The Listening Process

Reports from the Provinces - The Church of Ireland.

The House of Bishops of the Church of Ireland issued a Pastoral Letter in September 2003 which set out the need for and the boundaries of Listening Processes within the Church.

It noted that the sexualisation of almost every area of life had damaged the potential for deep and lasting enrichment that comes from close personal friendships which do not have sexual expression.

The cultural attitudes to homosexuality now range from complete acceptance through indifference to complete rejection. The Christian tradition in Ireland has been associated with harsh condemnation.

“At its worst this has led to the demonising, demeaning and oppression of those who, by inclination or in practice, have found themselves attracted to others of the same sex. "

"As we proclaim that God has created all that is and Jesus Christ has stepped fully into and redeemed all of our broken world, we cannot side-step issues of human sexuality and homosexuality in particular. The bishops also recognised the huge contribution of gay and lesbian clergy and lay people to the life of the church."

The bishops recognise the complexity of the issues and of the range of view points they hold and call for biblical reflection, mature thinking and patient listening on behalf of the Church as a whole. In order to do this the bishops affirmed the centrality and authority of the Scriptures, but recognise that interpretation of Scripture is itself an area of divergence among Christians. The study of Scripture should involve insights from Christian tradition and human reason. The bishops reminded the Church that no one should be solely or even primarily understood in terms of his or her sexuality and they encouraged an attitude of respect for one another.

The bishops identified four main viewpoints:

  • The witness of the Scriptures is consonant with a view that rejects homosexual practice of any kind, and that marriage between a man and a woman in life-long union remains the only appropriate place for sexual relations. This must remain the standard for Christian behaviour.
  • The witness of the Scriptures is consonant with a more sympathetic attitude to homosexuality than has been traditional, but this would not at present permit any radical change in the Church’s existing stance on the question.
  • The witness of the Scriptures is consonant with the view that a permanent and committed same-gender relationship which, through its internal mutuality and support brings generosity, creativity and love into the lives of those around, cannot be dismissed by the Church as intrinsically disordered.
  • The witness of the Scriptures is consonant with the proposition that, in the light of a developing understanding of the nature of humanity and sexuality, the time has arrived for a change in the Church’s traditional position on affirming same-gender relationships.

The bishops believed that it was more important to find a temporary accommodation of a disagreement between parties pending a permanent settlement than to assert abstract decrees.

It was recognised these issues engender fears and insecurities and, therefore, discussion “is most effectively undertaken in a safe space, where people are able to let go of their own agendas without betraying their deeply held convictions, where they are prepared to listen sensitively to one another, and where attitudes of condemnation are avoided.”

There was felt to be a need to spend time on how to listen and learning to live peacefully with people with very different viewpoints.

Many of the bishops have taken up these themes in Presidential Addresses to their dioceses.

Since 2003 the Church of Ireland has quietly moved forwards with study groups in the North and the South of the Province and have now appointed a study group whose work continues.