13 May 2008

The Church of Ireland remains an Episcopal church

Archdeacon Philip Paterson … move on bishops and doctrine defeated

Patrick Comerford

The first heady debate at General Synod came this afternoon with an attempt to erode some of the Episcopal nature, principles and understanding of the Church of Ireland.

The Rev Adrian Wilkinson (Douglas, Cork) and Lady Sheil had introduced a bill to revise and amend and replace Chapter VII of the Constitution of the Church of Ireland. This bill seeks to shake up the whole procedure for clergy discipline in the Church of Ireland.

Archdeacon Philip Paterson (Down) moved an amendment to remove those provisions in Section 39 that provide for the House of Bishops to make a statement on “the current and orthodox position of the Church of Ireland on … doctrine and ritual.” He wondered what would happen when bishops got it wrong.

Archdeacon George Davison (Kilmore) asked what is meant by the collective understanding of the bishops. The house of bishops reflects the diverse nature of the church, and has a wide variety of theological and liturgical views and practices, he said.

Mrs Justice Catherine McGuinness, a former member of the Supreme Court, questioned the wisdom of leaving it to lawyers to decide the doctrine of the Church.

Canon Jonathan Barry (Down) said a previous generation of bishops had got it terribly wrong in the past when it came to divorce and remarriage. “This is serious,” he said. “This is desperately serious.”

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Neill, said the House of Bishops had never claimed infallibility and that while he opposed the bishops on divorce and remarriage in the 1980s, the House of Bishops and General Synod were of one mind. He said the provisions in Section 39 protected members of the Church against extreme views held by one bishop.

Replying to the debate, Archdeacon Patterson said he was worried about making the bishops a tribunal within a tribunal.

The amendment was roundly defeated, and the bill has moved on to the next stage. In an Episcopal church we should look to lawyers for law and to the bishops for doctrine.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. He is a representative of the Diocese of Dublin at the General Synod

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