Every 10 years or so, the Anglican bishops of the world gather for the 15th Lambeth Conference, which is usually held, like this year, in Canterbury. In recent years, the rally has highlighted divisions between conservative and liberal Anglicans, primarily over the issue of gay clergy. This extended to include bishops within the Church of Ireland.
The Church of Ireland is the main Protestant church on the island of Ireland, although around 65% – or around 249,000 of its 375,000 members – live in Northern Ireland. By contrast, 95% of the island’s 204,000 Presbyterians live in the North.
Both churches experience tensions between the two jurisdictions, with a liberal southern wing and a more conservative northern cohort, where, as a rule, the leaders and members of the Republic have a decidedly more liberal outlook than is the case. with their counterparts in Northern Ireland. .
Where there can be a blurring of these lines in the Republic, it is often due to the influence of a clergyman from Northern Ireland who is stationed in a southern diocese, but who reflects the social attitudes of members from the north more than the opinions of those south of the border.
In 2018, for example, the Reverend Alastair Donaldson of Derrylin, Co Fermanagh, told the Church of Ireland Gazette that the passage of the abortion referendum “was yet another sign of the spiritual malaise in this country and a determination among much to deny the word of God”. .
Today, the Church of Ireland has 11 bishops on the island. Three are members of Gafcon, the Global Anglican Future Conference, which was established by Church conservatives in 2008 following the appointment of a gay bishop in the United States.
The then appointment of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church (Anglican) in the United States led to the boycott of the Lambeth gathering in 2008 by about a third of Anglican leaders around the world, including Nigeria, Rwanda, of Kenya and Uganda, as well as bishops of North America and Australasia.
There have been female priests in the Church of Ireland since 1990, and the church has had a female bishop since 2013 with the then appointment of Bishop Pat Storey to the Diocese of Meath and Kildare.
Many Church of Ireland members believed she would be joined last month by another woman from the Church of Ireland’s House of Bishops, with speculation that a woman would benefit from taking over as as new Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory.
However, the Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Adrian Wilkinson was elected. It has been suggested that his election – and it is a popular appointment – may have been influenced by the growth of the fundamentalist group Gafcon among the church’s 11 bishops.
In April 2018, Gafcon opened a branch in Northern Ireland. Last April, a conference in Belfast brought together three current bishops of the Church of Ireland: George Davison of Connor, David McClay of the Diocese of Down and Dromore and Ferran Glenfield of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh.
Retired Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh Ken Clarke was also present.
In November 2019, the appointment of Bishop McClay as Bishop of Down and Dromore led to 36 Church of Ireland clergy in the Republic putting their names in an open letter opposing the promotion because of his membership in Gafcon.
Describing Gafcon’s policies as “antithetical” to the principles to which a Bishop of the Church of Ireland must commit during the rite of consecration, the group said these principles include “the promotion of unity, the care of oppressed and the edification of the people of God in all their spiritual and spiritual life”. sexual diversity”.
Highlighting Gafcon’s objections to female priests and bishops, they also pointed out that a Gafcon task force in June 2019 recommended that “Gafcon provinces retain the historical practice of only consecrating men as bishops.”
How then could Archdeacon McClay possibly accept Bishop Storey as his colleague in the House of Bishops or defend the Church of Ireland doctrine on women in the episcopate given that she is a woman, they asked.
The most liberal bishops in the Church of Ireland are the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Paul Colton and the Bishop of Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe Michael Burrows, both of whom voted “yes” in the 2018 referendum for repeal the Eighth Amendment.
Both also opposed the Church’s affirmation of the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman at its 2012 General Synod. Bishop Storey, although from a more conservative theological perspective in general , clearly believes in women priests.
Currently, the overwhelming question within the Church of Ireland is whether its three Gafcon bishops – George Davison of Connor, David McClay and Ferran Glenfield – will go to the Lambeth gathering in Canterbury at the end of July.
Gafcon members from Africa and elsewhere who boycotted the Lambeth Conference in 2008 have already indicated they will not attend, even before the announcement of the invitation of three gay union bishops .
“I will not be at the Lambeth Conference…God’s plan of marriage is between a man and a woman for procreation,” Archbishop of Kenya Jackson Ole Sapit said, reflecting the conservative views of others.
It is estimated that of the approximately 100 million Anglicans worldwide, more than half are African. Of these, 22 million are in Nigeria, 14 million in Uganda, 5 million in Kenya and 1.4 million in Rwanda according to the most recent figures (2015).
Such views on same-sex marriage, abortion and other social issues are held by some members of the Church of Ireland, particularly in Northern Ireland, as demonstrated after the repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion in 2018.
Gafcon refers to the 1998 Lambeth Conference where 526 to 70 delegates approved a resolution affirming “Jesus’ teaching” that there are only two expressions of faithful sexuality: lifelong marriage between a man and a woman or abstinence.
“The resolution rightly called for pastoral care for those attracted to the same sex,” Gafcon said, adding that homosexual practice is “inconsistent with Scripture” and rejecting “same-sex unions and the ordination of those who are in same-sex unions.