Firstly, Changing Attitude Ireland would like to extend its hearty congratulations to Dean Tom Gordon and his partner on their civil partnership, and wish them God’s continued blessing on their life together as it enters a new phase.
We would also like to commend them on their courage. It is never easy to be a path-breaker, and some of the reaction to the news of their partnership was singularly lacking in charity; it must have been quite bruising to be on the receiving end of it. We assure them of our gratitude and our prayers.
In the Church of Ireland, we have always lived with profound differences in our understanding of issues of significant theological weight, such as the nature of God’s revelation in Holy Scripture and our understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We have lived with significant differences in our approach to personal sexual morality, for example in our approach to divorce and remarriage. Despite these differences, relations within our Church have always been characterised by tolerance, charity and good humour.
The decision of a priest in the Church to enter into a civil partnership is certainly of no more theological significance, and arguably of considerably less, than other issues where the Church of Ireland has accommodated diversity with mutual generosity and grace.
We are therefore saddened and perplexed by the joint statements released by four Conservative Evangelical and Charismatic groups following the announcement of Dean Gordon’s civil partnership. These have only served to raise the temperature within the Church of Ireland, and have not contributed to reasoned discussion; and their content raises a number of other concerns.
Dean Gordon’s partnership of 20 years has been widely known in the Church of Ireland for almost that entire period. These statements have not been a consequence of a Church of Ireland clergyman living in a same-sex partnership per se, but of a Church of Ireland clergyman choosing to formalise that partnership in law.
The attitude of the four Conservative Evangelical and Charismatic groups seems, therefore, to be that it is alright to be in a same-sex relationship as long as one is not public about it. Previous generations of gay people in Ireland were forced to hide their love for fear of prison. When Irish society has become overwhelmingly tolerant of homosexuality, it is distressing that these groups seem primarily interested in perpetuating a culture of secrecy in the Church.
The intrusive, public, questioning of Dean Gordon’s private life in the two statements displayed incredible arrogance and poor taste. More seriously than that, it seems to violate the Scriptural command to turn judgement first on ourselves before we judge our neighbour. It also displayed un-Christlike double standards – it is inconceivable that the private life of any other clergyperson in the Church of Ireland would be subject to such impertinent prurience.
But this is only the tip of an iceberg of an unhealthy obsession with the subject of homosexuality from Conservative Evangelical groups in the Church of Ireland. Seven of the eight statements published on the homepage of the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, for example, concern the issue of homosexuality. As Christians, we worry that this elevates dogmatic legalism above spreading the good news of salvation in Christ. Those looking in from outside the Church are more likely to see a weird fixation on what gay men and women get up to in the privacy of their own homes.
The people of this island, especially our young people, are fearful of the future, cynical about church and state leaders who promised much but betrayed their promises, and unwilling to give credibility to anyone who has not earned it. Our people have seen church leaders who imposed their view of sexual morality on others and bullied and abused those who disagreed revealed to be corrupt and corrupting. Is an obsession with homosexuality really likely to bring them to Christ?
There are also issues of personal sexual morality where those on all wings of the Church could work together. The advertising industry sexualises our children at a frighteningly young age. In this internet age, the temptation to look at pornography is only a mouse-click away, and yet we do nothing to build up our people to resist. Indeed, these are issues where we could work with groups who are often deeply cynical about the Church, such as secular feminists, and break down misconceptions that frustrate mission. With so many areas where we could work together, it is all the more sad that some seem intent on driving people apart.
Changing Attitude Ireland is a Church of Ireland group with ecumenical friends, campaigning for the full acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex people in the Church.