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By the Rev’d Dr Alan McCann

  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”   so begins Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities.   The sentiments of the above quotation aptly describe the differing perspectives within the Church of Ireland at the election of three evangelical bishops to three Seas in the Northern Province of the Church.  
  • Bishop Andrew Forster was elected Bishop of Derry and Raphoe on 29th August 2019 and consecrated bishop on the 8th December 2019.  he was educated at Queen’s University Belfast and the Church of Ireland Theological College.  He was ordained in 1992 to the curacy of Willowfield Parish in the heart of East Belfast, in the diocese of Down and Dromore.  He then became Dean of Residence at his alter mater and from 2002-2007 he was Archdeacon of Elphin and Ardagh and rector of the Drumcliff group of parishes in Co Sligo, in the diocese of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh.  From Drumcliff he moved to Drumglass parish, situated in Dungannon and was appointed Archdeacon of Ardboe in 2015, a post he held till his consecration as Bishop of Derry and Raphoe. 
  • Bishop David McClay was elected Bishop of Down and Dromore on 4th November 2019 and consecrated Bishop on 25 January 2020.  David was ordained in 1987 and served his curacy in Magheralin Parish, diocese of Down and Dromore.  In 1990 he became rector of Kilkeel Parish and then in 2001 he became the rector of Willowfield Parish where he remained for 19 years until his consecration as Bishop.  He was Archdeacon of Down from 2013 until 2019.   He leads New Wine Ireland and is also a member of the GAFCON Ireland Board.

Bishop George Davison was elected Bishop of Connor on 17th February 2020 and consecrated bishop on 4th September 2020.  George was educated at St Andrews and the Church of Ireland Theological College.  He was ordained in 1992 for the curacy of the parish of St Mark’s, Armagh.  From 1995 he was rector of Kinawley in the diocese of Kilmore and was Archdeacon of Kilmore from 2003-2009.  In 2009 he was instituted as rector of St Nicholas’ Carrickfergus, Diocese of Connor and in 2013 became Archdeacon of Belfast until his consecration as Bishop of Connor in 2020.

 

Each of these men are identified with the evangelical wing of the Church of Ireland and their election has caused varying degrees comments on social media and even an open letter to The Irish Times, in the case of Bishop McClay, from other clergy, mainly in southern Ireland, asking for the House of Bishops not to confirm his election because of his involvement with GAFCON Ireland.  This letter reflected the unease amongst some liberal catholic clergy at the appointment of a Bishop who so clearly identified himself with Anglican orthodoxy.

 

Further disquiet was voiced on the different social media platforms within the Church of Ireland.  Dean Tom Gordon, whose civil partnership revealed the clear divisions within the Church of Ireland on the issue of human sexuality, wrote in response to the letter critical of Bishop McClay’s appointment:  

 

“While I find little attraction in Archdeacon McClay’s theological outlook, his appointment is merely a statement of reality. Churches morph evolve and change. So too the Church of Ireland has morphed into a body now significantly defined by northern conservative evangelicalism. I respectfully suggest therefore that the appointment of Archdeacon McClay is not a matter for the House of Bishops. It is merely a statement of what the Church of Ireland has become.”

 

Whilst many would agree that most of the evangelical wing of the Church of Ireland is centred in the Northern Province, and in Northern Ireland in particular, not all would agree that the Church of Ireland is dominated by that wing.  In fact, most evangelicals would hold the opposite view believing that the liberal catholicism of the late 20th Century holds a greater sway.  Whilst evangelicals have rejoiced and thanked God for the election of these three men, they are aware of the limited power that a Bishop within the Church of Ireland holds.  The Church of Ireland is a much more democratic body and clergy are not under as many regulations as their counterparts in the Church of England.  

 

There are 12 Bishops in the House of Bishops in the Church of Ireland and the liberals still hold the majority and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future.  The difference in the election of these men will mainly be seen in their dioceses where a greater emphasis on evangelism, church planting and training and equipping for ministry will be at the forefront.  However, none of the three hold to a complementarian viewpoint and all three will ordain women.  Each of them holds to the orthodox biblical teaching on human sexuality and whilst only McClay has publicly identified with GAFCON Ireland they would be in sympathy with GAFCON internationally, even if they do not agree on the need for it within the Church of Ireland at this present time.  As to the future, it is a matter of holding each of them up in prayer and encouraging them to remain faithful to Christ and to the Scriptures.  For some it may be “the worst of times” but many within their respective dioceses look forward in hope to what God is doing and will do in the years ahead.

 

(the Rev’d McCann is a member of the General Synod and Rector of Holy Trinity, Carrickfergus, Diocese of Connor)

 

Editor’s Note:  In 2013, the Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin, & Ardagh elected an evangelical, The Rt Rev’d Ferran Glenfield to replace the outgoing evangelical the Rt Rev’d Kenneth Clarke.

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