Gay row ‘may split church’

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A CHURCH of Ireland cleric’s civil partnership could lead to the all-island church splitting along north-south lines, one of its most influential evangelical members has warned.

Dermot O’Callaghan, who is seen as the leading evangelical layman in the Church of Ireland, stressed that no-one in the church wants a split, but said that the implications of the Rev Tom Gordon’s gay partnership could be “fundamental”.

Mr O’Callaghan, a member of the Church of Ireland’s General Synod for more than three decades, said that there was “a fair amount of ‘live and let live’” in the Church of Ireland but that news of the Rev Gordon’s partnership had come “out of the blue”.

The Dean of Leighlin’s same-sex partnership has caused waves within the church north of the border since being revealed by this newspaper on Saturday.

Gay members of the Church of Ireland and gay rights activists have hailed the breakthrough and called for the church to go further by allowing same-sex blessings in Church of Ireland parishes.

But shocked members on the traditional and evangelical wings of the church have said that there is “distress” and “sorrow” at what has happened. One group is to meet tonight to discuss a response.

Mr O’Callaghan, a lay reader in the Diocese of Down, told the News Letter: “Significantly there is a difference between north and south.

“This is a very painful and risky aspect of it. It is evident from what Tom Gordon has said that not only his bishop but the people in his area support him fully.

“In the north there would be a much greater sense of unwillingness to support that kind of step. I would be concerned in case we get a polarising in the Church of Ireland between north and south.”

Mr O’Callaghan, who was born in Dublin but lives in Hillsborough, said that the north-south divide which had taken place since partition was partly due to a “Protestant migration” from the Republic into Northern Ireland over past decades.

Increasingly, he said, the southern church had become more liberal while northern parishes remained “orthodox”.

He said that it was “certainly possible” that the church would break down north-south lines but that nobody in the church wanted to see such a split.

“This [gay partnership] has come in without discussion. The Church of England tried to grapple with the issue of civil partnerships in a way that the Church of Ireland has never got around to doing.”

The church’s only response to the news of the Rev Gordon’s same-sex union was to say last Friday that it was “a civil matter”.

However, Mr O’Callaghan said that was not enough: “If within the church it appears that same-sex sexual activity is being approved of — as could well be deemed to be the case here — then that has huge theological implications. It’s not just a civil matter.”

In the Church of England, some who object to its more liberal stance on gay issues have moved to the Roman Catholic Church. However, Mr O’Callaghan said he believed that that was unlikely in Ireland as most on the “catholic” wing of the Church of Ireland are liberal and would be happy with the Rev Gordon’s civil partnership.

Rather, he said, some evangelicals in the church were more likely to “look elsewhere in the Protestant denominations or independent churches”.

“Almost certainly some will go if there is an unsatisfactory response from the bishops to this issue. Whether there would be any large-scale movement at this stage? I don’t think there would be anything precipitative but it could be the beginning of a rift, the way an ice flow breaks in two with the two halves staying together for a while but gradually moving apart.

“It may not be immediate, but it could be fundamental.”

See Letters, page 18