‘There is a certain combat and indeed violence deeply embedded in theology’

Church of Ireland archbishop Michael Jackson is sticking to his guns on the issue of sectarianism, in spite of the unpopularity of his views

Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Michael Jackson: sectarianism  ‘insufficiently explored  in the Republic’. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Michael Jackson: sectarianism ‘insufficiently explored in the Republic’. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 01:00

There was a little of Lady Macbeth in the reaction of some in the Church of Ireland to Archbishop Michael Jackson’s recent observations on sectarianism in Dublin and Glendalough. It was just a mite too upset.

You will recall how Lady Macbeth on being told of the murder of Duncan, King of Scotland, at her castle, an act in which she ably assisted, betrayed herself by asking: “What, in our house?” As if.

Sectarianism among the decent, God-fearing Anglicans (polyester, genetic, whatever) of Dublin and Glendalough? Whoever would suggest such a thing? Well, their archbishop for instance. And he has done so not once, but twice; in his presidential address to the diocesan synods of Dublin and Glendalough on October 15th and in an article for this newspaper last Tuesday.

He reiterated that view when speaking to this reporter at the Deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin on Thursday night. He may have softened his stance by saying then “attitudes of exclusivity are almost part and parcel of religious communities and in every generation need to be addressed”. But the view remains the same.

Launching the book Rediscovering Saint Patrick by Rev Marcus Losack, he observed “there is a certain combat and indeed violence deeply embedded in theology and I suggest there always will be.” Following the acute reaction to his sectarianism comments it is unlikely he will have reason to change that observation any time soon.

Hit a nerve
It is clear he has hit a nerve in Dublin and Glendalough. What is equally clear is that many in both dioceses feel he has done them an injustice. They feel his conclusions are based on flimsy evidence and are not borne out by either their experience or his arguments.

These latter would include his two immediate predecessors as archbishop, John Neill and Walton Empey. Retired Church of Ireland bishops never, but never comment publicly on the actions of their successors, however disastrous they may perceive them to be. That two such archbishops should do so, and at once, suggests something more than carelessness.

It means they are mad as hell at Michael Jackson.

Last Thursday he said he was “slightly surprised” at their reaction. He feels it was “something which came from their own remembered experience of their time in the dioceses”. He said “things move on.” He was not saying his predecessors didn’t address sectarian attitudes, “it’s just that I am seeking to address them in my time”, he said.

But is it possible that sectarian attitudes in Dublin and Glendalough have become so much worse in the two years since 2011, when he took over from Archbishop Neill? It hardly seems likely. Few would deny that there are pockets of sectarianism among Church of Ireland members in both dioceses, but they are small. More common, and it too should not be exaggerated, is a good old fashioned snobbery, whose embrace is most ecumenical.

It extends beyond denomination, even class.

Simmering away in the background to all of this is dissatisfaction at Archbishop Jackson’s stance in the fraught same-sex debate at the church’s General Synod in 2012. There he, along with the Bishop of Dromore Harold Miller, successfully proposed a motion reaffirming the church’s commitment to traditional forms of marriage. That did not go down well with those in Dublin and Glendalough who saw themselves “as all-tolerant, all-liberal, all-inclusive”, as Archbishop Jackson has described such.

Neither did events last April which saw the Archdeacon of Meath and Kildare, Leslie Stevenson, decline his election as bishop there. That followed a visit to the archdeacon the previous night by Archbishop Jackson, Bishop of Tuam Patrick Rooke and Bishop of Limerick Trevor Williams.

Prior to that visit, there had been controversy over an affair the archdeacon had many years ago. This was fanned by the small evangelical Reform group, some of whom were said to have threatened to protest publicly should the installation of Archdeacon Stevenson as bishop go ahead. In a statement following the archdeacon’s announcement that he was standing aside, the three bishops insisted he had arrived at the decision alone.

Perception, however unfairly, suggested otherwise.

Then there is Archbishop Jackson’s use of language. He is a brilliant academic with gold medals, firsts, and foundation scholarships punctuating his progress through Trinity, Oxford and Cambridge. However, this has meant that in addressing general audiences his ideas sometimes fade through complexity into oblivion. They become lost in communication.

‘Diversity of similarity’
An example highlighted in an Irish Times editorial last Thursday, which he described as “unhelpful” that evening, was his use of the phrase a “diversity of similarity” in his October 15th address. He explained he had used it “as a way through a dilemma which many people have in a sophisticated society. People think of the diversity of difference but that brings with it a polarisation of opinion. My invitation to people is actually to take what is similar . . . and to work with that in order to retain the common ground and to build on it”.

On the sectarianism issue there can be no doubt whatever of his deep commitment to rooting it out in his church. As bishop of Clogher he played a central role in the church’s Hard Gospel project, set up following the Drumcree crisis.

He presented its findings on sectarianism within, trenchantly, to the General Synod in 2003. He again said sectarianism was wrongly perceived as a Northern, rather than a Northern and Southern problem. Last Thursday he said “these aspects of religious life were insufficiently explored at the time in the Republic. It didn’t happen”. He said he’d “like to push this a little bit further”.

Born in 1956, he grew up in Lisnaskea Co Fermanagh, and was educated at Portora in Enniskillen. For a self-proclaimed Northerner he has spent much of his priestly life in the South. Ordained in 1987, he served as curate in Dublin’s Zion parish and was assistant lecturer in theology at Trinity. From 1989 he was college chaplain at Christ Church College, Oxford until appointed dean of Cork in 1997. He served there until his election as bishop of the cross-Border Clogher diocese in 2001. He was there 10 years.

In person he is a sincere, pleasant and charming. His wife Dr Inez Jackson is an obstetrician in Belfast and they have one child, an adult daughter Camilla.