Parish system ‘creaking’ in places, Archbishop Clarke warns General Synod
In his first presidential address to the General Synod since becoming Archbishop of Armagh last October, Archbishop Richard Clarke said that there were areas of the Church of Ireland, particularly in inner cities and in extreme rural areas, where the parish system was “creaking”.
He challenged the Church to explore different approaches to local ministry, saying: “Whereas there is no point in dismantling an existing system before we can know that any alternative is better, can we look intelligently at a more flexible, even two-track approach in an interim period?”
Dr Clarke said that the Commission on Ministry and a number of bishops were putting some “concentrated thought” into whether more flexible models of ministry and of being the local Church might be developed experimentally alongside traditional models in some places.
The General Synod’s three-day session last week in Armagh saw a formidable agenda. The deep difficulties of the Clergy Pensions Fund led to a fundamental reorganisation of clergy pension provision (report page 9), a decision greatly helped by a masterful presentation on the subject by Terry Forsyth who chaired the Solvency Working Group.
The problems have been addressed as best as could be done, but it is clear that there is now a considerable financial challenge facing the Church, and parishes, in terms of eliminating the deficit of the Clergy Pensions Fund by 2023. However, as Synod was told, the measures passed last week may in fact achieve that objective before then. Naturally, all depends on economic circumstances. All concerned have worked tirelessly to reach this conclusion and one cannot but recognise the obvious concern for the welfare of the clergy.
There has been some criticism voiced that the make-up of the Select Committee on Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian Belief (report, page 8) does not include an openly gay or lesbian person. As a Select Committee is a committee comprising members of the General Synod (which is what the General Synod of 2012 mandated on this subject), there was not much room for manoeuvre. However, the Select Committee will be able to co-opt and, of course, consult as it feels appropriate. The Archbishop of Armagh made it clear that this process is one in which everyone must be prepared to learn from others and actually to change in some way. Indeed, no process of dialogue is really possible in the first place if people approach discussions with completely closed minds.
However, by far the happiest part of last week’sGeneral Synod was the overwhelming support for a Bill to be brought next year on the interchangeability of ministry with the Methodist Church in Ireland (report, page 11). The breakthrough in this came with consonance being recognised between the office and function of Presidents and Past Presidents of the Methodist Church in Ireland and of Bishops in the Church of Ireland. This is a major step forward in a journey which, rightly, is understood as having the ultimate goal of full organic union between our two Churches. Real ecumenical advance is never achieved without steps of faith, and in this particular journey the goal is precisely the fulfilment of the express will of Christ, the Lord of the Church.
The Archbishop of Armagh’s first General Synod as President showed him to have not only the confidence but also the genuine affection of those gathered in Armagh. The work now starts of implementing the decisions of the General Synod but, all round, real progress has been made.
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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Meath and Kildare situation
AS SOMEONE who had been invited to play a small role in the service of consecration of Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson as Bishop of Meath and Kildare, I was angered, frustrated and bewildered at the circumstances which led him to decline the appointment. It became apparent in the days and weeks before the planned consecration that individuals or groups, who did not want this appointment realised, began a war of attrition against him by once more raising issues which had been dealt with many years ago.
Having been a producer in the BBC for over 20 years, I understand the appeal of a good story. Having also been an NSM priest for over 20 years, I know, too, that none of us leads a perfect life and that the Gospel has, at its heart, forgiveness, redemption and the opportunity for a fresh start.
Do we not believe that? And do we not accept that our deacons, priests and bishops are also beneficiaries of that same grace? I, too, have fallen foul of religious pressure groups in England. Adherents are driven by dogma – in my experience, to the exclusion of love. Doctrines are ‘upheld’ at all costs – in my experience, at the expense of compassion.
It seems to me that, in the case of the election of Archdeacon Stevenson, there was a major misalignment between the views of a disgruntled few and any manifestation of the Kingdom of God. Have we really taken on board Jesus’ words to other people who were also very quick to accuse: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”?
It would seem that there are many in the Church of Ireland for whom a time of introspection would now be both useful and appropriate.
Steven Benson ( The Revd) Cheshire WA16 0EB
The Courageous action of Archdeacon Leslie Stevenson in refusing the appointment of Bishop of Meath and Kildare throws a spotlight once again on the unsatisfactory way in which the present system of appointment to bishoprics (which dates only from the early 1960s) is working.
In the Church of Ireland, unlike the Scottish Church and many other parts of the Anglican Communion, the appointment is made without prior proposals and in a single day.
In Scotland and elsewhere,proposals have to be made with the candidate’s consent and circulated beforehand to members of the Electoral College.
The Most Revd David Chillingworth, who has experience of both systems, has told me that the Scottish system is infinitely preferable, though it is hard on families, particularly of defeated candidates.
Robert MacCarthy (The Very Revd) Suirmount Clonmel Co. Tipperary
Marriage in the Bible
I AM grateful to Gerry Lynch (Letter, 10th May) for his response to my comments on marriage in the Bible (letter, 26th april). He is quite right to observe that the Old Testament contains examples of polygamous and non- permanent marriages and that these are to some extent regulated by Old Testament law.
My argument is that Old Testament events and laws have to be interpreted in the light of the New Testament and, in particular, the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus was willing to loosen the requirements of Old Testament law in many cases. For example, he was more flexible than the Pharisees on the application of Sabbath law and he abolished altogether the regulations relating to clean and unclean foods.
Remarkably, though, in the area of sexual morality, Jesus was considerably stricter than his contemporaries, calling for a return to the ideal of Genesis 1 and 2, where marriage is presented as a union of one man and one woman for life (see, for example, Mark 10).
In light of this, the often- made suggestion that Jesus said nothing of relevance to the subject of same-sex unions seems at best mistaken and at worst misleading. It would be better to say that our Lord combined a wonderfully loving, gracious and welcoming attitude with a remarkably stringent sexual ethic.
Surely, with God’s help, we are called to do the same.
David Huss (The Revd) The Rectory The Glebe Donegal Town Co. Donegal
Select Committee on Human Sexuality
MUCH Has been made of the perceived absence of homosexual people within the membership of the Select Committee on Human Sexuality, established at last week’s General Synod, not least by one of its members and Dean Tom Gordon. The type of inclusion argued for is hugely problematic.
It is surprising that a member of our Synod would define anyone by his or her ‘sexuality’. It is characteristic of our contemporary socio-political milieu that people are defined via this paradigm. Isn’t the Lord Jesus Christ the Christian’s primary identity?
There is hardly a monochrome approach to the interaction between homosexuality and Christian belief. There is a variety of approaches.
For example, there are those who argue for stable, faithful and permanent same-gender relationships and there are those who fervently disagree. There are those who promote reparative therapy or the gradual changing of one’s orientation. Also, there are those who are willing to live under the Lordship of Christ with the struggles of same-sex attraction, remaining celibate and recognizing that this is part of the ‘groaning of creation’ of which Romans 7 and 8 speak.
It is fallacious to argue that members of the Select Committee are unable to assimilate, thoroughly understand, meaningfully engage and fully appreciate all aspects of the various relevant views in an appropriate and thoughtful way.
Moreover, the Select Committee is to deal with all issues relating to human sexuality in the context of Christian belief. To single out a particular aspect (homosexuality) doesn’t give due recognition to other sexual proclivities that are not represented in the way that those who argue desire.
Indeed, what about those who are heterosexuals and co-habiting? Or, those who are in other heterosexual sexual relationships, outside of monogamy? Do those who argue wish to have any, all or some of these represented on the Select Committee?
It is unfortunate that those who have written and spoken on this have demonstrated such a narrow understanding of the issues involved. One might be forgiven for imagining that there were other agenda at work.
Trevor Johnston (The Revd) 660 Shore Road Newtownabbey Co. Antrim BT37 0PR
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