Friday, 7 May 2010

The thin edge of the wedge?

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin ... the venue of this year’s General Synod of the Church of Ireland (Photograph; Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

During the debate on the report of the Standing Committee this afternoon, Dean Stephen Lowry of Dromore and Mr Sam Harper successfully amended the Statements of Charitable Purpose and Public Benefit from stating that “the Church of Ireland is open to all” to say that the Church of Ireland “seeks to minister to all.”

I tried to challenge this amendment, asking who Dean Lowry might want to say the church was not open to. I feared this was the thin edge of the wedge, and wondered whether we could find rectors saying the church was not open to some people because of their sexuality, their ethnicity, their diet, their choice of clothing so on, and I pointed out that the Gospel charged us to bring the good news to all and not just those we liked or we thought were like us. I was supported by Bishop Paul Colton and Canon Stephen Neill, but the amendment was carried in a 122-90 vote.

We’ll have to wait to see whether this is, in fact, the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to inclusivity and exclusivity.

Only a half hour earlier or so, Dean Lowry’s bishop, Bishop Harold Miller, had spoken clearly on inclusivity and exclusivity when he said the Hard Gospel Report had not yet been implemented “nearly enough” in the areas of peacemaking and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The dissident threat existed at a very severe level indeed, he warned. He said the churches have been lulled sense of security, but Northern Ireland was more divided than ever as a society.

Referring to a recent pre-election meeting, he said: “If you can sing God Save the Queen in Croke Park, you can welcome a Sinn Fein candidate in a Protestant Church hall in East Belfast.”

During the debate, the legislation on civil partnerships was welcomed by Bishop Michael Burrows, who pointed out that civil partnerships are not the same as gay marriage. He believed the legislators had responded sensitively to a real need in society with the Civil Partnership Bill 2009.

The report of the Standing Committee mentioned how officials of the Department of Justice had told a delegation from the Church of Ireland that there would no conscience clause in the legislation “as it could open the floodgate for hate and intolerance.”

Speaking during the debate on the Standing Committee report on Friday afternoon, Bishop Burrows hoped that the Church would respond appropriately and pastorally to those who availed of good legislation. But Mr Andrew Brannigan defended a conscience clause for civil registrars, saying they could face a custodial sentence if they refused to take part in civil partnerships.

During the debate, the synod heard a recommendation on an appropriate Church of Ireland response to the Anglican Covenant would be brought to next year’s General Synod by the Commission for Christian Unity and dialogue. Archdeacon Philip Patterson, who proposed the report, blamed the current crisis in the Anglican Communion on the election of Bishop Gene Robinson and the actions of the church in the US and Canada “providing for the blessing of gay partnerships.”

He said the Anglican Covenant could be seen as “a redundant statement of no consequence to us at all, or … as the only way of holding the Anglican Communion together.” It was “unlikely that the Anglican Covenant will have the status of a formulary of this Church,” and also recognised that there are fears of a two-tier Anglican Communion emerging.” But he accepted the response of the Church of Ireland would be important.

Turning to the report on the Interchangeability of Ministry, he said it shows “a way forward that has integrity on all sides to enable us to recognise de jure what we all know to be de facto.” When Philip said “I like bishops … there is always a great affection for sparring partners,” Archbishop John Neill of Dublin, who was in the chair, interjected: “Thank you indeed, archdeacon.”

There must have been thanks too to the Revd Ian Poulton, who spoke of his visit earlier that week to Rwanda and how a grant of €9,832 had been used there. He presented jars of pineapple jam from Rwanda to the Archbishop of Armagh and the Bishop of Cashel as expressions of gratitude to the Bishops’ Appeal from parishes in Rwanda. “Bishops’ Appeal is reaching real people,” he said.

Canon John McKegney thanked the internet committee for the weekly readings and made “a real plea” for a better website for the Church of Ireland. Bishop Trevor Williams of Limerick and Killaloe accepted that the Church was not communicating “our story” properly at the moment. Other speakers said the website was difficult to navigate, lacked information on local churches, their locations and services, the potential of Facebook and blogs to communicate beyond the Church of Ireland and the need to listen as part of communicating.

Perhaps a few workshops on blogging and using Facebook might be worth suggesting.

Reserved for Canon Comerford ... but there was no parking at the cathedral during General Synod (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

There was loud applause for Billy Kingston when he praised the primate for his criticism of the banks in his presidential address yesterday. We had two full dollops of fiscal reality during the day when we were presented with, the report of the Representative Church Body this morning and the report of the Clergy Pensions Board this afternoon. Proper house-keeping, indeed! But if it was difficult for ordinary members to taken in, I wondered how more difficult it was for our ecumenical guests to sit through this part of the agenda politely and with an appearance of interest.

Each day, I’ve been seated with and having lunch and dinner with our ecumenical guests. These guests include guests: one from the Church in Wales, the Dean of Bangor, the Very Revd Alun Hawkins, whose diocese, the oldest territorial diocese in Wales, is twinned with the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough; three from the Roman Catholic Church; two each from the Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church; one from the Moravian Church; and Father Godfrey O’Donnell of the Romanian Orthodox Church, representing the Irish Council of Churches.

Father Kieran McDermott, Parish priest of Dundrum, Dublin, spoke openly and honestly about the present crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, but also spoke warmly of the support received from the Church of Ireland at one-to-one, pastor-to-pastor and at parochial and diocesan level, as well as the support received from the bishops of the Church of Ireland.

As he brought greetings from the Church in Wales, “our sister Church just across the sea,” Dean Hawkins referred to last night’s synod service took place in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and referred to Saint Patrick as “another Welsh boy made good.”

Speaking to the report of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue, the Bishop Richard Clarke of Meath and Kildare said the three underlining principles in the Mission Statement of the Church of Ireland, Growth, Unity and Service, said these are the central task of the church that cannot be talked about separately or on their own. They belong together, and are not a luxury or a hobby.

Bishop Clarke also introduced the report Covenant Council and the resolution encouraging celebration of the covenant near 26 September each year, appealed for co-operation between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church to work at local level and said many of the issues were cultural ones rather than doctrinal differences.

The Revd Dr Maurice Elliott spoke of increasing signs of the covenant beginning to take root at all levels, including co-operation and coloration in the chaplaincy at Queen’s University Belfast and between the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in Dublin and Edgehill Theological College in Belfast.

The cathedral crypt is being used for exhibitions each day. These include books stalls and exhibits by many of the mission agencies associated with the Church of Ireland, included the three mentioned by Archbishop Harper in his presidential address yesterday – USPG Ireland (Anglicans in World Mission), CMS Ireland and the Church Army.

Jan de Bruijn and Linda Chambers at the USPG Ireland stall in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral