• 11 October 2011

Archbishop Harper comments further on Bishops’ Pastoral letter

The Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the Most Revd Alan Harper, OBE, has delivered his Presidential Synod Address at the 2011 Armagh Diocesan Synod in the Synod Hall, Church House, Armagh. In it, he referred to the recent Pastoral Letter issued by the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of Ireland and stated, ‘We are a Church that respects and values individual, personal opinion but also provides for the establishment of the corporate mind and will of the faithful.’

Members of the Armagh Diocesan Synod, Harold Macmillan once, famously, said that one’s original intentions were sometimes overtaken by “Events, dear boy, events!”

My long–standing intention had been to devote this synod address to considering the training needs of the diocese in respect of faith formation among the young people of our parishes. Two consultations have taken place this year, one at a meeting of Sunday School teachers, the other at a meeting of young people. Both groups were encouraged to give an account of what their felt needs were and the responses were very positive and very helpful. With the assistance of the Children’s Ministry Group and Sister Valerie Thom I fully intend to provide for a joint presentation of these issues on a future occasion.

However, continuing debate about same gender partnerships, sharpened by the events and controversy surrounding the entry into a Civil Partnership of the Very Reverend Tom Gordon, Dean of Leighlin, during the summer, and the division of opinion within the Church of Ireland over same gender relationships have frustrated my original intention. Therefore, I feel that it is appropriate and necessary to address the matter in the light of the Pastoral Letter issued by the House of Bishops last Friday.

As everyone knows there is a variety of views held within the membership of the Church of Ireland about issues to do with human sexuality. Such views can find expression in the kind of emotive and trenchant language that can hinder meaningful dialogue.

What is clear from all that has happened, both the event itself and the subsequent furore, is that the Church of Ireland now needs to engage in a careful, rigorous and courteous discussion of all the issues, so that the position of our church on these contentious matters can be better established. We must seek not just the opinion of this person or that group, but the mind of the church, in faithfulness to our common discipleship in Christ.

In some provinces of the Anglican Communion it may be that the Primate or the bishops tell the people of the Church what to think. In the Church of Ireland supreme authority under God rests with the General Synod. In matters of doctrine the opinion of the House of Bishops is always listened to and taken into account but final authority rests with the General Synod.

I spoke of “a careful, rigorous and courteous discussion of all these issues”. Such a dialogue requires a great deal of preparation and consultation. It means listening carefully to one another, the better to understand and appreciate the different opinions that may be expressed. This is the context in which the Pastoral Letter of the House of Bishops has been framed. It builds upon the letter issued in 2003 and it takes that letter much further because it puts in place a structure for dialogue and discernment, the essential precursor for definitive declarations at representative level.

What I now intend to do is to read the letter to you and from time to time make additional personal comments by way of amplification. The letter begins as follows:

For some time the bishops of the Church of Ireland had planned to undertake a review of their Pastoral Letter of 2003 on human sexuality. The recent debate in the Church of Ireland on issues of sexuality has given added impetus to the bishops’ process of reflection. We also hope, in a structured way, to engage the church at every level in this endeavour.

I need to point out that it is not the case that there has been no further consideration of these important matters within the Church of Ireland since 2003. We have been deeply involved in the consultation process that led to the framing of the document called the “Anglican Covenant” which was published in its final form last year.

The covenant, which, in May of this year the General Synod agreed to subscribe, is intended to assist provinces in their relationships with one another when potentially controversial developments are being considered by one or more of our number. It arose, of course, out of the ongoing dialogue within the Anglican Communion on issues associated with same gender relationships.

Meanwhile, the Church of Ireland has scrupulously abided by the three moratoria called for by the Primates of the Anglican Communion as long ago as 2007. Those moratoria involve refraining from interference in the affairs of other provinces, withholding consent to the consecration to the episcopate of any person living in a same gender relationship, and refraining from authorizing services of blessing of same sex unions.

Therefore, it is not that nothing has happened since 2003; rather that the focus has been upon the impact of these things upon relationships within the Anglican Communion itself.

Discussions about the Covenant having been completed, the bishops had hoped to return to the 2003 statement sooner, but, since, from the end of January until September, our number was reduced from 12 to 10, as we awaited the election and consecration of bishops for the sees of Clogher and of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, it was more appropriate to begin reflection on the old statement when the number of the bishops was once more complete.

Much has changed since 2003 with the introduction of Civil Partnership legislation in both the United Kingdom (implemented in 2005) and in Ireland (implemented in 2011). From the outset, although the legislation in both jurisdictions specifically distinguished between Civil Partnership and Marriage, the common synonym for Civil Partnership has become “Gay Marriage”. We now learn that the UK Government intends to bring in legislation specifically to provide for same gender “marriage” as an alternative to Civil Partnership. Therefore, in our new letter we, the bishops, thought it important to specify and affirm the long established teaching of the Church on marriage, or as I prefer to call it Holy Matrimony. The bishops write:

It is helpful at the outset to affirm clearly the teaching of the church on marriage. The Book of Common Prayer describes marriage as “part of God’s creation and a holy mystery in which one man and one woman become one flesh”. It is to be monogamous, with a publically declared intention that it be lifelong. The church’s teaching has been “faithfulness within marriage” as the normative context for sexual expression.

I want to underline this key principle, and here I quote from Canon 31 (1),

The Church of Ireland affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching that marriage is in its purpose a union permanent and lifelong, for better or worse, till death do them part, of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.

I have often regretted the indiscriminate use of the term “marriage” rather than “matrimony”. The traditional form of the wedding ceremony is described as “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony”. Matrimony is a word that in itself specifies and encapsulates the first of the causes for which matrimony was ordained, namely, for the increase of mankind, according to the will of God, and for the due ordering of families and households, that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy name.

Thus, matrimony finds its meaning in the complementarity of a man and a woman as the means provided for the continuation of mankind according to the will of God. It creates that relationship and those structures upon which society most depends, for it is not only about children but also about families and households and spiritual formation and mutual commitment.

Secondly, matrimony is ordained for the hallowing of the union betwixt man and woman and for the avoidance of sin. Thus, whereas not all married couples have children, matrimony makes hallowed, or holy, the union of a man and a woman. It creates the context in which their mutual affection is holy. Outside that context the intimate expression of such affection may be evident but is sadly incomplete.

Marriage, on the other hand, is a word much too readily deployed otherwise. Shakespeare wrote of “the marriage of true minds”, by no means certainly, as the precursor to wedlock. The antiques business speaks of a marriage as the joining together of two pieces of furniture that were not designed to be together in the first place. Marriage is a word too easily subverted. It begins to appear as though the UK government intends to do so again.

The last sentence of the paragraph makes the important point that “faithfulness within marriage” is “the normative context for sexual expression”. The point is a simple one despite the use of the slippery word “marriage”: the only context that the Church teaches and approves as appropriate for sexual activity is matrimony. We do not pretend that sexual activity does not take place other than within the bonds of matrimony, what we do contend is that matrimony is the only context in which sexual love is rightly and properly expressed. The Lambeth Conference of 1988 expressed it thus:

This conference…reaffirms the traditional biblical teaching that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship.

The third paragraph of the bishops’ letter reads as follows:

The state, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, has provided in law for civil partnerships between persons of the same gender. Such partnerships are one way of conferring specific legal rights, but may not necessarily involve sexual expression. It is clear that they are not recognized by the church as marriage. Indeed they are not recognized by the state as marriage in either jurisdiction. However, because civil partnerships are narrowly limited to persons of the same gender, they are often perceived as an equivalent to or imitation of marriage for same sex couples.

I do not have much to add by way of comment to paragraph three except to remark that, as a piece of legislation, civil partnership legislation declares a bond of “next of kin” between the partners so that various rights may be transferable. This advantage is only available to unrelated same gender partners and is not available to others, including mutually dependent siblings living together, an elderly parent living with a younger family member who may or may not be a carer, or any other forms of shared life by close friends. This seems to me to be wrong and seriously discriminatory.

Paragraph four is self explanatory and reads as follows:

Recent well–publicized events within the Church of Ireland concerning the issue of serving clergy and civil partnerships have caused considerable hurt and confusion to many. Others saw what has happened as a positive development. In the Church of Ireland as a whole, in consequence, this has led to a painful experience of disunity. We, as bishops, take very seriously our responsibility at this time to act in a way that will help to further the unity of the church in truth and love. These issues reflect the difficulties experienced within the wider Anglican Communion, which in recent years has found itself tragically divided by the debate concerning human sexuality.

The paragraph describes, accurately I think, the current state of the Church of Ireland in which some are confused, hurt and even angry, while others see the events as a positive and timely development. These differences, and the power of emotion at such a time, put a severe strain on the unity of the Church. Nor is this merely an issue of North versus South, there are conservatives as well as liberals in the South just as there are liberals as well as conservatives in the North. Between them is a middle ground populated by those who are less exercised than many of their fellow church members. All of this makes it a difficult task for bishops who are told at their ordination and consecration:

As chief pastors they share with their fellow bishops a special responsibility to maintain and further the unity of the Church, to uphold its discipline, to guard its faith and to promote its mission throughout the world.

But this is not a new responsibility and these are not new issues and so the fifth paragraph of the letter continues as follows:

The bishops’ Pastoral Letter of 2003, appended to this statement, ended with the following words:

This is an area of life where deeply held views, powerful emotions and the potential for causing great harm hold sway. We may have to learn how or whether we will be able to live peaceably and with integrity with very different viewpoints within the family of the Church and the household of faith.

While the 2003 Pastoral Letter laid out the situation, it did not put in place a means by which the church could adequately engage with the challenges expressed in the document, and find a way forward. We are now commending a means by which the church can work through these issues and hopefully come to a common mind. This will involve sustained and committed work for the bishops and for the entire membership of the General Synod in particular.

Thus, linking back to the letter of 2003, which recognized the existence of differences of approach, interpretation and conclusion among the House of Bishops at that time, the 2011 letter both warns of the difficulty of the road that lies ahead but also commits us to seek unity in truth and love by proposing a major engagement throughout the Church which will call particularly for sustained study and consultation by the bishops and members of the General Synod. The proposals are contained in paragraph six.

We plan to organize a major conference in Spring 2012, to which members of the General Synod and some others will be invited. The purpose of the conference is to discuss the content of this Pastoral Letter, to assist the church in becoming more fully informed, and to explore wider issues related to human sexuality. In preparation for this conference, we commit ourselves, as bishops, to additional meetings, including a retreat, where we will study and pray together. The conference is not intended to be an end in itself. Study in biblical, theological and legal issues, both before and after the conference, needs to be encouraged and undertaken.

Members of Synod, you will recognize that the time available for arranging and resourcing a conference that is to take place in the spring of 2012 is very short. We have yet to confirm dates and a venue. Even so, the importance of the opportunity should not be underestimated.

This will be a conference about study and listening. It will give a much greater opportunity for prayer, thought and dialogue than is normally afforded by formal proceedings of the General Synod. It will be part of a process designed to give members of the General Synod the equipment to discuss sensitive matters in a constructive way.

Frankly I do not think that we do this kind of thing often enough. There are many other issues of fundamental importance to our society that deserve thoughtful consideration by the Church in order to enable us to make a more effective contribution to the discussion of the moral and ethical dilemmas that face us. Perhaps, therefore, we can learn important lessons from the process of the conference itself and not simply from the conference deliberations.

In the period before the conference meets, and afterwards too, we place ourselves under an obligation to identify and provide study material, the better to be informed as a church on biblical, scientific, theological and legal issues that impinge upon this complex matter. That commitment alone will place heavy demands upon our time as bishops as we seek to assist the Church of Ireland in moving towards a common mind. The conference itself, together with the preparatory work and the work that must follow, are intended to act as stepping stones towards the establishment of that common mind.

If I may say so, the particular duty of the Primate in all this is to facilitate the process and enable an honest and fruitful dialogue, recognizing that in all matters of doctrine and in many matters of practice, the General Synod has determinative authority under God. The Primate also has to provide for the exercise of that determinative authority at an appropriate time. Therefore, in seeking to fulfil that dual responsibility I wish to call for a spirit of mutual generosity and care in the discussion of these matters as we prepare for the conference and any synodical process that might follow. The Pastoral Letter puts it thus:

We urge people of all shades of opinion within the Church of Ireland to refrain from any actions or the use of emotive and careless language which may further exacerbate the situation within the Church. Such restraint will greatly facilitate the work ahead.

Sometimes we fail to recognize what good fortune we enjoy as members of the Church of Ireland. In some other Churches we should not enjoy the freedom to take counsel together, we should be told what to think and prevented from exploring important issues in an open and mutually responsible way. We are a Church that respects and values individual, personal opinion but also provides for the establishment of the corporate mind and will of the faithful. These are treasures that we should cherish, they are privileges we should exercise with due care for the revealed truths of the Gospel and the well being of fragile and vulnerable people.

This is especially important when we talk about the dynamics of relationship. There is a danger that we may extrapolate from the experience of our own close relationships to the relationships of others without allowing for how different each of us is, one from another. We each have needs and hopes and dreams, things, perhaps, that we want and cannot have; things that we have and do not adequately esteem. We need to have a care for one another. Therefore I end by quoting a poet, born and raised in the fellowship of the Church of Ireland, buried in a Church of Ireland graveyard:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half–light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

(W.B. Yeats, ‘He wishes for the cloths of Heaven’)