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A Church of Ireland schism sees an archbishop sensationally hobbled

Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough Michael Jackson has been stripped of many of his executive powers, with opinion divided on what happens next

Relations between bishops and their flocks are rarely all sweetness and light, but what took place earlier this week between Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough Michael Jackson (66) and member of his two united dioceses is without precedent.

Late on Tuesday night, at the annual synod of the dioceses in Taney Hall in Dundrum – the first such in-person meeting since the Covid-19 pandemic – a number of executive powers held by the archbishop were removed from him in 15 consecutive votes.

Putatively about compliance with updated charities legislation, and despite opposition from senior clergy, the consecutive votes taken by shows of hands were overseen without comment by the Archbishop himself in the chair.

Under the changes, the membership of the dioceses’ two Diocesan Councils – one representing Dublin, and other the smaller Wicklow, will be reduced by 30 per cent, while the councils will also be in charge of all financial and business matters.

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Opposing the changes, Archdeacon of Dublin David Pierpoint, an ally of the Archbishop, said his understanding was that the two dioceses “are already compliant with charity regulations and good governance”.

The changes, he said, have “the effect of removing much authority from the office of Archbishop which, as office, it always had. I don’t believe it’s right, certainly it does not foster good relationships within these dioceses”. He added: “I believe the office of Archbishop is being slightly sidelined.”

In opposition, too, Dermot Dunne, Dean of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, felt the matter was “very serious”, and that it had come “from dysfunctional councils that haven’t worked or co-operated together over the last number of sessions”.

“I’ve been hearing it all over the diocese,” he declared to the meeting. In his view, it was “trying to take powers away from the Archbishop, or the office of Archbishop, that are rightly belonging to the office of Archbishop”.

‘I appeal to you once again, please, please, let’s not go down this road’

Rector of Taney parish Rev Nigel Pierpoint, brother of Archdeacon Pierpoint, said: “It seems to be an issue of power struggle. I’m sorry to have to say that, but that’s the way it seems, that there is a power struggle going on.”

“[In every area] His Grace [Archbishop Jackson] is kindly pushed to the side except in ministry,” declared the archdeacon to the meeting, adding: “I appeal to you once again, please, please, let’s not go down this road or accept this Bill.”

Rev Prof Anne Lodge, a part-time minister and the director of the Church of Ireland Centre at the Dublin City University Institute of Education, also spoke against the Bill. Despite such opposition, the changes were passed comfortably.

Archbishop Jackson is not unused to controversy. Elected in 2011, the Co Fermanagh native ruffled feathers in October 2013 when he spoke of his “deep and shattering sadness” to find sectarianism among his flock in Dublin and Wicklow.

“I did not have the luxury of a childhood where I was able to dismiss sectarianism as `the sort of thing those dreadful Northerners get up to,’ a phrase I have heard more than once trip off the tongue in these united dioceses,” he declared then.

Describing himself as one of those aforementioned ”dreadful Northerners”, he went on, in a long-remembered phrase, to criticise Church members who described newcomers as “polyester Protestants”. It did not go down well.

There was further tension in 2016 when he and Lodge, the then principal at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines, oversaw its controversial transfer to a new DCU campus at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, severing a 200-year link with Trinity College.

However, what escalated ongoing tensions to an epic scale more recently began as a local row over the future of the St George and St Thomas parish in Dublin’s city centre, beginning with a Facebook post on March 4th last year.

In that post, parishioners and the select vestry of St George and St Thomas said they were “shocked and dismayed” about the condition their church had been allowed to fall into, despite pledges from diocesan authorities, including the Archbishop.

“Our parish has been sorely neglected,” they declared, painting a picture of homeless people sleeping in the porch and tents and piles of rubbish left outside the building on Cathal Brugha Street in the north inner city.

The church had become “a most public and visible example of profane use and vandalism”, with the porch “a well-known public space for drug dealing and consumption, illegal dumping . . . it is even used as a most grotesque outdoor human toilet”, they complained.

The administration of St George and St Thomas had been passed over to the Dublin and Glendalough archdiocese in 2017, they said, and they had been confident with the pledges given then that it would be maintained and given a new life.

That Facebook posting on March 4th, 2021 coincided with a Zoom meeting of the two diocesan councils in Dublin and Glendalough, chaired by Archbishop Jackson, but it was at a subsequent meeting on March 18th when he addressed it in a furious response.

‘I am ashamed of the ways in which the last meeting of the diocesan councils careered from the very outset into an agenda of its own’

By then, relations between him and the two diocesan councils of Dublin and Glendalough, with their combined 31 members (16 of whom are clergy), were at rock bottom. The relationship has been deteriorating for years.

Jackson did not hold back, saying twice for effect: “I am ashamed of these diocesan councils. I am ashamed of these diocesan councils.” He went on: “I am ashamed of the ways in which the last meeting of the diocesan councils careered from the very outset into an agenda of its own.”

In his address, a copy of which has been seen by The Irish Times, Archbishop Jackson said he was embarrassed at how some members of the councils treated diocesan staff. It could “rightly be recognised and dealt with as bullying and harassment”, he claimed.

Some members had sought to “take to themselves a position of high standing and unexaminable influence,” he said, adding that such “a sense of self-entitlement was distasteful and destructive of dignity and trust” and amounted to “atrocious behaviour”.

There had also been a “constant insinuation” that the Church of Ireland is not in compliance with charities regulation, he said, when the reality of that situation is that there has been “unending conversations” about such matters.

There was no evidence of “failure of governance” and that had been verified, he claimed, but there was “evidence of concerted, repeated, escalating” actions that are designed “to shatter the sense of a happy diocese”, he said. “It has to stop.”

Turning to the March 4th St George and St Thomas statement, he said he was ashamed of members of councils who “mocked the good work” at St George and St Thomas which was “literally rubbished” at the March 4th meeting.

The Facebook post depicted the city centre church in such a way as to blame the diocese for not keeping it clean and tidy, had mocked the homeless as “a focus of ridicule and that it was an affront to middle-class respectability”.

Church volunteers had repeatedly “with their own hands, tidied and cleared away the needles, the faeces, the rubbish in that forecourt . . . only to be ridiculed” on Facebook, he charged, questioning the source of some of the rubbish dumped at the church.

The Facebook post had been introduced to the March 4th, 2021 meeting, in a “spectacular orchestration” that “pointed dangerously” to “politicking”, and had left Jackson with “a sense of intense sadness and of fundamental alarm” as well as “genuine bewilderment”, he said.

Quoting from Scripture, he said the story of the “evil, very evil” Jezebel offered “a cautionary tale to everyone about how evil desires corrupt individuals and destroys them”, warning that “where dogs licked the blood of Naboth [whom Jezebel had executed], there dogs will lick your blood.”

Faced with calls for a copy of the address, Archbishop Jackson three months later said a hard copy would be added to the September minutes. Otherwise, it could be read in pre-booked 15-minute slots on dates in June and July in the Rathmines diocesan office.

He said that it “may not be photographed, photocopied or recorded on any medium or on any device nor may its contents be used outside the confidentiality to which members of the diocesan councils are bound. The content of the speech may not be used for any extraneous purpose”.

A copy had been lodged, too, with Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop of Armagh, John McDowell, who was free to share it “as appropriate”, said Jackson, who then absented himself from further diocesan council while mediation was under way.

‘He didn’t even begin with the usual prayer. It has us reeling. He maligned people and vilified a number of individuals’

Not surprisingly, the Archbishop’s Zoom speech provoked consternation among his audience. However, extraordinarily and due to the rules of strict confidentiality that exist within the Church of Ireland, it remained private until this week.

Members of the diocesan councils, who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity, expressed deep shock. “I was stunned at its content and the manner of delivery. He didn’t even begin with the usual prayer. It has us reeling. He maligned people and vilified a number of individuals,” said one member.

In instances “this amounted to personal assassination”. Indicating the level of bitterness, this person said he has “found it difficult to pray for the man. I pray for the office instead”.

A second member spoke of the “shock” they had felt, “I asked myself: ‘Is this what I am really hearing?’ I was very upset.”

A third member said: “I was surprised and very hurt. Sitting alone at home, I felt abused by the comments, some of which could have applied to me personally. I know that many of my councils’ colleagues were equally shocked and offended.”

This person added that they felt “let down by a senior person in the church which I love and from which I expect to receive respect along with support and comfort”.

Following mediation led by Archbishop Primate John McDowell after complaints were made, Archbishop Jackson read out a statement at a diocesan councils’ meeting last December, where he said regretted if anyone had felt angry or was hurt by his comments.

He went on to say that he was “supporting a process of wide-ranging review, the purpose of which is to lead to changes and improvements in how” the archdiocese managed its affairs, and he urged others to do likewise.

In June last year, advice was sought from a senior counsel on the Church of Ireland’s legal position regarding updated charities legislation, which led to the changes presented to the Taney Hall meeting in Dundrum on Tuesday last.

Proposer Robert Neill said the measures followed the legal advice given in June 2021 to the diocesan councils on compliance with charities law. The United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough is a registered charity.

“What we have been operating to date in diocesan councils does not really work in accordance with the Government’s legislation,” he said. Seconder Rev William Olhausen, rector of Killiney, said it was “an attempt to comply with the Charities Act in the best way we can”.

In 15 votes, Jackson was roundly defeated. So what happens now? Clearly, he is in a very difficult position and may resign, as he could have done last year when he passed the retirement age for the archbishopric post, though he shows no desire to do so.

Responding to queries, a spokeswoman for the Archbishop said the Taney Hall measures would “enable the diocesan councils to meet the six principles of governance, including working effectively and being accountable and transparent”, as required by charities legislation.

She continued: “As you will have heard on Tuesday evening, both the proposer and the seconder of the Bill stated during the debate that their focus was on good governance and compliance with charities regulation on the part of Diocesan Councils.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times