ALEX KANE: CoI increasingly like warring UUP

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THE Church of Ireland’s ongoing debacle about gay marriage reminded me (and not in a good way) of the days when the Ulster Unionist Council was called every few months to try and patch up the differences between the pro and anti-Belfast Agreement factions.

The air would be thick with points of order and amendments to motions. Behind the scenes a small group of people would try and cobble together a form of words which would allow opposing motions to be joined together so that the post-meeting press release could suggest to the media – along with the wider party membership – that all was well and that the UUP remained united.

Of course, everyone knew that the outcome was monumental fudge, that both sides would continue to brief against each other and that another vote wouldn’t be that far away.

Having used a technicality to prevent the debate taking place on Thursday, all three motions were glued together, debated on Saturday and passed by 235 votes to 113. It’s what is best described as the “nothing has actually been resolved” outcome.

The General Synod affirmed the traditional stance on marriage (a relationship between one man and one woman); held out the hand of friendship and welcome to those with a different sexual orientation; and instructed a standing committee to “progress work on the issue of human sexuality in the context of Christian belief and also to bring a proposal to General Synod 2013 for the formation of a select committee with terms of reference including reporting procedures”.

It’s the sort of cobbled together grotesquery the Ulster Unionists would have been proud of! On the one hand affirm the position that the Bible’s teaching on marriage is correct: but to keep others happy agree to a committee to see how you can accommodate the views of those who think the church should support gay marriage.

Within minutes of the vote gay members were complaining. David McConnell – of the pro-gay Changing Attitude Ireland group – said that the outcome had “added to, not reduced, the hurt and exclusion caused by the church to its gay and lesbian members”.

Gerry Lynch, also a member of the group, was more critical: “The way the motion on sexuality was submitted and the vote itself confirmed many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) persons’ experience of the churches as the last bastion of homophobia.”

Gay marriage is always going to be a huge problem for any church, because it’s always going to come down to a matter of personal interpretation and “official” interpretation of what the Bible says on the matter.

If a practicing Christian believes that homosexuality is condemned and that gay marriage is also condemned then I’m not sure how they would ever be reconciled to the reality of their church shifting stance to endorse both.

Indeed, it seems inevitable that such a shift, which would almost certainly be the result of a divisive debate and vote, would lead to splits and departures. So it’s no wonder that the church would prefer sticking plaster to a hard and fast doctrinal ruling.

It strikes me, too, that there is an element of hypocrisy at work here. The Church of Ireland (along with other churches, to be fair) is content to marry people who rarely if ever go to church and who give no specific commitment to attend church afterwards, let alone baptise their children or bring them up in the faith.

It opens the church doors to wedding guests – many of whom are openly atheist or agnostic – and invites them to participate in what is an important and deeply personal religious ceremony. In other words, it seems willing to bend the rules for people who are little more than nominal Christians, prepared to turn up for a few weeks just so that they can have a church wedding.

But when it comes to long-standing, regularly attending, practicing Christians who happen to be gay, the church isn’t prepared to perform a same sex marriage. So it’s easy to understand why they feel a little miffed. They also believe that public opinion is on their side.

A recent survey commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests indicated that 75 per cent believed church teaching on sexuality was not relevant to them or their families and 61 per cent rejected Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality.

As Archbishop Harper noted on Thursday, this “demonstrated the extent and the continuing pace of change in outlook, attitudes, beliefs and self-confidence now exhibited among the people surveyed. The Church of Ireland is not insulated from similar processes of attitudinal change”.

Recent opinion polls in Great Britain indicate that gay marriage is supported by 43 per cent and David Cameron and Nick Clegg have committed themselves to legislation by 2015.

Even Barack Obama – at the beginning of his re-election campaign – has finally come out in favour of gay marriage. And, significantly, opinion polls across America are showing no collapse in support for him. The story is the same within the European Union with increasing numbers of voters now in favour of gay marriage.

Personally, I have no difficulty with homosexuality. I am in a long, very happy heterosexual relationship, with two wonderful children.

If either of them was homosexual, I would much prefer to see them in an open, unashamed relationship with someone they loved than remaining in some sort of social, psychological closet.

That said, I do not accept that gay relationships, let alone gay marriages, are precisely the same as heterosexual relationships and marriages.

I have huge reservations about gay adoption (and I write as someone who was adopted) and equally huge reservations about children being raised by same sex parents as though that was perfectly normal.

To be honest, I don’t have any easy answers to these reservations. If homosexuality is not a criminal offence and if same sex couples can now be “married” in a legally recognised civil ceremony, then why my reservations about adoption and the raising of children? Indeed, why my reservations about the campaign for the church to endorse gay marriage?

I think it has something to do with my view that the legislative changes in social/moral areas since the mid-1960s have actually made the UK a less pleasant, less tolerant, less understanding place.

We have, instead, become a society in which there appear to be no absolute boundaries or values. So yes, it’s right that homosexuals be free from the fear of discrimination or violence; but it’s not right that their values and lifestyle (which are those of a minority, after all) be regarded as the same as those of heterosexuals.

There is, after all, a price to be paid for being recognised as different!