On Thursday the General Synod was due to debate three motions presented by the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, liberal, and the bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Miller, conservative evangelical in an attempt to demonstrate a unity of purpose.
Immediately after the first motion re-affirming the church’s teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman was read out, the Rev Nigel Dunne from Cork raised a point of order, pointing out that the church’s constitution stated that no alteration could be made to the church’s doctrine “unless by a bill duly passed”. If the motion had been a bill it would have allowed for more scrutiny of the issue.
Several other speakers raised points of order, most of them arguing against the motion being discussed. Between several of the interventions, Archbishop Harper paused to think and to consult the synod’s legal adviser. Arguments about whether the motion could be debated lasted almost half-an-hour before Archbishop Harper ruled: “I have a concern that in an issue of this seriousness and significance the overriding obligation is the avoidance of doubt. And I am therefore minded to say that I feel that there are some doubts in my mind as to whether or not…[the motion may be] a variation of the doctrine of the Church of Ireland in this case…and therefore I rule that we cannot take the item.”
Archbishop Harper apologised to members of the synod that the issue was not going to be debated, something which he said he regretted very much and which was “a great pity”.
There then ensued some confusion as the archbishop said that he had been told by Archbishop Jackson and Bishop Miller, who were seated behind him, that they wished to withdraw their motions 8b – which effectively called for charitable actions towards gay people – and 8c – which asked for the synod’s standing committee to discuss the issue and bring a report next year. When Archbishop Harper announced that, there was loud applause.
It was then suggested by a synod member that if the decision hung on a single word – “therefore” – it should be possible for the bishops to meet and return with a suitable motion for debate today. That suggestion was met with loud applause but Archbishop Harper indicated his opposition, stating that he did not believe it was “helpful to the synod for us to make these kinds of adjustments on the move, so to speak
Reports say Bishop Burrows was openly jeered by large sections of the synod in Dublin’s Christchurch Cathedral but applauded loudly by others in a public sign of the considerable strain within the church. About half those inside Christ Church Cathedral on Thursday left the cathedral immediately after Archbishop Harper ruled that the debate on homosexuality would not happen, visual confirmation of how important the church’s members feel that debate is. Many were baffled as to how in a fairly dramatic half hour the motion they were waiting for was not even allowed to be discussed.
A Church spokesman said the resolution had been withdrawn because “There was a possibility that the resolution might have been undoctrinal in its content, and therefore it was withdrawn before a debate.” The resolutions were opposed by Changing Attitude Ireland which said that it had not been consulted. They said they would be stigmatised by the resolution which claimed that sexual relationships outside traditional marriage were not “normative”. Gerry Lynch of Changing Attitude Ireland said then: “It seems that the battle is over for now, but it will come back.”
But between Thursday night and Friday morning, the decision to stop the debate taking place was effectively overturned following behind the scenes negotiations. Conservative members of the church succeeded in reworking the three motions and re-introducing them for discussion this morning under Standing Order 31 (d) in what could be a bitter debate
Among evangelical members of the church there is a feeling that the church is stifling a debate which they believe is crucial. Liberal members also want the debate to be had but did not want it on the terms proposed on Thursday.