THE man whose precedent-setting court challenge led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland has called on the Church of Ireland to accept that it has many gay clergy.
Jeff Dudgeon, who took the UK to the European Court of Human Rights in 1981 over the then prohibitions on same-sex relationships and won, said that the church faced a difficult decision given that the Bible makes it “difficult, if not impossible” to have clergy in gay relationships.
However, in an interview with the News Letter, he urged Irish Anglicans – who are to meet in the spring for a major conference on whether to accept clergy in civil partnerships – to recognise that it has a significant number of gay members.
In recent months there has been vocal opposition from conservative and evangelical Church of Ireland members to the first civil partnership involving one of the church’s ministers, something which they see as symptomatic of a weakening of the church’s reliance on the Bible to decide its teaching.
Mr Dudgeon, whose 1981 case received some support from the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian Church, said that since then he had not met anyone who opposed the law change on religious grounds but had now changed their opinion.
“In as far as it’s a religiously-based opinion, they haven’t changed that view,” he said.
“You can see from the churches today that even the liberal Church of Ireland is having terrible issues about how to cope.
“It’s one thing being in favour of decriminalisation, as the Church of Ireland was, but it still remains Biblically difficult, if not impossible, to have gay clergy, then married or civil partnered clergy, then bishops and you name it.
“It still remains a huge debate and not just in Northern Ireland. They have got the African problem to deal with and [Archbishop of Canterbury] Rowan Williams, from being an awful wet liberal on most things, has managed to become spiny on this one.”
He added: “It’s a delicate operation because they don’t want a split and everyone just has to tread very carefully.
“But I think they have to recognise that a significant number of members are gay, and clergy in particular. That begs the question of why because it’s certainly the case.”
The retired civil servant, who was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List, said that his campaign had worked hard to keep the religious and legal arguments separate.
“We tried to ignore it [religious opposition] and said: ‘Our problem isn’t a religious issue, it’s a law issue with the legislators, with the government, so our dispute is with the law.’ We tried to sidestep the religious opposition.
“One member of the group debated with Paisley on TV but I refused until the Order In Council was to be debated and I then debated on TV with Robinson and with Paisley on separate channels. Part of that strategy was that our issue was with legislators, not with religious leaders.
“We had got relatively good support from the Church of Ireland and from the Presbyterians for law reform, maybe no more than that.”