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Oh Ireland,"Division is Inevitable" - by Alan McCann

IRELAND: Oh Ireland, "Division is Inevitable"

By Alan McCann
Exclusive to VirtueOnline

The Church of Ireland prides itself on being an 'all Ireland' body which in its naiveté it believes also spans the divide politically between the predominantly Unionist North and Nationalist South. Within the Church of Ireland it is safe to say that the further North you travel the more conservative, low church and evangelical the grassroots, and to a large extent clergy, you will encounter.

Nothing shows this divide as clearly as the issue of human sexuality.

Down and Dromore, Cloougher, and Kilmore, Ardagh and Elphin dioceses all passed resolutions supporting Lambeth 1.10, Added to this the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt. Rev. Ken Good (who was not at Lambeth 1998) stated that he would have voted in support of Lambeth 1.10. Connor Diocese had a hung vote on the issue in June 2004, the vote being lost because many evangelicals left early whilst the liberals stayed to vote on the issue.

However, it was interesting that the liberal revisionists were concerned enough about the vote that they attempted to stop the motion being debated on procedural grounds on three occasions during the synod. So it is apparent that there are clear lines of division within the Church of Ireland on the issue of human sexuality. In September 2003 the house of Bishops issued a Pastoral Letter on Human Sexuality. The letter outlined four viewpoints held within the House of Bishops. Each viewpoint was said to be consonant with scripture, whereas the truth is only viewpoint 1 was in fact faithful to the biblical teaching.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy (www.efic.org.uk) described the letter as 'Smoke and Mirrors.' Some senior evangelical clergy had a series of meetings with some of the Bishops to discuss the letter and to air their opposition to the other 3 viewpoints. It is fair to say that nothing of any consequence emerged from the meeting and that frustration has grown at the lack of clear biblical leadership by the evangelical bishops on this issue. Towards the end of 2005 there appeared a series of articles in both the church press and the secular media from leading liberal establishment figures in the south of Ireland advocating an acceptance of same-sex relationships. This coincided with the advent of the 'civil-partnership' law in the UK, which came into force in the North of Ireland in December 2005.

This was further supported by a series of sermons by leading liberal revisionist advocates supporting the acceptance of same-sex relationships. Dean Michael Burrows (Cork), Dean Robert MacCarthy (St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin) and Dean White all advocated the acceptance of same-sex relationships. This concerted, and to many, a co-coordinated assault on biblical teaching went unanswered by the House of Bishops.

It was enough to prompt Reform Ireland (www.reform-ireland.org) to issue a public call for biblical leadership from within the Church of Ireland and the House of Bishops in particular. To date no bishop has spoken out to challenge such viewpoints or to reprimand those who advocate such change.

2006 looks like it could be a year of turmoil for the Church of Ireland. Towards the end of 2005 Dean Houston McKelvey (St Anne's, Belfast) invited the Dalai Lama to address a multi-faith service within Belfast Cathedral. This led some prominent members of the chapter to publicly distance themselves and to rebuke the dean for his actions. This is not the first time that Dean McKelvey has courted controversy. When the primates of the Anglican Communion came to Dromantine he invited Bishop Frank Griswold(Primate of ECUSA) to preach at the morning Holy Communion, again leading to a furor at his actions.

Then Bishop Peter Barret (Cashel and Ossory) resigned on the 25th January 2006. Only later did it transpire that the reason for his resignation was, according to the secular press, that he had begun a relationship with a married Roman Catholic woman whom he had known for many years. He left his wife, of 25 years, and three children and also apparently left Ireland for England. The lack of information concerning the reasons for his resignation led Noel Coghlan, a prominent layman in the southern part of the church, to accuse the hierarchy of an 'information clampdown' and of 'hounding Bishop Barrett out of the country.'

To date such claims are unsubstantiated and no comment has come from Archbishop John Neill (Dublin), who accepted Bishop Barrett's resignation. The electoral college for the appointment of the new bishop of Cashel and Ossory is set for March 31st. The person appointed, and there has been media speculation that it could be a women, will no doubt come from the ranks of the liberal establishment. Leading liberals such as Dean Michael Burrows are being suggested. Such an appointment, or someone of similar liberal revisionist views, would only reinforce the impression that there is such an agenda being actively pushed in the Church of Ireland.

Then just when it appeared that things were settling down to their usual sleepy ways in the Church of Ireland, Limerick Diocese (Bishop Michael Mayes) announced that it was renewing its link with the Diocese of New Hampshire. Ironically as the Limerick Diocesan Magazine was announcing this renewal Bishop Gene Robinson (New Hampshire) was booking himself into a rehabilitation clinic for alcohol related problems.

Rev Bob Hanna, the author of the piece announcing the renewed link, praised Bishop Gene as "a wonderfully Charismatic leader, a renowned pastor of clergy and people and a truly evangelical High churchman, who represents the very best of our great Anglican tradition. With his courage, pragmatism, courtesy and zeal for the Church's health in modern times we have much to learn from his example."

Once again controversy has been ignited by this announcement. EFIC had in the past challenged Bishop Mayes (Limerick) for his attendance (but non-participation) at the consecration of Gene Robinson, and his diocesan council to break the link with New Hampshire. EFIC had engaged in debate in the Limerick Leader (the local press) on the link and the issue of same-sex relationships. This tactic was reveled the emergence of a much more confident and politically savvy evangelical constituency within the Church of Ireland. it was no coincidence that this approach coincided with the election of a new committee (of younger and older evangelicals) to oversee EFIC.

Upon the announcement that the link was to be renewed Reform Ireland published a hard hitting critique on the issue and spoke of division and broken fellowship being the inevitable outcome.

So what about Archbishop Eames in all of this. He is feted within the Anglican Communion as the 'great fixer.' His astute handling of issues such as women's ordination and the Windsor Report has endeared him to many within the wider Anglican family. Interestingly he was once described as the 'divine optimist.' There is no doubt that he is a very shrewd and wise political operator. His handling of the peace process in Northern Ireland clearly reveals a sharp mind, a political brain and an ability to handle the media which many politicians covet. In a recent biography Alf McCreery quotes several people who point out that he says a lot to the media but upon examination you realize he has in fact said very little.

He is the epitome of T S Elliot's 'straw men', all image and no substance when dealing with the media. That is why he invariably becomes the spokesman at meetings of the Anglican primates. He bats easily and comfortably at the media crease. No matter what they bowl at him he plays it with a straight bat and no one can recall an occasion when he has made a faux pas in front of the camera. But what about within the Church of Ireland. It is generally rumored that 2006 could see him announce his retirement.

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland is to be held in Armagh this year and many see this as an opportunity to announce his retirement. The more cynical believe he will announce it before the synod so that it is not blighted by the human sexuality issue. If he does announce his retirement there is no doubt that the next Archbishop of Armagh will not have the same standing as Lord Eames.

It is also generally accepted that it is Lord Eames who holds the House of Bishops together and pushes the 'collegiality' mentality that seems to dominate it at present. With his departure many believe such 'collegiality' will fail and the real divisions will appear, especially as it will be one of the remaining house who will be elected to the See of Armagh.

The truth is that the Church of Ireland has a veneer of unity but it is exactly that - a veneer. The church is riven with division. There is an emerging generation of evangelical clergy who are prepared to break fellowship with their diocesan bishop over the issue of human sexuality. Several have already written to their Bishop, with the support of their Select Vestry, to express just such sentiments.

Many older evangelicals have come to the conclusion that division is inevitable and when they look at diocesan and central church structures they see nothing which promotes the gospel but much which absorbs resources and energy away from parishes and the real work of the church.

These older evangelicals, whilst not always agreeing with the more strident militancy of the younger generation, are encouraging the younger men to stand firm and fight for the heart of the church of Ireland to remain true to the gospel. The younger generation are far more media savvy than their elders and they are also far more politically astute, being willing to take the imitative and are not prepared to allow the liberals to set the agenda. In the year ahead we will invariably see the battle lines being drawn more clearly .

Lord Eames may well be relieved that he no longer has the burden of 'uniting' a rapidly dividing Church. Ironically he has launched a new project called 'The Hard Gospel'. This imitative may well prove to be the catalyst for revealing the deep divisions within the Church of Ireland, North and South. Only the naive, or the blind, do not believe that division is inevitable within the Church of Ireland. There are several parishes, and clergy, who will have no qualms in telling their bishop he is not welcome and seeking alternative Episcopal oversight.

There are many who are quietly waiting to see if any of the 'evangelical bishops' will give a lead to the orthodox within the Church of Ireland. Like all things in Ireland what you see on the surface is never the reality. The Church of Ireland appears united but the reality is that it is divided and the cracks are beginning to appear. 2006 will see those cracks widen and some very important battles for the gospel lie ahead. It is clear that EFIC and Reform Ireland appear to be leading the evangelical constituency on a biblical course which will lead to collision with many diocesan bishops. All we can do is pray that they remain faithful to the historic faith and the biblical teaching of the Church of Ireland and that they have the courage to engage in this battle in the year ahead.

For more on the issues on state of the Province of Ireland go to www.irishangle.net where information on the issues raised in this article can be found.

--The Rev. Alan McCann is Rector of Holy Trinity Woodburn, Diocese of Connor. He is a founding member of Reform Ireland. Holy Trinity is the youngest parish in the Church of Ireland, being a church plant from St Nicholas' Carrickfergus. Membership is now 300. McCann received his B.A.(Hons) in Business Studies at the University Ulster, Jordanstown, before doing his B.Th. at Trinity College Dublin. He completed his M.Phil at The Queens University, Belfast, and wrote his thesis on the 'The Charismatic Movement in the Church of Ireland, a Historical and Theological Introduction.'

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