” … huge numbers of professing Christians, including members of the Church of Ireland, voted ‘Yes.’,” said Bishop Paul Colton, adding he did too.
An extract from the Rt. Rev. Paul Colton’s presidential address to the synod of the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne & Ross given on 6 June 2015
…We are meeting very much in the wake of the outcome of the recent Marriage Referendum debates, vote and outcome, I do want to share first, some personal reflections about it too. That is what they are, personal reflections, and I recognise that within the room we have more than a hundred such personal reflections, and perhaps even more, some of which will be very different from my own, and others not dissimilar to mine. Such is the nature of living in a human community with a diversity of experiences, life journeys and perspectives.
We meet two Saturdays after the declaration of the outcome of that plebiscite the day before. It will come as no surprise to you that I, personally, was delighted and relieved by the outcome. I know that there are people among my brothers and sisters in Christ in this Diocese, and throughout the Church of Ireland who will have shared these feelings, as well as many who do not. It’s important to remember that each of us is, in our own way, endeavouring to be faithful to our Lord’s call to follow him, and to discern what is the Good News for our time. We are all trying to give expression to what his love, truth and justice are to mean in our day. It is this focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ that unites us, and demands of us respectful and generous engagement each with the other.
Pause for Thought
Whichever view we took on the referendum proposition, the result gives all of us in the Church pause for thought. As I say, I know that in this room, as throughout our Church of Ireland in this Republic, there were people who were on either side of this debate. People who journey in faith, and who, each day, do their utmost to put the same Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, and the written word, at the heart of their lives, came to different conclusions and voted in different ways.
We cannot know precisely the number of Christians who voted yes or no. But given that, by their own self–affiliation and self–definition in the Census 2011, Christians make up by far the largest faith group in the State, we can surmise that they were among those who voted Yes in hugely significant numbers. It is undeniable too that some Christians were vigorous in articulating arguments on the ‘no’ side. On both sides of the argument, social media became, in some instances, a cauldron of extremes.
In spite of the advance polls, the outcome came as a surprise even to the ‘Yes’ side. Brian, one young gay campaigner I know of, writing in a recently published magazine article, wrote: ‘Up until polling day we were convinced that we would just snatch a victory by the skin of our teeth.’ The result caught many unawares. Even late on the afternoon of the poll itself I saw ‘yes’ campaigners on social media fearing that the turnout was too low to result in a ‘yes’ outcome.
The first constitutional referendum that I can recall exercising my vote in was the 8th Amendment to the Constitution – the right to life of the unborn – in October 1983. I remember well the heat of that debate, and of the four abortion–related referendums since. Those together with the two relating to divorce stand out in my memory for the vigorous level of public engagement and debate: until this year’s referendum on marriage equality.
It was an energetic public debate and, for many, it was bruising. If it was difficult for those engaged in the debate on either side of a hypothetical proposition, how much more must it have demanded emotionally from those most affected, LGBT people themselves. This is where, whatever our viewpoint, as a caring Church, we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.
For my part, I was profoundly uncomfortable as a citizen of the State, adjudicating, as I saw it, on the human and civil rights, the place in society, the equality or otherwise, of another group of people, a minority: LGBT people. I note that earlier this week, other commentators have questioned whether ‘Rule by Referendum’ is the best way to make decisions (Irish Times – Liam Weeks on 2nd June 2015). For me, however, the issue is not with referendums per se, but with what we feel the need to include in our Constitution.
I know from speaking with many lesbian and gay people that, while they had no option but to acquiesce in the declared necessity for a referendum as part of our constitutional process, many did feel, nonetheless, as if their very esse, their being, their existence, their identity, were being deliberated upon, talked about. As a result they were objectified, sometimes in a very dehumanising way. I spoke to some who, understandably, became very agitated and angry about this. For vulnerable people it was an emotionally destabilising time. That is why the readiness and courage of so many people among them to come forward and to tell their own very ordinary, and sometimes very difficult, stories was hugely important to all of us. In part this, is why too, I believe, we saw such a spontaneous outflow of relief, emotion and jubilation in those televised pictures from Dublin Castle, what one correspondent to the Irish Times referred to as ‘a secular pentecost’; not only because all eyes had been on people for the previous few months, but because, for many, the amassed emotions of accumulated years of marginalisation and stigmatisation, memories of hurt and suffering, especially prior to 1993, suffering in which the churches have been complicit – all of these was lanced, as it were, for many in that moment.
The part Christians play in these times
Christians must be to the fore in exposing homophobia and in countering it. The love, compassion and message of Jesus Christ, radical and inclusive in his time, should drive us too, in relation to all issues in our own time, to be advocates for, and agents of, justice, equality and human rights throughout our world. Aren’t these integral to the marks of mission? The marks of mission: the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, teaching, baptising and nurturing new believers, respond to human need by loving service, seeking to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation; and, to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
In the euphoria of one side – the ‘yes’ side’ of the Marriage Referendum debate, or the dismay of the ‘no’ side, it would be all too easy to take recourse to a naive analysis of what it might all mean about religious adherence and the outlook for institutional religion in Ireland. As I said, it doesn’t take much scrutiny of our Census figures on religion to surmise, however, that undoubtedly huge numbers of professing Christians, including members of the Church of Ireland, voted ‘Yes.’ Christians were undeniably key to the ‘No’ vote also.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the same voting pattern would automatically be replicated in a different referendum on other hotly debated issues in our society. As we move forward in the churches we can be assured that there are and will continue to be issues on which, in faith, we will be united or divided: abortion, gender issues, other aspects of sexuality, economic policy, political engagement, conflict and military engagement, peace–keeping, the plight of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East; environmental issues, climate change, the type of investments we as a church make; the things that other people raise here at Diocesan Synod and at General Synod.
We have much to learn from listening to one another, learning from one another, and embracing the breadth of experience that lies within and is innate to our Anglican approach. For example, listening to Stephen Trew from the Diocese of Dromore at General Synod recently, I have begun to dialogue with him on social media, and I am endeavouring to educate myself more about the arguments about divestment of churches from fossil fuels, including the Operation Noah report on climate change called Bright Now: towards fossil free churches, as well as the Anglican Communion Environmental Network report, The World is our Host: A call to urgent action for climate justice to which Stephen pointed us.
The Church of Ireland Now
Now that the referendum has been passed, we all have to get on with it. What will ‘getting on with it’ mean, in a Church where there were ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters? Where are we now? Where is the Church left in the wake of this referendum? Archbishop Diarmuid Martin called it a ‘reality check.’ I agree with him. How we respond to that ‘reality check’ is key; we can be open to learning from these times, or we can dig in.
We are a Church in which people throughout this island do have a polarisation of views on this issue, and a wide range of opinions on it, and others like it. The editorial in last week’s Church of Ireland Gazette (29th May) summed up the situation well:
Discussion of same–sex marriage is undoubtedly set to continue both within the Church as well as in society at large in Northern Ireland. The Church must relate to the cultures in which it exists, with its own beliefs at times at variance with secular views. The Archbishops and Bishops, despite rather stark terminology in part, have nonetheless thus rightly stressed in a statement the need for “a spirit of public generosity” on both sides, as debate continues. … For the Churches, to live in Ireland as a distinctly minority voice is now a clear reality, and it is a humbling experience.
It is humbling. We do have to be open, practical and generous about the range and diversity of beliefs and opinions within our own Church of Ireland. Even though we are a small church, a minority grouping on a small island, we are a many–faceted community. Our small numbers accentuate our consciousness of our diversity and our differences.
Writing about the Marriage referendum, the editorial Church of Ireland Gazette published on the very day of the Referendum itself, 22nd May said :
A “Yes” vote would cause something of a dilemma (perhaps to put it mildly) for the Churches. … As far as the Church of Ireland is concerned, a final question might be put: do the various recent letters to the Gazette and other publications show a major rift within the Church of Ireland that mainly runs along the border, albeit with notable exceptions? Certainly, there does seem to be a general difference of approach, North and South. That cannot really be denied and, indeed, to deny it could be a huge mistake. Realities always need to be faced. It is only then that the best courses of action to secure a good future can be properly considered.
The Gazette says ‘To deny it could be a huge mistake’; however, to reduce it exclusively to a north–south dynamic is to risk losing sight of how complex and multi–faceted our diversity actually is. The diversity can be theological, political, cultural, social, economic, regional, for example, and that diversity is worked out within every diocese, between dioceses, between age groups, between urban and rural areas, and much more besides.
The Gazette has inaugurated discussion on this important issue, but it is important to acknowledge that there are many dimensions to our differences of outlook throughout the Church of Ireland: sociological, political, economic, historical, demographic, as well as theological reflection and spirituality. I am not an expert in all of these fields, but it does strike me that the insights of other disciplines – an interdisciplinary approach – to help us to understand ourselves, would be immensely important. What I do observe is that a key element in the divergence of outlook and belief, not only in the Church of Ireland, but throughout the Anglican world, and indeed, Christianity, has its roots substantially, in how we read, engage with and interpret Scripture. This is something I spoke at length about as being the nub of the issue in my address to you at this Synod, nine years ago in 2006; but here we are as a Church of Ireland still in the same place in 2015.
An opportunity to model communion
How are we to sustain and nourish our communion with each other while embracing such a spectrum of approaches to God’s Word? The capacity to hold together broad divergence has always been what sustained the appeal of Anglicanism for me: how two people, with Jesus the living Word of God at the centre of their lives, can be in full communion with each other even though, when gathered around the written Word, seen through the lens of tradition and reason, they see things differently, and reach very different conclusions.
Could it be that we in the Church of Ireland might model something here in relation to holding together the breadth of Anglican diversity, something we set out deliberately to value to and preserve, but which some have given up on in other parts of the world by setting up alternative groups of fellowship under a different Anglican umbrella? I think we, as the venerable and ancient Church that we are, catholic and reformed, should work hard to make that possible, and, in so doing, offer it as a pattern to the Anglican world. A vision, an aspiration such as this will be, however, nothing more than a fond hope and a meaningless platitude unless we do indeed actively engage with our differences. Again, as the Gazette said, to deny ‘could be a huge mistake.’ It would be.
Meanwhile, our focus on ministry and mission continues. Included in our pastoral ministry are the needs of all people, including LGBT members of our parishes. These are not remote and hypothetical situations. They are real people turning to Christ and his Church for ministry today, this week and next week, already in our Diocese. Only two days ago, we gathered in this very parish with a friend, a man to bury his male partner of 35 years. Rightly they received the pastoral ministry and care of this Church, in the name of Christ, in illness and in death. But what about when LGBT are alive? Our responsibility in ministry extends primarily to the living; so we must care for and include LGBT people, couples and families as we care for others.
Soon, civil marriages of gay couples will start to take place, and, while it is clear that clergy are not permitted to conduct those marriages in Church, clergy and laypeople of the Church will inevitably soon be guests on such occasions, at the civil marriages of friends or of members of their own families, and, no doubt will be asked to say grace or prayers in such family contexts. Our church cannot shy away from these issues, and how is our rich diversity of believing and belonging to the Church of Ireland to be accommodated?
Article in The Tablet
I had completed this address to you when my attention was drawn to an article in today’s edition of The Tablet – an international Catholic news weekly. It’s by Professor Werner Jeanrond who, in my time, was a lecturer at TCD and at the Church of Ireland Theological College. He is now Master of St Benet’s Hall in Oxford. He was referring to a gathering of theologians and bishops in Rome last week. What he says, is worth quoting, if you will bear with me, as he says these things better than I have and his words illustrate that we are not alone as a church grappling with these things:
In the current climate of polarisation in both the Church and society, any attempt to differentiate approaches to the pressing questions of our time risks being denounced by one side or another. Some argue that either the doctrinal tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is preserved in toto without change and interpretation, or the Church is on course to a total accommodation to postmodern culture.
Such presumed alternatives are neither Christian nor helpful. What is needed, instead, is an in–depth conversation on the approaches and encouragement that the Christian tradition provides for meeting the diverse challenges of today. …
The Bible and the texts of the tradition are read in the different contexts of our world. God communicates in and through language and so there cannot be a language–free approach to God’s self–communication in history. Divine revelation has chosen human language to proclaim the good news of God’s creative and redemptive project. Therefore we must reflect on our common hermeneutical predicament.
Hermeneutics is the art of understanding. It comprises a genuine love of God and of God’s incarnate Word in history and a continuing search for the meaning and significance of our faith in our respective historical, cultural and communicative circumstances. Interpretation never stops.
Moreover, we Christians need each other when reflecting on the tradition and practice of our faith. …
The other major challenge facing the Church is its attitude to same–sex relationships. Its failure to accompany faithful same–sex couples and identify a proper framework for their life before God is haunting the Church and diminishes its credibility as an institution charged with proclaiming God’s love and with promoting human love. Out of context references to selected biblical phrases for the purpose of condemning same–sex love can never deflect from God’s invitation to all men and women to form loving relationships.