14 May 2011

A decisive day for the House of Bishops at the General Synod in Armagh

The Central Tower of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland enters its third day today [Saturday] in Armagh. As I blogged yesterday morning, I wondered what our ecumenical guests and the visitor from other churches made of our laborious and tedious way of dealing with synodical leadership.

Then, yesterday three of those guests had an opportunity to speak for themselves. Father Sean Dooley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Armagh brought greetings from Mellifont in south Co Louth, and from Bishop Gerry Clifford. He spoke of working and praying with Dean Patrick Rooke, Canon John McKegney, the Red Grace Clunie and others throughout the Diocese of Armagh, standing together publicly in troubled times.

Father George Zavershinsky brought greetings on behalf of the Archbishop of Sourozh and the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland, which has parishes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. His church is using Church of Ireland churches in Galway, Harold’s Cross in Dublin, and Saint George’s in Belfast.

The former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Very Revd Dr Stafford Carson, said the General Assembly, like the General Synod, could be filled with moments of “fizz and passion” and moments that are gruelling and tedious. He spoke of a changing ecclesiastical landscape in Ireland, and said it called on us to express “passion for Christ and compassion for people.”

Patrick Comerford with Geoffrey Perrin of the Representative Church Body at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in Armagh (Photograph: David Wynne, 2011)

But I wondered if they realised the ground-breaking and unprecedented moment they witnessed as the House of Bishops for the first time voted publicly at a sitting of the General Synod. Nine bishops stood on the platform to vote publicly in favour of the Church of Ireland subscribing to the Anglican Covenant. The Bishop of Cork – a noted canon lawyer – was alone when he stood to vote against the motion.

Moments earlier, the General Synod voted 235-52 – an overwhelming majority – for the motion. The motion said: “Seeing that the Anglican Covenant is consonant with the doctrine and formularies of the Church of Ireland, the General Synod hereby subscribes the Covenant.”

As I sat at the press table, some people there observed that the public nature of bishop’s vote was unprecedented, and they asked whether it opened the possibility of public and open voting by the House of Bishops in future synods. Others noted the Bishop of Cork’s courageous if lonely stand.

Proposing the motion, Bishop Michael Burrows (Cashel and Ossory) said the Anglican Covenant was the one available remedy at the moment. It would not become part of the formularies of the Church of Ireland, nor would it change the Church of Ireland’s self-understanding. Subscribing to the covenant would reserve the right to walk away or to seek other possibilities.

The motion did not mean adopting the Anglican Covenant, he said. There is no walking away from adoption, while subscribing means honourably aligning with the Anglican Covenant, living up to what it asks of us. “We are not giving away our sovereignty,” he stressed.

Bishop Harold Miller (Down and Dromore) answered arguments that the covenant was too restrictive or punitive. Seconding the motion, he said the Preamble and Declaration remained foundational for the Church of Ireland.

Revd Canon Michael Kennedy (Armagh) said this was one of the most serious theological documents the General Synod had been asked to vote on. “The sting in the tail” was the way the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion could make recommendations that amounted to excommunication, and he warned of the danger of deepening divisions.

Mr Eimhin Walsh (Dublin) said the proposed grievance procedure was based on the language of threat rather than love, offering legalistic solutions and limiting potential prophetic actions, and creating a two-tier communion, rather than honouring and respecting differences.

Revd Brian O’Rourke (Cork) described the Anglican Covenant as an attack on traditional Anglican pluralism, redefining what it means to be an Anglican, and threatening Anglican diversity. He suggested it is a covenant of exclusion.

Revd Patricia Hanna (Limerick and Killaloe) recalled how she was impressed by a recent lecture by Canon Paul Avis in Trinity College Dublin, and his emphasis on koinonia. She gave images of the Covenant as a way forward and a process of enabling communication without opposing sides being expected to become the same.

Mr Dermot O’Callaghan said the covenant arose from a clash of world views. He claimed the majority of the Anglican world had lost confidence in the covenant process. He feared the covenant may be a valiant failure and was voting against it.

Canon Paul Willoughby (Cork) called for prayer before we do anything that is radical. He found no love and no healing in the covenant. “We want to walk together as God’s people.” He pleaded for a “loving rejection.”

Canon Norman Jardine (Down and Dromore) described the covenant as an attempt to celebrate the good things of being a world-wide church, open to all sorts of people and places, being part of their suffering and sharing, so that we could be a blessing not just to ourselves but to the world.

Miss Cate Turner (Connor), a member of the Anglican Consultative Council for the past ten years, described the difficult divisions she had experienced in the Anglican Communion. She said that they way the Church of Ireland handles division is an important voice to bring to the Anglican Communion,

The Dean of Cork, Very Revd Nigel Dunne, said the first three sections of the covenant are among the best statements of Anglican doctrine. He had problems with section 4, which lead us to being a confessional church rather than a communion, and which had serious implications. The Church in Wales had said Section 4 introduced the formal means for dividing the Anglican Communion rather than nurturing the unity of the church. He warned of the danger of Anglicanism imploding on itself, and cautioned that the narrowing of boundaries leads to destruction.

Earlier, Revd Andrew Foster (Armagh) said the Anglican Covenant “has a strong Church of Ireland DNA, having been born out of the Windsor Report chaired by Lord Eames and the close involvement of Archbishop John Neill “in its drafting and inception” – a point repeated by Bishop Burrows when he responded to the debate. If the Church of Ireland rejected the covenant, the Anglican Communion would face failure, he said.

Responding to Canon Willoughby’s suggestion, Archbishop Harper asked for a time of quiet prayer.

Friday’s debate has delayed our debates on the Covenant with the Methodist Church and ecumenical and Inter-Faith dialogue. I expect to have an opportunity to speak on the Inter-Faith work of the Church of Ireland during the closing day of the General Synod today [Saturday].

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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