Gay Irish cleric – there are lessons for common ground in sexual-identity issues in Irish Peace Process

Last month a leading gay Anglican cleric returned to his native Ireland after a two-day conference in Geneva, Switzerland on HIV, theology and human rights which highlighted a standoff between various parties, faiths and governments in the battle to tackle AIDS.

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego, who served in parishes in Connor and Dublin, reflected on the unique contribution Irish Christians could bring to the standoff. He describes it as an “identity conflict” where human needs and values must trump ideologies. After thirty years of violent sectarian conflict (where religious and political identities are both part problem and part solution) there may be an opportunity to present “best practices” not only to Irish discussions about homosexuality but a framework for some difficult conversations and policy changes over sexual identities and the place of sex workers and IV drug users in the AIDS pandemic.)

Canon Ogle referring to the Irish Peace Process in an extensive paper on the Geneva conference, said, “Although it took 30 years for the Irish Peace Process to come to some initial fruition, there was a lot of local and international work done to bring conflicting factions together and identify what the issues really are about. There were a number of things we discovered we had in common and could actually work on together while leaving the more contentious issues to others to work on for long-term solutions.

“The Geneva Conference was a small example that conservative and liberal Christians could agree on a number of issues in a respectful and attentive way to address a complex international issue such as HIV. Our initial temptation in Geneva was to try to come to a consensus and agree on an overarching approach that would understate differences and our concluding decision was acknowledge there was more than one theological position in the room, more than one church and more than one solution to the questions before us. In identifying and mapping the conflict, we could each commit to work not only on the areas of commonality, but also deeper conversation on areas we differed. We cited biblical texts of conflicts within the early church from the mother church in Jerusalem to the unorthodox work of Paul among the Gentiles. We invoked the parables of Jesus as common values for shared ministry, i.e. the Good Samaritan, which illustrated both the limitations of organized religion to respond to all human needs (the clergy who pass by on the other side) and the Samaritan who met the needs of the victim, even though the Samaritan would have been considered an unlikely hero from the margins. The invitation for the faith community to help reduce stigma – a universal outcome of HIV is present in this story and to provide healing and safely for everyone was acknowledged. Referring again to the holy texts, the incident of the baptism of Cornelius in Acts is a foundational story of the gifts of the Holy Spirit clearly manifested in one who is not of the “Household of God,” a non Jew who compelled the Apostles to reconsider religious and cultural boundaries of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and participate fully in the sacramental life and work of the first community. The diversity of theological opinions and arguments in both the attitude to Paul and Cornelius should be an inspiration to the contemporary engagements in the church, particularly around issues of human sexuality and the relationship of law to grace.”

The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle is President of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation and lives in San Diego. He has been involved with UN initiatives on AIDS. He was born and raised in East Belfast, and prepared for ordination at CITC.