MEMBERS of the Church of Ireland General Synod (which is made up of clergy and laity and the bishops), together with ecumenical guests, are gathering today to participate in a conference organised by the bishops on the issue of Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief.
It is no secret that the worldwide Anglican Communion as a whole has been wrestling for some time with the significant differences of opinion that exist within and between the Churches of the Communion on the issue of homosexuality.
The Church of Ireland is no different from other Anglican Churches, or indeed Churches of other denominations throughout the world, in being confronted by the challenge of the interpretation of scripture and tradition in the context of justice, equality and parity of esteem for lesbian and gay people.
Disagreements become sharp over whether or not a sexually expressed lesbian or gay lifestyle is compatible with the practice of Christianity, not least for those in ordained ministry.
Heterosexual relationships themselves, from a Christian point of view, are properly affirmed in the context of marriage. Marriage, or Holy Matrimony, is clearly and carefully defined as a permanent covenant or contract between one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others until parted by death. Yet, in 1996 the Church of Ireland General Synod accepted the possibility of re-marriage after divorce; so why, some might ask, is the issue of sexual orientation and practice so different? Some argue that there are, perhaps, new insights and new understandings in the area of human sexuality which require the Church to respond in ways that depart from what has been long established tradition. That is the context of today’s conference.
Conferences rarely result in unanimity, but sometimes there is convergence. Our conference takes place over two days. This is deliberate because opportunities for informal exchanges encourage greater individual engagement and personal dialogue, and can be helpful when considering complex issues. The working sessions, meanwhile, will be a mix of formal addresses, biblical exploration, workshops and round table discussions.
If particular themes or issues emerge as potentially significant or fruitful we shall try to capture them for further study and reflection.
The event will be a forum for discussion, not a synod for legislation. The General Synod, which has a maximum membership of 660, will meet in May in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. It is likely that issues discussed at the conference will reappear at General Synod.
Therefore, part of the purpose of the conference is to prepare synod members for future discussions, removed from the time constraints and legislative pressures of a synod structure with standing orders.
What do I most hope may emerge from the conference?
I hope participants will seize the opportunity to listen and to learn, to share convictions and perspectives, to deepen relationships through shared prayer, honest encounter and respectful consideration of the breadth of the Gospel, and thus to grow in faith and commitment through enhanced understanding both of the issues and of each other.