Rebel bishop to ordain women priests

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A REBEL Irish bishop who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church last month is now conducting marriages in his own church and preparing to ordain Ireland's first women priests.

Bishop Pat Buckley, who now practises outside the official hierarchy of the church, has renovated a former Protestant Church of Ireland church, St Andrew's, in Omeath, Co Louth, with the help of a sympathetic local businessman.

He has held eight weddings there since its April re-opening, allowing brides a full church service, and he says Irish bishops are privately advising couples who cannot be married by the Roman Catholic church to contact him.

Bishop Buckley was excommunicated after he was made a bishop by another rebel, the Tridentine bishop Michael Cox.

The Catholic Church declared the appointment "valid but unlawful" because it was made without formal Vatican approval and was therefore a technical breach of canon law.

Bishop Buckley is unrepentant and a further 40 couples have now booked services at his church, 60 per cent of them being divorced people, and most of the rest having mixed Protestant/Catholic marriages.

A priest since 1976, Bishop Buckley began marrying mixed-religion couples in 1986, and now officiates at 180 ceremonies a year, many of them conducted in his cramped Larne oratory in Co Antrim.

The number of people approaching him may rise as the introduction of civil divorce after a referendum in Ireland in 1995 gradually allows more of the country's 80,000 separated people to remarry. Bishop Buckley predicted: "If the Church doesn't address this issue they're going to lose a lot of people.

"Secretly, a lot of priests and even other bishops are sending couples to me. What they're saying to them is, `If your conscience draws you to Larne by all means go'."

The trend started when an Irish couple went to see their bishop after they failed to obtain a first marriage an-nulment. The issue of approaching Bishop Buckley arose.

"He [the bishop] smiled and said, `If that's what your conscience tells you to do then you must follow your conscience'," he claimed.

Bishop Buckley called Catholic marriage annulments "rather shoddy, I think, for any young man or woman going in before a celibate priest, recounting the whole bedroom scene to try to find a loophole in a marriage.

"I think we should do what the early Church did and accept that some marriages just break down and let people ask for forgiveness and get a second chance." Although he is not pro-abortion, he also ministers to the 5,000-plus Irish women per year who face excommunication for having abortions.

Bishop Buckley added: "I think they're going to have to let priests marry and include women at every level of Church life.

"I intend to present them with a fait accompli in the next 6 to 12 months by ordaining a woman. That's going to be our contribution to moving the debate on."

He also plans shortly to readmit several priests who left the Church to marry.

He denies his ideas are radical, and agreed with the late Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, Catholic primate until 1990. Late in life, Cardinal O Fiaich made clear he would welcome women clergy.

"He told me he couldn't say these things in public. He said `the boys in Rome would have my guts for garters'. "

Bishop Buckley has also drawn committed support from many Christians of other denominations, including a friend from an Anglican background who recently gave him a 20- bedroom house to provide shelter for homeless people in Co Antrim.