Same-sex marriage: ‘Confusion’ over Church of Ireland position on gay unions

The former editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette has said a recent statement on gay marriage from within the church has sown “confusion”.

Friday, 28th February 2020, 8:00 am
Updated Friday, 28th February 2020, 11:06 am
Marchers in mock-religious garb at a Belfast gay pride march

Canon Ian Ellis was reacting to news, broken by the News Letter yesterday, that an important body within the church has told the government that gay Northern Irish people should be able to convert their civil partnerships into fully-fledged marriages.

The body which made the statement is the Church and Society Commission, set up by the general synod to examine social issues.

In the government’s consultation about the rules governing gay marriage in NI, one of the questions was: “Do you agree same-sex couples in NI should be permitted to convert their civil partnership to marriage?”

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The reply of the commission was: “Yes. If it has been decided to legalise same-sex marriage in a territory where such couples were previously only able to form civil partnerships it should be permitted for them to convert such a partnership to a marriage.”

The church has long said marriage is by definition between men and women.

For example after the gay marriage referendum in the Republic in 2015, it issued the following statement: “The archbishops and bishops of the Church of Ireland wish to affirm that the people of the Republic of Ireland, in deciding by referendum to alter the State’s legal definition of marriage, have of course acted fully within their rights.

“The Church of Ireland, however, defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and the result of this referendum does not alter this.”

When the News Letter pointed out that the church commission’s response to the gay marriage consultation stands in apparent conflict with its traditional teaching, the church press office said by way of clarification: “The doctrine of the Church of Ireland is that marriage is between one man and one woman; this is therefore the only form of marriage which may be celebrated within the church.”

The fact its commission has now said it supports the idea of gay people being married “will not affect the church’s teaching”, and does not “alter the church’s understanding of how it celebrates marriage”.

In a letter to the News Letter today, the chair Church and Society Commission church the Rt Revd Dr Kenneth Kearon, said the headline in our report on the matter yesterday was “entirely misleading in implying that the Church and Society Commission has decided to defy the doctrinal position of the Church of Ireland” (see link below).

Canon Ellis, who used to run the Church of Ireland Gazette (which is independent of the church hierarchy itself) told the News Letter: “While it is clear from the Church of Ireland press office’s clarification to the News Letter that the church’s teaching on marriage has not changed, I feel it is confusing for the Church of Ireland’s Church and Society Commission apparently to draw a distinction between Christian marriage and civil marriage.

“That is how I understand the logic of what’s happened.

“This is certainly a controversial issue within the church and I would not be surprised if the church commission’s stance will be the subject of considerable debate.

“But I hope that however strong feelings may be, exchanges on the subject will be both calm and considered.”

The Office for National Statistics estimated 1.2% of Northern Ireland’s population as gay or bisexual in 2017.