THREE years ago Church of Ireland archbishop Alan Harper caused a fierce backlash from traditional Church of Ireland members when he entered the debate on same-sex unions, writes Sam McBride.
It was one of the few times when the church’s divisions over homosexuality came fully into public view.
The Archbishop of Armagh and primate of all Ireland had suggested that the church may have to accept same-sex unions if science proves that homosexuality is biologically predetermined.
In a speech, he said: “It has not yet been conclusively shown that for some males and some females homosexuality and homosexual acts are natural rather than unnatural.
“If such comes to be shown, it will be necessary to acknowledge the full implications of that new aspect of the truth, and that insight applied to establish and acknowledge what may be a new status for homosexual relationships within the life of the church.”
Within days, those comments led to a group which represents between 70 and 100 Church of Ireland clergy and lay preachers, the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, publicly accusing the archbishop of being divisive and murmurings of an attempt to find a more traditional church head began.
In a letter to this newspaper, the clergy said: “We are painfully aware that this issue has the potential to rip the fabric of the Anglican Communion apart (in fact, some suggest that this has been done) and we are distressed that the Archbishop should inflame divisions even further.”
Several weeks later, in an interview with the News Letter, the Bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Miller, more diplomatically rejected the archbishop’s suggestion.
“If it is proven (that homosexuality is natural) it makes no difference at all,” he said.
Several years ago the Church of Ireland synod agreed to make provision for the recognition of clerical civil partnerships for the purposes of church pensions.
But one of those present that day says that many believed that move was merely to bring the church into line with the new Civil Partnerships Act and that there was little discussion about the significance of the issue as at that point there were no Church of Ireland clergy in civil partnerships.
That has now changed and even before today’s revelation there has been fierce debate on the pages of the Church of Ireland Gazette over recent months about the church’s approach to homosexuality.
Last month editor the Rev Ian Ellis responded to a letter urging the Gazette to suppress the debate by writing: “It is true that the correspondence on the human sexuality issue has been running for a long time.
“However, much though one might be tempted simply to ‘move on’, the issue is not going away either in the wider church or in society at large, and the Gazette will continue to provide a space for open discussion of this important topic.”
The Church of England is probably several years ahead of the Church of Ireland on the issue of the church’s approach to homosexuality.
Last year the Daily Telegraph reported that a 64-year-old Anglican vicar was set to ‘marry’ his Nigerian male model boyfriend who is 40 years his junior.
The case provoked particular outrage among traditional Anglicans as the civil ceremony was followed by a communion service in an Anglican church.
Of all the Christian churches, the Anglican church in the UK and Ireland has the broadest spectrum of theological views and therefore has the most confused position on homosexuality.
So far, that has not come to a head and the church has not been forced to take a clear position. But at some point it may.