Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Sunday, 28 December 2008

Religion stories making the headlines

Presenter William Crawley of BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence looks back on some of the big religion stories of the year.

Queen Elizabeth II and The Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal school in Armagh
The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh came to Armagh

It was the year the Queen came to Armagh for a Royal Maundy Thursday service.

It was the first time the service was held outside England or Wales in the eight-century history of the ceremony.

It was also the year the leaders of Ireland's four main churches made a joint visit to the Holy Land.

Although they managed to find themselves in the middle of an international incident when the crosses they were wearing caused offence to some settlers at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

But perhaps more than anything else, this was the year of "the Great Abomination Row".

The MP Iris Robinson made headlines internationally for drawing freely on the language of the King James Bible in her description of homosexuality and suggesting that gay people can be "cured".

She even mentioned a psychiatrist working in her offices as a health advisor who offered independent "conversion" therapy to gays and lesbians in Northern Ireland.

The politician's comments later earned her the title Bigot of the Year at the Stonewall Awards, and a play at London's National Theatre incorporated a recording of her words.

Six months later, the PSNI say their investigation into hate crime allegations remains active, while the psychiatrist who served as an advisor to the Assembly health committee chaired by Mrs Robinson has resigned from that role.

In August, the News Letter published a full-page ad, placed by Sandown Free Presbyterian Church, which suggested that homosexuality remains a significant battleground in Northern Ireland's culture wars.

The ad's attack on Belfast's annual gay pride parade, in particular its use of the biblical words abomination and sodomy, was later judged to be offensive by the Advertising Standards Authority.

MP Iris Robinson
MP Iris Robinson's comments about homosexuality made headlines internationally

Internationally, the embattled Anglican Communion has also been rowing about homosexuality.

The Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops met in Canterbury to try to resolve differences over the ordination of a gay bishop in America.

While at Lambeth, the Irish primate, Archbishop Alan Harper, found himself under attack at home from the Evangelical Fellowship of Irish Clergy after he'd suggested that St Paul's negative view of homosexuality may be challenged by emerging new scientific evidence.

Cardinal Seán Brady used the year to make some pretty strident interventions in public debates.

He warned that the European Union was becoming "aggressively secularist", and challenged the Republic's new Civil Partnership Bill as "perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of the Irish family".

Catholic bishops were also at the forefront of opposition in Northern Ireland to a proposal by some British MPs to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Credit crunch

In November, the Presbyterian Mutual Society announced that it was officially a victim of the global credit crunch and was forced to place itself under administration.

Though legally independent of the Presbyterian Church, the Mutual Society's financial woes became a pastoral dilemma, and a PR-crisis, for Northern Ireland's largest Protestant denomination.

When it emerged that the church's General Assembly had, in June, encouraged church members to "avail themselves of (the society's) services", the Assembly's Clerk explained, contrary to appearances, that this resolution should not be read as "advice".

The story was, in any case, a distraction from the Presbyterian pulpit wars in Portadown.

Last year's joint Christmas service was cancelled because one of the two Presbyterian churches is now served by a woman minister.

The Rev Christina Bradley of Armagh Road Presbyterian Church told the BBC's Sunday Sequence programme, "I can't go for a sex change just because some people don't like it that the Lord called me as a minister."

The two churches are to go their separate ways this Christmas too.

There was a more ecumenical spirit in evidence in November when the four main churches announced a joint plan to help end the 11-plus stalemate.

Their suggestion that pupil transfer at 14 instead of 11 years was a "workable proposal" was deemed to be a "helpful intervention" by the education minister.

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