In his first newspaper interview about the same-sex partnership which has rocked the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Alan Harper speaks to SAM McBRIDE
IT has been, in his own words, a “very, very intense period” for Archbishop Alan Harper, a man doing his best to prevent a split in a church which has been a single entity since 1536.
Last month the primate of all Ireland attended a conference in Scotland, consecrated two bishops, ordained three deacons, conducted meetings of the central bodies of the Church on top of his “normal work”.
But in the midst of that routine business came the dramatic news that a serving Church of Ireland minister had become the first to enter into a civil partnership, something which has opened up deep divisions within a church which encompasses evangelical, Anglo-Catholic, charismatic and liberal wings.
The news – revealed by this newspaper on September 3 – did not come as a surprise to the archbishop.
Speaking to the News Letter in the Council Room of Church House on the hill of Armagh, Archbishop Harper reveals that he was aware of Dean Tom Gordon’s intention to enter a civil partnership two days before it happened.
“I knew on July 27 – and I’m quoting from the email – that a [beneficed priest] in the diocese of Cashel and Ossory was about to contract a civil partnership.
“I didn’t know who that priest was; I didn’t know who it was until after the event.”
The civil partnership took place on July 29 but did not become public until it was revealed by the News Letter on September 3.
“I was in Canterbury for the first week of August for an international conference and I didn’t become aware of the issue as a public issue – or indeed the identity of the person concerned – until after the event.”
Asked whether when he was first told of the same-sex union he realised that it would be a very difficult issue for the Church, the archbishop says: “Of course, of course.”
He adds: “There was nothing more that I could do. The civil partnership legislation is a freedom that he has and, technically, it’s not just not my diocese, it’s also not my province, it’s in the province of Dublin.
“But obviously then the urgent matter was to try and get an opportunity to begin to grapple with the issues as they have now presented themselves and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
So has he been surprised by the vocal opposition from evangelical and traditional Anglicans, many of them in Northern Ireland?
“I’m not surprised that it’s vocal,” he says. “I think probably the extent to which it has been sustained is interesting but this is a free country; this is a church which believes in people having the right to express themselves freely and I’ll defend that right if it is necessary to defend it.”
Asked whether the Church has a position on whether same-sex activity is sinful or normal, the archbishop says: “Sinful and normal are not alternatives. And so obviously, as you perfectly well know, there are different views within the Church as to whether or not a committed same-sex relationship is sinful.
“There has been a traditional view which has in effect not accepted the appropriateness of sexual relations between same-gender people. That is the traditional view.
“That view had come under question and that is where we find ourselves now and that’s why there’s a debate across the communion and that’s why we’ve got the present situation as it affects the Church of Ireland.
“The Church itself hasn’t thoroughly debated these new developments and the implications of these new developments. “That’s why it is necessary, it seems to me and to my fellow bishops, to put in train a way for the Church to address those matters.”
He says that in practical terms the earliest date for the conference which will discuss the issues at the heart of the crisis will be next spring.
It is important, he says, that the Church has a “reasoned and rational” discussion to see “whether it takes us forward”.
He says that the bishops’ last major discussion about homosexuality, in 2003, had called for a listening and learning process.
“But that process never really got going. Late in the day perhaps, my hope is that process now will get going. My job here is to enable those conversations to take place, those discernments to take place and ultimately, if it’s deemed appropriate – and it’s not necessarily a matter for me, personally – then it may be a matter for discussion by the general synod as the general synod.”
He says that the civil partnership legislation has “changed the landscape a bit” in recent years.
“The civil partnership entered into by the Dean of Leighlin has very much focused where we are right now.”
He says that “ironically” the bishops had agreed in the spring to discuss civil partnerships but had been unable to all find the time for such a meeting.
However, in a measure of how serious the issue has become, attending this week’s three-day bishops’ meeting took precedence for Archbishop Harper over attending a meeting with the primates of Britain and Ireland as well as the Lutheran evangelical churches of Scandinavia and the Baltic.
Bishop the Rt Rev John McDowell also missed part of the same meeting to attend the bishops’ discussions in Ireland.
When asked whether he thinks it is possible to reconcile the two camps within the Church – those who oppose same-sex partnerships and those who believe that they should be accepted – Archbishop Harper says: “I don’t know. It’s part of my job to see if that’s possible and we as bishops have been meeting to grapple with this issue in the past few days and we’ll be doing a lot more of that.”