HUNDREDS of senior Church of Ireland members will today begin a two-day debate on the issue some fear could split the church – gay clergy.
The crucial talks, being held in Co Cavan, will bring together about 450 bishops, clergy and senior lay members from opposing wings of the church.
Some believe that same-sex relationships are sinful and shameful while others believe that they should be celebrated and affirmed by the church.
The meeting was called by the church’s bishops last year in an attempt to stop a split over the first civil partnership involving a serving Anglican minister in Ireland.
Dean Tom Gordon’s same-sex union – revealed by the News Letter last September – led to dramatic and highly unusual public calls from conservative members of the church, many of whom are in Northern Ireland, for Dean Gordon and his bishop to be disciplined.
The church said that the conference will be closed to the public and the media “to facilitate a free exchange of views, to encourage respectful listening and at the personal request of some of the contributors” – but that written updates will be issued.
Writing in today’s News Letter, Archbishop Alan Harper says that both wings of the church can listen to and learn from each other during the gathering.
He said that it was “no secret” that Anglicanism across the world had been wrestling with “the significant differences of opinion that exist within and between the Churches of the [Anglican] Communion on the issue of homosexuality”.
He said that the Church of Ireland was not the only denomination “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”.
The primate said that Christians believe heterosexual relationships are “properly affirmed” within the permanent covenant of marriage, which is clearly defined as being “to the exclusion of all others until parted by death” – but that the church had in 1996 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.”
However, the archbishop made clear that the gathering will not itself have the power to change the church’s rules.
“The event will be a forum for discussion, not a synod for legislation.”
He said that the church’s decision-making General Synod, which meets annually in May, is “likely” to be discussing the same issues.
The church said that it would publish updates of the two-day gathering at the Slieve Russell Hotel in Ballyconnell on the church’s website – www.ireland.anglican.org – this evening and tomorrow night.
The conference will include round-table discussions; biblical explorations on the Old Testament, the Gospels and texts of St Paul; worship; a “storytelling session where individuals will share from their personal experiences”; and a range of seminars.
The church said the seminars will examine scientific perspectives, parental perspectives, handling conflict in the church, the issue of gay clergy, legal aspects relating to recent legislative changes, pastoral responses to the welcoming of gay people in the church and the theological and hermeneutical background to the issues.