as it has been elsewhere in the worldwide Anglican Communion, which is facing schism over the issue.

He said that the response in Ireland is likely to mirror that in North America and other areas where openly gay clergy have been appointed.

There, some evangelical parishes have refused to accept the oversight and have set up their own church structures.

He added: “We want to hear from the bishops of the Church of Ireland on this matter and we call people to hear again and apply the Bible’s teaching on the area of human sexuality, which is that marriage is the only context for sexual expression.”

The Rev Johnston said that the Church of Ireland had put off “properly addressing” the issue of clergy in gay partnerships.

“However, nothing has changed in the church’s understanding of marriage, nothing has changed in its understanding of the appropriateness or otherwise of homosexual relationships for Christian people, so as far as I’m concerned nothing has changed from the Biblical understanding and how it has been traditionally applied throughout the centuries.

“I don’t think I’m alone in stating this; I think it is the majority position of the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

When the News Letter contacted the church last week, a spokesman said that it was “a civil matter”. But the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, Canon Ian Ellis, said at the weekend that the church was in danger of appearing confused on its approach to homosexuality.

The Rev Johnston said: “I would entirely agree with Ian Ellis about that because I don’t think we want to compartmentalise the Christian life.”

He said that it was “entirely inadequate” for the church to say that it was a civil matter.

It is understood that other “orthodox and evangelical groups” representing a “significant proportion of clergy and lay people in the Church of Ireland” opposed to clergy in gay relationships are deciding how to respond and that a meeting is to be held tomorrow night to discuss the issue.

See Letters, page 14