Social attitudes reflect gap between Church of Ireland members north and south of the Border

Lambeth Conference highlights divisions among Anglicans, chiefly over the issue of gay clergy

The world’s Anglican bishops meet for the 15th Lambeth Conference this year in Canterbury. In recent years the gathering has highlighted divisions among conservative and liberal Anglicans, chiefly over the issue of gay clergy. This has extended to include bishops within the Church of Ireland.

The Church of Ireland is the major Protestant church on the island of Ireland, though about 65 per cent — or about 249,000 of its 375, 000 members — live in Northern Ireland. By contrast, 95 per cent of all of the 204,000 Presbyterians on the island live in the North.

Both churches are experiencing tensions between the two jurisdictions, with a liberal southern wing and a more conservative northern cohort, where, as a rule, leaders and members in the Republic are decidedly of a more liberal outlook than is the case among counterparts in Northern Ireland.

Where there may be a blurring of those lines in the Republic, it is frequently due to the influence of a Northern Ireland clergyman who is stationed in a southern diocese, but reflects the social attitudes of northern members more so than the views of those south of the Border.


In 2018, for example, Rev 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 that country and a determination among many to deny God’s word”.

Today, the Church of Ireland has 11 bishops on the island. Three are members of Gafcon, the Global Anglican Future Conference, that was set up by church conservatives in 2008 following the appointment of a gay bishop in the United States.

The appointment then of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in the US Episcopal (Anglican) Church led to a boycott of the 2008 Lambeth gathering by about a third of world Anglican leaders, including from Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda, as well as bishops from North America and Australasia.

There have been women priests in the Church of Ireland since 1990, and the church has had a woman bishop since 2013 with the appointment then of Bishop Pat Storey to Meath and Kildare diocese.

Many in the Church of Ireland believed she would be joined last month by another woman in the Church of Ireland House of Bishops, with speculation that a woman would win out to take over as the new Bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory.

However, the Archdeacon of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Adrian Wilkinson was elected. It has been suggested his election — and it is a popular appointment — may have been influenced by the growth of the fundamentalist Gafcon group among the church’s 11 bishops.

In April 2018, Gafcon opened a Northern Ireland branch. Last April a Belfast conference was attended by three current Church of Ireland bishops: George Davison of Connor, David McClay of Down and Dromore diocese, and Ferran Glenfield of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh.

Retired bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh Ken Clarke also attended.

In November 2019, Bishop McClay’s appointment as Bishop of Down and Dromore led to 36 senior Church of Ireland clergy in the Republic putting their names to an open letter objecting to the promotion due to his membership of Gafcon.

Describing Gafcon policies as “antithetical” to the principles a Church of Ireland bishop must commit to at the rite of consecration, the group said such principles include “fostering unity, care for the oppressed and building up the people of God in all their spiritual and sexual diversity”.

Pointing to Gafcon’s objections to women priests and bishops, they also pointed out that a Gafcon taskforce in June 2019 had recommended that “the provinces of Gafcon should retain the historic practice of the consecration only of men as bishops”.

How then could Archdeacon McClay possibly accept Bishop Storey as his colleague in the House of Bishops or uphold the doctrine of the Church of Ireland on women in the episcopacy given that she is a woman, they asked.

The more liberal of the Church of Ireland bishops are the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross Paul Colton and Bishop of Tuam, Limerick and Killaloe Michael Burrows, with both voting “yes” in the 2018 referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Both have also opposed the church’s affirmation of the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman at its 2012 general synod. Bishop Storey, though of a more conservative theological outlook generally, clearly believes in women priests.

Just now 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 that they will not attend, even ahead of news that three bishops in same-sex unions had been invited.

“I will not be at the Lambeth Conference ... God’s plan of marriage is between a man and woman for procreation,” said the Archbishop of Kenya, Jackson Ole Sapit, 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, five million in Kenya, and 1.4 million in Rwanda according to most recent (2015) figures.

Such views on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues are supported by some in the Church of Ireland, especially in Northern Ireland, as was shown after the Eighth Amendment on abortion was repealed in 2018.

Gafcon points to the 1998 Lambeth Conference whereby 526 to 70 votes delegates approved a resolution affirming “the teaching of Jesus” 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 same sex attracted persons,” said Gafcon, adding that homosexual practice is “incompatible with scripture” and rejecting “same-sex unions and the ordination of those in same-sex unions”.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times