The General Synod of the Church of Ireland has re-affirmed its teachings on marriage and human sexuality, turning aside a procedural challenge brought by liberal members of Synod to silence debate. Following the lead of the House of Bishops, the Irish General Synod rejected gay marriage and gay clergy, but endorsed the creation of a “safe space” for further debate on these issues.
On the opening day of the meeting at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, the synod received for review Motion 8 proposed by the Archbishop of Dublin Dr. Michael Jackson and the Bishop of Down & Dromore Harold Miller in the name of the Church of Ireland’s Standing Committee. The three part motion entitled “Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief” asked Synod to affirm that there is “no other understanding of marriage” than that found in Canon 31.
“The Church of Ireland affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching that marriage is in its purpose a union permanent and life-long, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
The motion further asked the church to affirm that “faithfulness within marriage is the only normative context for sexual intercourse. Members of the Church of Ireland are required by the Catechism to keep their bodies in ‘temperance, soberness and chastity’. Clergy are called in the Ordinal to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Jesus Christ’.”
In the run up to the Dublin meeting, liberal advocacy groups have savaged the motion and a website, 8anoway.com, was set up to lobby for its defeat.
When the part A of Motion 8 was placed before synod on 10 May 2012, the Dean of Cork, the Very Rev. Nigel Dunne, raised a point of order.
He stated that he believed Motion 8 would introduce a change in the Church of Ireland’s teaching on the doctrine of marriage. “Canon 31 gives first place to the procreation and nurture of children,” the dean said.
However the Church of Ireland’s “Marriage Service II does not. Marriage Service II is quite clear that sex and sexual intercourse is firstly to strengthen the relationship. The procreation of children comes second.”
By endorsing Motion 8a, Dean Dunne argued, the General Synod would be voting for a “modification or alteration of doctrine,” a procedure not permitted under the rules of synod by a motion, but must be brought forward by a bill. In opposition to the Dean’s objection, other speakers noted that Motion 8a followed the precedence set in the Church of Ireland’s Rite I for marriage.
However, Lady Brenda Sheil said that the motion was “bringing forward a new thing which will need a Bill” argued the language of Motion 8a was creating new doctrine by privileging Rite I over Rite II.
Asked for his opinion, synod’s legal assessor stated that the Dean of Cork was correct in that a Bill was required that was endorsed by a two-thirds majority of synod to make a change in doctrine. However, the assessor stated he was not competent to determine whether the motion did change doctrine.
The Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, the Rt. Rev. Michael Burrows – whose tacit approval of the gay civil union of the Dean of Leithlin had brought the issue of gay marriage and gay clergy to a head last year – rose and told the synod he was “sorry to cause trouble.”
To which, the chair of the meeting, the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Alan Harper, responded “apology accepted.” Bishop Burrows then stated that in the light of the reference to the conference on sexuality in Cavan held by General Synod in March, the conventional wisdom was that Motion 8a was about homosexuality. As the Church of Ireland did not have a doctrine on homosexuality, the bishop argued, it was inappropriate to create new doctrine in this way.
Members of the Liturgical Advisory Committee which prepared Marriage Rite 2 for the 2004 Prayer Book stated there had been no intention to alter the church’s marriage doctrine by altering the order of the benefits of marriage in the ritual. Dr. Harper stated that it was his view that when the new prayer book was introduced there had been no intent to change the doctrine of marriage in the church.
However, when dealing with matters of such importance to the church the overriding concern is the avoidance of doubt. Consequently due to the issues raised by certain points in motion 8a Dr. Harper said he was going to rule that it could not be taken. He was sorry to have to take this step but it was necessary “for the avoidance of doubt” about variations in the doctrine of the church.
Dr. Jackson and Bishop Miller then withdrew motions 8b and 8c.
In its report the following day, the Belfast News Letter stated the decision was a “significant victory for liberals in the church who had been assiduously lobbying in the days leading up to the synod to have the motion defeated – and who were last night buoyant.”
However, evangelical members of synod told The Church of England Newspaper that the issue would not go away and that the bishops would “do something” to resurrect the motion. After the close of business for the first day’s session the bishops met in private with the two lay and two clergy Synod Secretaries. At the start of the second day, Dr. Harper told synod the bishops had dealt with the technical objections raised the previous day and would present an amended consolidated motion to the synod the next day.
On the final day of synod, 12 May 2012, a revised Motion 8 was introduced by Dr. Jackson and Bishop Miller. Dr. Jackson told the synod “this matter is a complex and sensitive one for many individuals and couples” and required the church to proceed in a “climate of critical trust and mutual respect”
In presenting the revised motion the bishops had the “firm and fervent desire of enabling members of our church to engage with what are some of the most complex, pressing and, to many, private aspects of contemporary life, understood from a sexual perspective. It is my hope, and that of the bishop of Down & Dromore, that we are, in fact, offering something of value to the Church of Ireland.”
Seconding the motion, Bishop Miller affirmed that “the essential contents of this motion have emerged from the corporate thinking of the bishops. They have been carefully crafted with a balance in content and wording which has been through many stages and revisions.”
The church would listen to all points of view on these issues, the bishop said, but listening did not imply that all points of view were equally valid. However, “we need to find a starting point for a way forward, to begin the journey together. I suggest this motion is our starting point, and the journey together will hopefully be both an interesting and productive one.”
Four hours of debate ensued. The Archdeacon of Kilmore refuted the notion that the Church of Ireland was divided on this issue between a conservative north and liberal south, saying the traditional view was the majority view across Ireland.
The Rev. Ali Calvin said she had received calls from people in the pews in Cork and Ossory who were dismayed because they wondered whether their leadership was teaching new things about sex and marriage — the Bishops of Cork and Cashel & Ossory are among the leaders of the liberal wing of the Irish church.
An ecumenical participant, Fr. Irenaeus of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, told synod this issue had been settled some 1700 years ago with the church’s debate about the imago dei. God’s image in us is marred and the likeness to God erased, but Orthodox spirituality was about recovering the likeness to be like God, he argued, and homosexuality was not part of this likeness.
The Bishop of Cork, the Rt. Rev. Paul Colton, called for rejection of the consolidated motion saying that sex had overshadowed the other work of the church. He was also concerned that “for the first time in our history that we are using a motion” to address a major issue. He was “not convinced that this was the right way”, and that “by affirming formularies we are in fact weakening them.”
Four amendments were put to synod, and voting by divisions was taken. All of the amendments failed and the motion was adopted by the clergy 81 – 53, laity 154 – 60, and the bishops 10 – 2.
Archdeacon Philip Patterson of Belfast told CEN the motion attempted three things:
“First to affirm the clear teaching of the Church that marriage is between one man and one woman, that it is in intent life-long and is the only appropriate context for sexual intercourse. Outside of marriage Christians are called to lead chaste lives.”
“Secondly to affirm that the Church is a place of welcome and discipleship for all who seek to follow the way of Christ, that there is real regret when the Church has sometimes failed to achieve this and that our attitudes must not be unbiblical or uncharitable.”
“Thirdly to chart a way forward to progress the discussion through a Church-wide debate, to that end the Standing Committee is tasked to bring back to next year’s Synod a proposed Select Committee with appropriate terms of reference.”
The synod had looked to their bishops for leadership, Archdeacon Patterson said, and have “found that leadership and have followed it.”
He noted that it was “astonishing that those who have so long called for a listening process, conversation and a safe place don’t see their desires fulfilled in the actions of the Synod.”