Church of Ireland launches “The Guide” to conversations on human sexuality

The following comments were made by the Archbishop of Armagh and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief, at the launch of the Select Committee’s Guide to the Conversation in Dublin today.

The following comments were made by the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh, and the Very Revd John Mann, Chairman of the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief, at the launch of the Select Committee’s Guide to the Conversation in Dublin today.

Remarks by the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, Archbishop of Armagh

As most of you will know, I have spent much of the past week in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, meeting with the other Primates of the Anglican Communion, although not as one British broadsheet newspaper put it with splendid imagination if spectacular inaccuracy, “cloistered in the crypt”, but for the most in a rather ordinary meeting room with all the adjuncts of modern life. I do not intend to give you an hour–by–hour account of the meeting in this context, but there were a couple of wonderful moments that I do want to share with you, moments I would describe as truly of grace, that are – I believe – absolutely connected to our purposes this evening in launching this Guide.

Before I do that, however, I wish first to thank all the members of this Select Committee on Human Sexuality for their wonderfully patient, constructive and careful work over the past two and a half years on behalf of the Church of Ireland. Theirs was never going to be an enviable or easy task, as they sought to understand one another, to listen patently and sensitively to how others understood the issues at stake, striving at all times to be faithful to Christ in how they spoke and in what they said. And their task was, and is, to give guidance to the rest of us, as to how we also might faithfully, patiently and constructively dialogue one with another and finally – in God’s wisdom and grace – discern his will for us all as we grapple with this massive issue of human sexuality in the context of Christian belief.

Very early in the proceedings in Canterbury, we were asked – not as part of a pre–determined process but as a result of informal conversations during the meeting between Primates of diametrically opposite viewpoints – whether we truly wished to “walk together”, no matter what it might take to enable us to do so. It was agreed by all the Primates that we believed this was the will of God for us, although it was also understood that we must also create what was described as, metaphorically, a “safe distance” between some of our number in order for this to be done. You may hear spin, misrepresentation, or cynical manipulation of events in Canterbury from many sources and interest groups but that is the truth of the matter. I am not going to continue further in this particular context as to how this worked out in practice over the following days, but I do want that image of a determination to walk together, albeit with some at a safe distance from one another, as a picture of how we sometimes have to do our business as Christian disciples when difficult issues are at stake.

Only when this is done can we then seek out a safe space where we can work together, courteously and constructively, as we seek God’s will for us all. This will be the task of the task group that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been asked to form. It is also the task that our Select Committee was asked to do, because we in the Church of Ireland wanted to walk together, albeit with some at a delineated safe distance one from another, as we sought God’s will for us in a safe space of mutual love and respect, where we would, in a phrase I like to use (and I think it’s original), “leave space for Grace”. This new publication by the Committee seeks to forward this hope and objective with both care and humility.

Let me share another moment that I believe was the intrusion of God’s grace in Canterbury. This time it was in the crypt of the Cathedral, and we were being addressed by Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche community. Vanier told a very moving story of one of his associates who had been working in Paris, principally among drug addicts and those who had fallen out of society. In one of the parks in Paris this friend came upon a young man, probably a male prostitute, who was literally dying, there in the park, from a drug overdose. She held him in her arms as he was dying and then he said, as what were his last words, “But you only ever wanted to change me, you never wanted to meet me”. I hope also that we can all see that spirit behind what is here for us in this Guide – learning to see the face of Jesus Christ in all other people, longing truly to meet with one another.

I conclude by commending the Guide warmly. It contains an absolute wealth of material on a huge variety of issues. We are encouraged to use the Scriptures reverently and humbly, and helped in finding ways in which we may do this. We are given practical guidance on how to approach dialogue with those who hold different viewpoints from ours. We are provided with the background in what has happened up to now in our Church and in other Anglican traditions. We are urged to think also in terms of the constantly changing contexts of Church and society. This is an extremely valuable piece of work, I thank those who have worked so hard to produce it for us, and I commend all of us to read it and use it with care and with thought.

Remarks by the Very Revd John Mann, Chairman of Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief

On Thursday 9th May 2013, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland passed a motion establishing a Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief. This Committee, whose membership is drawn from across the Church of Ireland, and representing different shades of theological position, met for the first time in the autumn of that year and continues to do so.

What we do today is an important staging point in a process, rather than to be seen as a conclusion to a particular piece of Committee business. From the outset, the Select Committee viewed its role in the broadest of terms, as having a remit to discuss a range of issues concerning human sexuality, and lead the Church in being a learning and listening body intent on increasing its understanding of Scripture and sharing the experience of others. Such breadth of vision is still maintained by the Select Committee.

However, within this broad attempt to encompass the sweep of issues that could naturally fall under such an umbrella, including human trafficking for example, the Committee recognised that the ‘presenting issue’ of same–sex attraction needed considerable time and effort at the outset. This is for two reasons. Firstly that the Select Committee would not have been formed but for this issue, and secondly and naturally flowing from that, it, arguably, beyond all others, is what is divisive for the Church and causing most hurt and uncertainty amongst its members.

Two an a half years later, the Committee offers for the Church’s use three pieces of work. The most extensive of the three in terms of length and scope is aGuide to the further conversations, that it hopes will be of use to both groups and individuals. I will return to that document in a moment. The other two pieces of work are related to the Guide. Firstly, there is an Executive Summary which highlights the content of the full Guide to the form of a ten–minute read. The thought behind this is that it allows people to gain some impression of the parts of the longer work that can be digested briefly, whilst then leading to the parts that are of particular interest to the reader, and these can then be filled out from that section of the main Guide. The third piece of work is crucial to the success of the whole process, and it is intended for it to be used in conjunction with the others, not in isolation – though all three do stand alone. This third booklet is a series of three study modules for use in parish or other groups, may be used by individuals, and is not in its final form today, but its thrust and subject matter are indicated by the abstract that is available now.

So let us examine the Guide in more detail and then let me speak of my hopes and the Committee’s intentions for the coming twelve months.

At an early point in the deliberations of the Select Committee, and in all humility, the members acknowledged that whilst there was wide experience represented by the totality of the group’s membership, it required academic, theological and biblical expertise and the presence of those who could speak from within the gay and lesbian community. A Select Committee is limited to the membership of the full General Synod, and such membership is selected by the Standing Committee, with the exception of the Episcopal representatives that are elected by the House of Bishops. So it is, that the Select Committee was, and is, unable to co–opt new members to meet its needs, and instead, formed an advisory panel. This small group of additional people has been crucial to the production of the Guide. Illustrative of this are two opening papers by William Olhausen and Andrew Pierce. These are scene–setting, in respect of their intention to draw us to reflect as widely as possible on what Scripture and theology teach us, how we reflect, what it means to listen attentively, and to what and whom; what being human means in Christian perception and how specifically have Anglicans approached these issues and others. These papers not only enable the Select Committee in looking more widely before entering into what we are terming the ‘presenting issue’ of same–sex attraction, but also prepare us to be patient and careful in what we conclude and say, through sensitivity and a recognition that we are enriched by engagement, and should not fear a potentially creative and transforming encounter with those with whom we differ.

The other core elements to the Guide are, firstly, the concentrated record of the listening process. This has two elements, namely, a number of individual submissions made by groups, plus, the essence of more than twenty meetings between those who wished to testify to their experience of the situation of same–sex attracted men and women and the Church. Secondly, there are two important articulations of moral reasoning based upon some core Scriptural texts. Both writers have presented their opinions to their fellow committee members, and have been able to develop their papers on the understanding that they are to be of use in furthering discussion, rather than in confirming others in their views. This distinction lies at the heart of the whole of the Guide and the Select Committee continues to work conscious of its very specific remit, to “enable the listening, dialogue and learning process on all issues concerning human sexuality in the context of Christian belief to continue”.

By highlighting these three important constituent elements of the Guide, I in no way wish to diminish the importance of, for example, the closing paper under ‘Dealing with Disagreement’ entitled ‘Understanding the Other’, nor the crucial and critical analysis of the Anglican way of arriving at theological and ethical conclusions. Information formulating the changing context may well be valuable background help, as will reference to the process of dealing with these issues in other church traditions with which we are closely aligned. The section detailing references and other appendices is a work in process and we acknowledge are incomplete. They will be fuller in the online version to be available in due course, and, we hope, kept up–dated.

So you have before you more than 90 pages, that are the fruit of many hours in committee and even more beyond them, as individual members have prepared sections of the Guide at the request of the whole group, or who have critically commented on the work of others. Producing material of this nature, by upwards of twenty people, has brought its challenges, and I would draw your attention to my words of conclusion in the Guide in that regard. Primarily it is to thank all concerned for their patience, charity, good humour and constant modelling of that quality so often pleaded for in the Church and which none of us, when passionately caught up in a subject find easy, namely the quality of listening. The thanks of the whole Select Committee, and especially that of Helen McClenaghan and I, as the two who have chaired the majority of sessions of meetings, must go to the General Synod officers without whose expertise and help this Guide could not have been produced. The gift of hours of their time has proven to be essential. Neither should we forget those members of the Select Committee who started this journey with us, but for one reason or another have had to leave along the way. Their legacy lies in these pages too.

There is another group of people to whom we owe a special degree of gratitude, which cannot be adequately repaid, even by the thankful words of those who heard them, namely, those whose experience of being same–sex attracted and being part of the Church of Ireland was generously and, in many cases, sacrificially opened to us. Their testimony was and is crucial to the production and use of this Guide.

Which brings me to the point of saying some further words on the study modules. Recognition by the members of the Select Committee that we did not have the skills within the Committee to create what we nonetheless perceived was needed, led us to ask for help. That help was freely and generously given by two people who were then presented with the task of suggesting how groups within the Church of Ireland may be engaged for a few hours with what we had spent oceans of time on during the course of two and a half years. How could this be done? What sort of groups do we reckon would use the material? Where do we pitch this? These and many other questions, plus the opinions of us all made for quite a task for those taking it on.

What has been produced in the end is a booklet containing three study sessions. It is my hope, and that of all members of the Select Committee, that should be widely used. They are entitled: ‘The God who Gives’, ‘The God who Guides’ and ‘The God of Grace’. Each session contains different elements and can be used in whole or part. They are consistently biblically based, reflective, engaging and, ultimately, personally challenging. They are both gently leading us to explore and listen, and at the same time to contemplate how we respond to who we are, to one another and to God. The Select Committee commends them for use throughout the Church of Ireland in whatever way seems best for the parish or diocese, youth or other group, individual or shared one–to–one conversation in which they are introduced.

Twelve diocesan representatives have been chosen by their bishops to facilitate their use throughout the Church during the course of the next twelve months. It is to be hoped that at the end of that period, in other words at this time next year, the Select Committee will receive feedback in order to be able to provide General Synod in 2017 with the fruits of the task with for which the Committee was formed and with which it has been entrusted.


Guide to Conversation on Human Sexuality Church of Ireland January 18 2016

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