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Church of Ireland’s Message on Gays ’Mixed’ as Cleric Enters Civil Union?

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 7, 2011

The disclosure from a Church of Ireland clergyman that he and his male life partner have entered into a civil union has produced a reaction of bewilderment, joy, and anger from the denomination's faithful. The Church of Ireland, meantime, has said only that his civil union is a "civil matter," rather than a religious one.

The Rev. Tom Gordon, who serves as Dean of Leighlin Cathedral in County Carlow, told radio listeners on Sept. 4 that he and his long-time partner had entered the civil union, the Irish Times reported on Sept. 5. Gordon was speaking on BBC Radio Northern Ireland when he made the announcement.

The news sent a shockwave through the ranks of the church's adherents as well as through Northern Ireland's GLBT equality advocates. The issue also has the potential to worsen the global situation of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopalian Church in the United States is a part, since the Church of Ireland is part of the Anglican Communion, although an autonomous part.

"Dean Tom Gordon's civil partnership is evidence of the growing visibility and acceptance of same-sex couples within the Church of Ireland," said Canon Charles Kenny of Changing Attitude Ireland, a church organization working for GLBT acceptance.

"I know that many people in the Church of Ireland will join me in extending our congratulations to the dean and his civil partner," Kenny added.

But others reacted with anything but joy, and critics lambasted the Church of Ireland for sending a "mixed message" on gays and their relationships.

"I think there is distress that this has happened and great sorrow because it will be difficult to Biblically pastor those who genuinely struggle with the issue of same-sex relationships because of a mixed message," said the Rev. Trevor Johnston, Chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy, British newspaper the News Letter reported on Sept. 6.

Johnston also suggested that the issue could split the Church of Ireland in much the same manner as the Anglican Church has been divided to the point of schism over the question of whether women and gays should be allowed leadership roles in the church, as well as the question of allowing gays and lesbians to celebrate their commitments to same-sex spouses.

Johnston fell back on traditionally anti-gay doctrines, saying, "We want to hear from the bishops of the Church of Ireland on this matter and we call people to hear again and apply the Bible's teaching on the area of human sexuality, which is that marriage is the only context for sexual expression."

At the heart of the matter is the fact that some religious leaders see civil marriage as inappropriate for same-sex couples, and view marriages between people of the same gender as "sinful."

Others see the issue of civil marriage as separate and distinct from religious dogma and the sacrament of marriage, which is a religious rite rather than a legal contract.

Still others press for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians and their families in the life of the church, arguing that interpretations of biblical passages that suggest an anti-gay bias is part and parcel of Christianity are either mistakenly translated, or inadequate in the context of a modern, fact-based understanding of human sexuality.

Canon Ian Ellis, who edits the Church of Ireland Gazette, told the News Letter that the issue was very much unresolved within the church, a Sept. 5 follow-up article said.

"There is no doubt that same-sex civil partnership is widely regarded as a form of gay marriage," said Ellis. "However, the Church of Ireland teaches that marriage is always between a man and a woman.

"Personally, I recognize that individuals have the right to a civil partnership, but there are difficulties for the church as far as public perception is concerned," Ellis added. "That is evidenced in that, at least as yet, there is no set form for the blessing of a same-sex partnership."

Johnston spoke in direct opposition to a more inclusive understanding of scripture, saying, "[N]othing has changed in the church's understanding of marriage, nothing has changed in its understanding of the appropriateness or otherwise of homosexual relationships for Christian people, so as far as I'm concerned nothing has changed from the Biblical understanding and how it has been traditionally applied throughout the centuries.

"I don't think I'm alone in stating this; I think it is the majority position of the worldwide Anglican Communion," Johnston added.

"When the News Letter contacted the church last week, a spokesman said that it was 'a civil matter,'" the article reported. "But the editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, Canon Ian Ellis, said at the weekend that the church was in danger of appearing confused on its approach to homosexuality."

Gordon told radio listeners that he and his partner of two decades had legally formalized their relationship in July. Gordon also said that his bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Burrows, gave the couple his blessing before they went to the registry office to make it official.

At Irish chat site, participants addressed the issue of Gordon's civil partnership.

"We really need to take a step back and examine the stupidity, frankly, of congratulating a religious body for 'taking no action' on one of its clerics (a free man) entering into a civil union with another free man, in the Republic of which they are (presumably, both) citizens," wrote one chat participant.

"Why should it have been any of the Church of Ireland's business in the first place? They had no act, hand nor part in the matter anyway," added the participant. "The thing most worth highlighting is that the Anglican Communion, like its sister church in Catholicism, is still planting its head firmly in the sand with respect to homosexuality."

Another wrote in to note that the Anglican rule barring gay clergy from being in non-celibate relationships with others of the same gender was not necessarily applicable to the Church of Ireland.

"That is a Church of England rule," the posting read. "The Church of Ireland is an independent Church and the rule would not apply. The relative independence of each Province in the Anglican Communion means there are significant differences between Provinces on this and other issues.

"However, it is this issue that has proved the most divisive, both within and between Provinces," the author of the posting acknowledged.

But those who wrote in to the News Letter had decidedly unsympathetic views toward gay and lesbian families.

"After reading your News Letter front page story on (September 3), 'Cleric confirms gay partnership', I was drawn to reflect upon the Roman spear being thrust into the side of Christ as He hung upon Calvary's cruel cross," wrote the Rev. Mervyn Cotton in a letter to the editor that the News Letter posted on Sept. 6.

"Your story exhibits the double edged blade of secularism as it seeks to mutilate, disfigure and destroy the visible church," Cotton's letter continued. "There is the cutting edge of the civil partnership; this is nothing more than a secular attempt to cast the Christian institution of marriage out of society and replace it with a legal arrangement to accommodate sin and debauchery.

"Civil partnership is not supported in scripture and must be condemned by all that profess to be Christian; it is a halfway house on the road to promoting a Godless society," Cotton went on to say.

"Homosexuality is a blight upon society and now is poised to reproach the visible church of Christ; this must be resisted by all right thinking people," Cotton added.

Gordon's parishioners seemed not to suffer such pangs. The BBC reported on Sept. 5 that Gordon had been "warmly welcomed" by his flock on the occasion of his public disclosure.

Calling his civil union a "normative milestone," Gordon told the press that he saw his civil union as a purely legal, and not religious, arrangement.

"I regard it exactly as it is -- a legally recognized partnership," said Gordon. "The area of marriage brings us into another area of dialogue."

The legal recognition accorded to his family was, nonetheless, important in the pragmatic terms of everyday life.

"There are a number of issues that come about -- taxation for example, just very normal practical things," Gordon said, adding that he had not encountered controversy from his own community close at hand.

"Quite the opposite -- I have had very warm support right across the board," Gordon said.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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