General Synod Sketchbook – 10th May

Bishops and their motions.

Three motions in the area of human sexuality and Christian belief (Ref – 8 a,b,& c) are being brought before the synod by two members of the House of Bishops. A cursory examination of the C of I e-mail forum, the correspondence in yesterday’s Irish Times – see this site May 9 –  and of an independent web site set up to rally opposition to the first of the motions (8a) indicate that a good number of clergy and laity regard the nature of the motion as being extremely contentious at worst and unhelpful at best.

Firstly, there will be legal points of procedure which will require to be answered in Synod. The motions were not lodged before the customary deadline. Some may propose to circumvent that objection by stating that as the motions arise from an item reported within the Standing Committee’s report that all is in order procedurally. This columnist is prepared to leave that particular determination to those legally qualified to guide the Archbishop of Armagh as president of the Synod, but is confident that such a procedure can only be employed if and when Synod gives its consent to such an action by a 2/3rds majority.

What does appear to be a quite accurate and legitimate point of considerable concern, is that the first of these motions (8a) posits a point of view which in fact is far from affirming its so-called, “C of I teaching”. Rather what is stated in the motion is actually a hardened stance which is beyond the position stated in the House of Bishops’ Pastoral of last year. The current motion affirms in quite strong language that the church’s teaching is that sexual intercourse is only normative within a context of faithful lifelong marriage.

The framers of the motion chose not to acknowledge that there has been a fairly radical change in recent times in the church’s position on marriage which is now more accepting of divorced persons than hitherto, together with a widespread acceptance of those engaged couples which live together prior to marriage.

In the event that the motion is discussed by Synod, some fairly crucial amendments must be made to make this motion acceptable. If such crucial amendments can not be crafted and supported, then the motion in its present form deserves to be rejected.

The consequences of accepting this motion in its present form need to be more fully thought through. If accepted one possible – and likely – outcome is that it could be used in retrospective attempts to hold the Bishop of Cashel to account for his acceptance of a cleric in a civil partnership and to debar that cleric, and perhaps also the Bishop, from the exercise of their ministries.

One of the stated undergirding values of the conference on human sexuality held earlier this year was that a listening process and a dialogue of mutual respect needed to occur with gay and lesbian people (who were underrepresented at the conference) before the church made any final determinations in this area. That essential value must be upheld by Synod. It reflects the essence of Christian tolerance, and its costly engagement expressed by effective listening and dialogue.

If this motion is accepted the C of I will indeed become a cold house for clergy who are of same-sex orientation. This Church of Ireland has had such clergy during its existence and the overwhelming majority have proved to be good pastors and wise teachers. This motion is one which rejects such a tolerance within the Celtic church’s tradition and it will place a heavy burden upon those who already carry one due to the fact that they feel they dare not be open and honest about their sexual orientation. This columnist sees this written large in that he had a deep respect for such a pastor and effective rector whom he feels committed suicide when he was about to be “outed”.

No doubt the bishops bringing this motion are motivated to hold the church together and all should recognise that they are attempting to deal with the most complex and sensitive of problems. However, the best course open to them is to express their motives to Synod, then to seek permission to withdraw this motion, and to request Synod’s support for prayerful consideration over the next year as to the best manner in which to address their focus of concern. Perhaps consideration could be given to entrusting this to the working party which is suggested in their motions.

This Church of Ireland is hardly past the first furlong post in what is necessarily a long pilgrimage to build up sincere dialogue and to conduct valid examination of the views and values of the church – based on biblical, scientific and societal insights – before casting an opinion in a manner which enshrines it as church law and perforce restricts the opportunity to increase mutual understanding and respect. Such respect must also extend to the two bishops who at least have had the courage to lift their heads above the episcopal parapets on this human and spiritual challenge.