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Church of Ireland Synod: Gender balance sought among parochial nominators

08 October 2021

Church of Ireland

The choir of Down Cathedral participate in the General Synod eucharist, on Thursday of last week

The choir of Down Cathedral participate in the General Synod eucharist, on Thursday of last week

A DEBATE on parochial nominators — the vestry members consulted over the appointment of clergy — attracted more attention than expected. Bill No. 2 sought a gender balance, providing for at least one man and one woman to be nominators, so that candidates were never faced with all-male or all-female panels. It sought also to represent better the demographic of a parish or group of parishes, to take effect in 2023.

Hazel Corrigan (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) proposed the Bill. She found it “hard to understand why so many of our panels are exclusively male, given the high participation levels of women in every aspect of church life, although there has been a case of an all-female group of nominators”. She believed that everyone in the Church should strive for inclusivity.

There were voices of dissent: Sally Johnston (Down & Dromore) would not want someone to be nominated simply because of being a woman or a man: “They would feel diminished or weakened by this.” Trevor Cleland (Connor) thought that the key issue was getting the right person elected rather than whether it was a man or a woman.

The Revd Stephen Farrell (Dublin) thought that gender balance should be a given, but, “rather than patching up a sinking ship”, wanted Synod go much further by “taking a look at the whole system, not just a succession of Bills”. So did the Revd Paul Arbuthnot (Cork, Cloyne & Ross), who suggested “going for a wholesale review” of Chapter 4 of the constitution rather than ‘”piecemeal reform”.

Was this a problem that really needed addressing, wondered Andrew Brannigan (Down & Dromore). “Parishes have more gender balance than the rest of the Church,” he said. “The Bill, albeit unintentionally, treats parishes and laity as if they are the problem. Let’s not force this on them. We are all in this together.”

Canon Gillian Wharton (Dublin) acknowledged that “nobody wanted to be a token person on anything,” but urged the Synod to look at breadth rather than tokenism. “Every parish has at least one man and one woman who have the parish’s interests at heart, and, to be fair to candidates, they should not be exclusively male or female,” she said. She described the provisions of the Bill as “initial steps, beneficial in the short-term. They don’t remove the need to look at it holistically.”

Patricia Barker (Dublin) believed that this moved the agenda forward “a tiny little bit”, and would support it; but, coming at it from a business angle, she recommended that the whole area be looked at “in terms of modern HR techniques”. The Archdeacon of Belfast, the Ven. Barry Forde, found cause for celebration in the steps being taken towards complete revision of Chapter 4: “It is one means and one mechanism of getting a degree of representation across the Church.”

Peter Whyte (Limerick & Killaloe) saw an opportunity here to make an improvement, “no matter how big or small. Women do things differently from men, thank God, and bring a different and necessary set of skills, including reading body language. They can see beyond a smile — essential when choosing a new rector.”

Canon Ian Berry (Clogher) thought that it was best left to parishes to co-ordinate; they should not be forced to limit whom they had on the panel.

The Revd Ian Linton (Down & Dromore) could not see how this would work practically. What about age balance, he asked. “We would quickly find ourselves tangled up in knots.”

He requested a vote by Orders on giving the Bill a second reading. The result was:

Laity 122 for 76 against; Clergy 96 for 75 against.

All five Bills went on to committee and third-reading stages, where “committee” meant consideration by the full Synod during the course of its meeting. Bill No. 2 was duly enacted on Saturday, by 264-36.

Bill No. 3 — passed by 218-15 — corrected an ancient anomaly to ensure that a diocesan nominator could not be on the panel relating to their own vestry, thus avoiding conflict of interest.

Bill No.4 — passed by 296-6 — completed the trilogy of revisions to Chapter 4 of the Constitution, ensuring that clergy nominated to a parish were promptly informed that they had got the job, and that candidates who were not nominated were informed about the appointment before they read it on social media.

Bill No.5 was a consequence of the proposed amalgamation of the united diocese of Tuam, Killala & Achonry with that of Limerick & Killaloe (which incorporates six other dioceses), into one new united diocese of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe.

The existing two dioceses currently each have a bishop in situ: in Tuam, the Rt Revd Patrick Rooke, and, in Limerick, Dr Kenneth Kearon. Under the new merger, there would be only one bishop, but this merger cannot take place until one of the existing bishops retires or moves on (News, 24 May 2019).

Both Bishops are due to retire on the same day, and both sees will, therefore, become vacant at the same time. The Bill provides for the election procedure of one bishop for the new see. It was passed by 321-3.

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