Tenure coincided with bitter split

OVER the last year, as debate over homosexuality raged within the Church of Ireland, both conservative and liberal members of the church have been sharply critical of the leadership.

But during what has been — and remains — nothing short of a crisis for the worldwide Anglican Communion, both sides have agreed that Archbishop Harper is fair.

The archbishop is instinctively liberal, but is seen by many conservatives as having been even-handed to those with whom he disagreed.

That confidence in the good faith of the primate may have been crucial to the church staying together since the revelation that Dean Tom Gordon had entered a civil partnership.

That being said, if Lord Eames’ tenure as Primate was largely defined by the Troubles and the ordination of women bishops, Archbishop Harper’s tenure will surely be remembered for the issue of homosexuality.

His handling of Dean Gordon’s same-sex union suggests that he either did not instantly grasp the seriousness of the issue or did not know what to do.

Effectively, Archbishop Harper did nothing after being told of Dean Gordon’s same-sex union, despite knowing that the issue had led to Anglican splits across the world.

It was more than a month after Dean Gordon’s partnership was revealed by the News Letter that Archbishop Harper spoke about the issue, after northern evangelical members of the church publicly voiced fury at what had taken place.

Archbishop Harper, who has been in post for five years — a quarter of the time of his predecessor — did not dominate the church in the manner of Lord Eames, seeing himself as a referee between the pro and anti-gay camps.

Traditionally the Archbishop of Dublin has first refusal on succeeding the Archbishop of Armagh and the current incumbent in Dublin, the Rt Rev Michael Jackson, is seen within the church as highly ambitious.

But that did not happen last time, when John Neill was archbishop and the church’s top position went to Archbishop Harper, who at that time had only been a bishop for five years.

At last month’s General Synod, many liberals were enraged at what they saw as Archbishop Jackson’s courting of the northern evangelical vote. He may want the job, but as Archbishop Harper has found, it is a post which requires vast wisdom and political skill if a deeply divided church is to unite and then reach out to society.