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Next Steps in the human sexuality debate

Standing Committee

Added on 13/02/2013

By the Rt Rev Patrick Rooke, Bishop of Tuam. This article also appears as an ‘Insight’ feature on p.10 of the Church of Ireland Gazette (15 February 2013 edn)

Over the past year, every meeting of the Standing Committee has had an agenda item ‘Human Sexuality in the context of Christian Belief.’ This took us through the conference in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Co. Cavan, the debate at last year’s General Synod and on to what ‘the next steps’ should be.

The third part of the General Synod Resolution required the Standing Committee ‘to progress work on the issue of Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian belief and to bring a proposal to General Synod 2013 for the formation of a Select Committee with terms of reference including reporting procedures’.

The Standing Committee has now reached some conclusions on its response to this and has suggested a three–phased response.

Diocesan Processes

First, it is encouraging each diocesan bishop to initiate a local diocesan ‘respectful listening/dialogue process’ over the coming months. The formation of a number of small groups is recommended as the best way to ensure ‘a safe space’ for participants.

The purpose is to enable participants to become better informed and also to highlight the priorities for each diocese. Obviously these groups will operate differently from diocese to diocese; in some they may happen on one particular day, in others, over a period of months for a couple of hours at a time. Perhaps they will be within parishes, or broadened to rural deaneries, or wider still.

Participants in some dioceses may be all who are interested in taking part, in others, those participating may be confined to diocesan synod members or parish vestries. For some people, participation may be the start of a process, others will come with a good knowledge; hence the importance of establishing where people are at and which issues need to be addressed.

The Standing Committee has been reluctant to direct dioceses on the content of these discussions but did recommend that the study of Scripture should be an important focus and involve hearing the views of those who understand the texts from conservative and liberal perspectives.

It also felt that the stories and views of a spectrum of gay and lesbian people, and their families, should be heard and that facilitation should be informed and sensitive.

Inter–Diocesan Conferences

The next phase would be an ‘Inter–Diocesan Tripartite Conference’to be held in the Autumn. With twelve dioceses, four such conferences are anticipated and the groupings will be Connor, Kilmore and Cashel; Down, Meath and Cork; Derry, Armagh and Dublin; and Clogher, Tuam and Limerick.

A committee of six will organise each conference – two from each of the participating dioceses. These committees, along with their bishops, will be responsible for the venues, programmes and participants at their respective conferences.

At the request of the Standing Committee, some funds have been allocated to support dioceses in running these tripartite conferences. Internal diocesan funding, however, will also be required.

Select Committee

The third phase involves a proposal for a Select Committee, as required by the General Synod Resolution. A resolution will be brought to the General Synod in May proposing the appointmentof such a committee to enable the listening, dialogue and learning process on all issues concerning human sexuality in the context of Christian belief to continue.

The Standing Committee’s proposal is that this Select Committee be appointed for an initial two year period, which may be extended for a further two years on the recommendation of the Standing Committee to the General Synod. The Select Committee will be required to report to the Standing Committee on its work twice a year, in November and April.

The proposed Select Committee’s work would be broad enough to cover any issue under the heading ‘Human Sexuality in the Context of Christian belief’ and would be at liberty to find its own focus. It would also be entitled to bring whatever resolutions seem appropriate via the Standing Committee to the General Synod.

The Standing Committee will propose names to the General Synod of people to serve on this Select Committee. It will also propose that the Select Committee be empowered to co–opt up to four others with special skills and experience and to consult as widely as possible.

It is hoped that what is being suggested by the Standing Committee, in response to the request of the General Synod, will enable a large cross section of Church of Ireland people to engage with the issues. These are undoubtedly complex and contentious, but it is surely right and proper, that as a Christian community, we engage with them in a reflective and informed manner.