A retired senior Church of Ireland figure has suggested the Church could face a split within just five years, as a public row over gay marriage and homosexuality deepened.
The top churchman warned fellow believers that the Church of Ireland is too small to withstand a schism over the issue, and said he hopes such a split will be avoided.
He was speaking as it emerged dozens of church figures have written joint open letters highly critical of the liberal stances taken by the bishops of Cork and Cashel.
They were writing after 43 members of the clergy last week penned a joint letter endorsing same-sex marriages, ahead of a referendum in the Republic on the issue.
The former top cleric – speaking to the News Letter under condition of anonymity – said: “The Church of Ireland membership and the church of Ireland clergy would need to move very carefully, because we are too small to split.
“To put it in perspective, the Church of Ireland is about the size of Oxford diocese.”
Asked what he believes the probability is of such a split occurring, he said: “I think we’re perhaps about five years away from that, if we were to go that way.
“And I think there’d be a lot of talking, a lot of praying done before that’d be happening.”
The two hard-hitting letters to which he was responding were sent to the latest edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette, a weekly publication independent of the church itself.
One of the letters bears the names of 34 individual churchmen, and although it does not specifically name the targets of their criticism, it notes that “in recent days, two Irish bishops have publicly declared and taught contrary to the plain teaching of the Church”.
This is understood to be a reference to the bishops of Cork and Cashel, who last month spoke out on the subjects of both gay marriage and homosexuality in general.
The letter said the bishops are “teaching error”, and called on them to “repent” (see Letters page).
A second letter to the gazette is signed by members of the CoI Evangelical Fellowship, the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, New Wine Ireland, and Reform Ireland.
Directly naming the bishops of Cork and Cashel, it states the Church’s position – that marriage is only between one man and one woman – is not “open to interpretation”.
It says to “disrespect the will of the Synod, and wilfully misrepresent the meaning of the Marriage Liturgy, to promote a contrary view, is not befitting of the role of bishop”.
It accuses the bishop of Cashel in particular of portraying opponents of gay marriage in a “pejorative, negative and demeaning manner”.
Asked if he believes a schism in the Church will indeed take place, the anonymous top Anglican said: “No. I am hopeful good sense will prevail.”
Of those who signed the latter letter, it appears the great bulk are based in Northern Ireland, not the Republic.
However, he also added: “But if a split comes, it won’t simply be north-south.”
A spokesman for the Church of Ireland said it is not usual for the Church to respond to letters published in magazines or newspapers, that the writers are entitled to their views, and that the Church’s stance on gay marriage is well-known.
On April 11, the bishop of Cashel, Michael Burrows, was quoted by the Irish Times as saying that he did not see “any way in which it [gay marriage] could be considered repugnant to the common good, or indeed to the vital role of the family”.
He also compared today’s gay rights campaign with the emancipation of slaves and of women in previous eras.
Pledging to vote ‘yes’ in the Republic’s referendum on same-sex marriage on May 22, he said: “I could not vote against this proposal because of my utter abomination of homophobia.”
Paul Colton, bishop of Cork, was then quoted by the Irish Examiner newspaper nine days later, reacting to a Cork pastor who had branded homosexuality “a sexual sin, just like rape, just like adultery”.
The bishop had responded: “Such language of sin and crime about homosexuality stems, it seems to me, from an uncritical and literalist approach to the Bible which, for the modern person, would make it impossible for most people to believe at all.”
He had also expressed hope there will be a “review” of the Church’s stance on gay marriage.
In addition, last month Bishop Colton issued a warning against forgetting about people’s real-life experiences when choosing sides in debate – adding that this was a particular risk in the gay marriage debate.
He had said: “When we participate in the debate, formally or informally, publicly or privately, we are walking on the Holy ground of other people’s lives.”
The letters in the gazette follow the publication of a letter in the Irish Times, signed by 43 clergy, which read: “We believe justice and equality for all are fundamental Christian, Biblical principles.
“We believe for too long lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have suffered discrimination and injustice in Ireland and that a Yes vote [in the marriage referendum] will be a contribution to a fairer and more truly equal Ireland.”
See the News Letter’s letters page for the letter signed by 34 churchmen to the Church of Ireland Gazette.