COI Gazette – 16th March 2012

Slieve Russell conference showed Church of Ireland’s ‘instinct for unity’, says Archbishop of Armagh

Archbishop Alan Harper

Archbishop Alan Harper addresses the Slieve Russell conference. (Photo: Paul Harron)

Speaking at a press conference following last weekend’s much anticipated Bishops’ conference on ‘Human Sexuality In The Context of Christian Belief ’, the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Alan Harper, said that the gathering had been a unique style of event in the Anglican communion and had illustrated the Church of Ireland’s “instinct for unity”.The conference, which had been arranged by the Bishops specifically for members of the General Synod, ran from Friday 9th – Saturday 10th March at the Slieve Russell Hotel, Ballyconnell, Co. Cavan and had 450 participants.

Held under the ‘Chatham House Rule’, participants were told they could discuss the proceedings with those who had not been present, but that, to encourage openness in the discussions, who said what should not be disclosed.

The conference proceeded in an atmosphere of mutual respect and in a relaxed way, including round-table discussions, Bible study, a storytelling session where individuals shared their personal experiences, and a range of seminars, all interspersed with worship. two gay men, with contrasting approaches to their sexuality, addressed the conference.

The seminars examined scientific perspectives on the subject, parental perspectives, handling conflict in the Church, the issue of gay clergy, legal aspects, pastoral responses to gay people in the Church, and the theological/hermeneutical (interpretative) aspect of the issue.

The conference had been announced last autumn, in response to controversy that arose, and has continued, following the Dean of Leighlin, the Very Revd Tom Gordon’s entering into a same-sex civil partnership.

The Slieve Russell conference was purely deliberative; there was no plenary debating nor were votes taken. Rather, the conference was seen as informing and engaging General Synod members on the wide dimensions of the issue.

Asked how the Church would proceed after the Slieve Russell Conference, Archbishop Harper said the process would be considered at the forthcoming standing committee meeting (to be held shortly after we went to press). The Archbishop could not indicate last weekend whether or not the standing committee would bring a motion to the General Synod, but said he believed there would be a motion at the General Synod “one way or another”. Motions can be brought by private members.

Archbishop Harper also stated that the Church was not rigidly divided on the subject on a north/south basis. “There is more diversity within the two jurisdictions than is thought,” he said.

The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Michael Jackson, also speaking to the press, said the event at the Slieve Russell Hotel had been “a breaking of fresh ground on the issue” and described the conference as having been “tremendously useful”.

Archbishop Jackson said the conference had given “people of conviction” the opportunity of sharing their views.

At a press briefing before the conference commenced, Archbishop Harper reacted to public criticism from the chair of Changing Attitude Ireland (CAI), Canon Ginnie Kennerley, that there had been a “failure to invite representatives of the church of Ireland’s LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual] community to attend the conference as observers and informal conversation partners for the delegates”. He pointed out that CAI had been invited to identify a speaker and that CAI had in fact chosen Canon Kennerley.

It was further indicated by Canon Kennerley that CAI had requested four ‘visitor’ passes, but had been turned down. However, in response it was pointed out that other groups had made a similar request and that the Church could not allow some in and not others.

The Bishop of Tuam, the Rt Revd Patrick Rooke, and the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, the Rt Revd Ken Good, were the principal organisers of the conference, along with the Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, the Rt Revd Trevor Williams, who coordinated the communications approach.

The General Synod office was also closely involved in the running of the conference. While participants paid for their own travel and accommodation, the remainder of the cost was met by the Church.

Summaries of the presentations to the conference seminars have been published at the Church of Ireland’s official website,



Henry Ford once said: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason so few engage in it.” The remark may be a little ‘smart’ because, of course, everyone thinks and, indeed, Henry Ford might have been better himself to have thought more before he coined his other, more famous dictum: “History is bunk.” However, he was surely right to suggest that many people avoid really deep thought because of the commitment and effort involved. The more one reflects, the wider the horizons so often become. Truth is indeed a great mystery, but it exists and every person must strive to understand it better. From a Christian perspective, of course, Jesus Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14: 6) and for that reason the Church calls people to look to him to find their way, to have a vision of the truth and to discover fullness of life.

Yet, as participants were told during one of the seminars at last weekend’s Slieve Russell conference (report, page 1), there is such a thing as ‘hermeneutics’. That is the technical term for what, more simply put, is the discipline of interpreting the world around us. The task of hermeneutics is truly hard work, but it is essential, and the hard work of interpreting Holy Scripture must be done properly, if we are not to be purely literalists. Of course, there are different schools of thought and approaches, but all are part of the hermeneutical ‘mix’.

At the Slieve Russell Conference, there were suggestions that it had been a process that must continue. Certainly, the subject of human sexuality was not ‘wrapped up’ at the Slieve Russell hotel, but real listening was achieved, real mutual regard was exhibited and real reflection happened. Yet, in the Church of Ireland we are also facing a specific pastoral and doctrinal question about the extent to which the Church should accept same-sex relationships and whether they could even be formally blessed. The reflection on the principles may indeed continue, but for now the Church does need to articulate its formal position on the subject. The Archbishop of Armagh in fact did so last autumn, very succinctly, and at a press briefing before the Slieve Russell conference reiterated his wording: “The Church only approves and affirms sexual relationships within marriage. Outside marriage, the Church advocates abstinence.” That is where we are, but because the issue of human sexuality is of immense significance for human beings at the deepest levels, the Church must be prepared to continue, in all charity, the honest dialogue that has commenced.

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