A VERY understanding parish supports the rector of St Anne’s Church in Shandon in holding religious services for Cork’s gay community. Last night, as part of the Cork Gay Pride Festival, Rev Brian O’Rourke officiated at the church’s annual service of remembrance, now in its fifth year.
He also holds a service on May 17 for IDAHO (International Day Against Homophobia) as well as a carol service at Christmas for the gay community. The vision statement of St Anne’s says: “We are committed to taking all people seriously — married and single people, gay and straight, those who have a natural faith and those who struggle with belief.”
It wasn’t until Rev O’Rourke was asked by gay activist Dave Roche to speak to parents of gay people that he “really understood the impact of the Church on somebody who is gay. I’m not gay but I had to turn around and imagine what it would be like if I was. What would my Church be saying to me if I was gay?”
What struck Rev O’Rourke was the fact parents of gay people “had an upbringing, in terms of faith, that effectively told them that what their children were was wrong. Not just wrong but in many cases, evil, and categorised as such. I assumed parents were struggling with the love of an individual as a child and a faith process that had brought them to where they were when I met them.”
What ensued was “a very interesting and positive discussion with the various parents. I had to explain to them that I wasn’t speaking officially on behalf of the Church of Ireland. I told them that the way I viewed the interpretation on homosexuality in the Bible was not the interpretation that other people took, both from my church and the Catholic Church.”
As Rev O’Rourke points out, accepting gay people “is an issue that will continue to divide the church. It has created huge problems for some people. It began about 10 years ago when our sister church in America consecrated the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson (now retired), who was in a gay relationship.”
Three years ago, the Americans elected a lesbian bishop, Rev Mary Glasspool, he said. At home, there was controversy among conservative Anglicans two years ago when a Carlow Church of Ireland Dean, Rev Tom Gordon, underwent a civil ceremony with his partner of 20 years.
When Rev O’Rourke was asked by Roche to hold a service for Cork Gay Pride, he initially wondered if this would put gay people “into even more of a box. But I was acutely aware of the way Irish society, the Church, and politicians had effectively turned their backs on what was happening to a strong community in their midst. I decided to go for it. It’s about allowing the space of St Anne’s to welcome the gay community.
“The first service was very simple. I told people to feel free to celebrate who they are. If they wanted to hold somebody’s hand, that was fine. I invited people to light a candle and if they wanted to say something, they could do so. There was a lot of gentle shuffling of feet. Then a guy got up and in a very quivering voice, he said he was (at the service) for a person who had died as a result of AIDs. Then other people got up and spoke.
“My wife said it was the most moving and emotional service she had ever been to.”
Rev O’Rourke says the Church of Ireland Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Paul Colton, “is very sympathetic. There are others who would strongly disagree with what I’m doing. I’m not doing this to put bums on pews. It’s not a justice issue either. It’s about recognising individuals and where they are.”
Many of those attending services for gay people at St Anne’s are from the Roman Catholic tradition. “It’s still officially in their Catechism that (being gay) is intrinsically evil. I had a long conversation with a 26-year-old lesbian over the last year or so. She had huge difficulties about coming out. One of the difficulties was the spiritual dimension.
“I’ve met her partner. They occasionally come to St Anne’s and are deeply in love with each other. I have great difficulty with any institution that says because you are who you are, you’re not entitled to equal status with everyone else.”
Responding to Pope Francis’s comment that he will not judge priests for being gay, Rev O’Rourke says he is hoping “for interesting things” from him. Rev O’Rourke’s theme at this year’s Cork Pride service was belonging: “I still think the Church is to a very large extent, stuck in the middle ages.”
Cork Gay Pride continues with a family day in Fitzgerald’s Park tomorrow and culminates with the annual parade on Sunday, starting from the Grand Parade at 3pm.