Liberal and conservative wings of the Church of Ireland are on a collision course after the Anglican church worldwide decided to sanction its US branch for approval of same-sex marriage.
On Thursday night, a gathering of worldwide Anglican church leaders had agreed to sanction the US branch of the Anglican Communion (known as the Episcopalian Church) over its “fundamental departure” from the faith by endorsing gay marriage.
On Friday a liberal activist in the Church of Ireland (CoI) said he was “appalled” by the decision, while a leading evangelical countered that it did not go far enough, and that it would simply fuel further tensions in the church.
The Irish leadership issued a statement on the matter.
In the statement, Armagh Archbishop the Most Rev Dr Richard Clarke said: “The language of the primates’ gathering and communique was ‘not about sanctions’ but rather wanting to walk together and create safe distance in order to do so over the coming years.”
He declined to make any further comment about what the decision would mean for Irish Anglicans.
It had been feared that the summit of church leaders could have resulted in a full-blown schism in the church.
In the Church of Ireland Gazette last week (which operates independently of the CoI), the Archbishop had said that his main priorities for the meeting were: “Getting a structure right that has some meaning in terms of unity and cohesion, but is not hegemonic or monolithic.”
Conservative Belfast cleric Rev Trevor Johnston, a member of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans executive (the UK branch of the GAFCON movement, which lobbied against same-sex marriage in the Anglican talks), told the News Letter: “Already we are hearing voices within the Church of Ireland who are appalled by the decision at Lambeth and are strongly opposed to it.
“This decision [at Lambeth] will, I believe, signal further tensions with the Irish communion for the future.”
The rector of All Saints’ Church on University Street added that the disciplinary restrictions “go some way in expressing the mind of the entire Communion, which maintains the historic teaching of the Bible on marriage”.
He added: “It is unfortunate that these same penalties weren’t placed against the Anglican Church of Canada where a number of their dioceses hold a similar view to the church in America, revising Christ’s teaching and departing from the Gospel – and Christ – as a result ...
“In terms of Ireland, where there are bishops, clergy and lay people seeking a revision to the historic Christian faith, the outcome of the primates’ meeting is a basic encouragement.”
Dr Richard O’Leary, a member of the Church of Ireland living in Belfast and spokesman for the pro-same-sex marriage campaign group Faith in Marriage Equality, confirmed that liberals in the CoI were indeed “appalled” by the decision to sanction the US communion.
“I and many Anglicans in Ireland am appalled at this anti-gay decision by the archbishops,” he said. “Many Anglicans in Ireland feel closer to the Anglican bishops in the USA, who want to bless same-sex couples, than to the Anglican bishops in Uganda and Nigeria who want to jail same-sex couples.”
Dr O’Leary added: “I am dismayed that the [English] archbishops’ statement does not even acknowledge the existence of the persecution of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) persons in Uganda and Nigeria ”.
Dr O’Leary concluded that “Northern Ireland has more in common with LA than Lagos”, and he “hoped that the Primate of all-Ireland, Archbishop Richard Clarke, can explain the adoption of this fundamentalist, homonegative stance by his fellow Anglican primates”.
Faith in Marriage Equality is campaigning for the extension to Northern Ireland of civil marriage for same-sex couples and for those clergy in Ireland who wish in good conscience to bless same-sex couples to be allowed to do so.