Oh, those pagan Irish Anglicans?

Was it a case of good manners? Did the editors at The Irish Times print the obituary of Olivia Durdin Robertson, who it described as, "the self-styled 'high priestess' of a Co Carlow-based cult devoted to an ancient Egyptian goddess, [who] has died aged 96," without any comment or further investigation to avoid a scandal in the Church of Ireland? Or were they unaware of what they had in front of them?

The Church of Ireland is in a delicate state in terms of its unity. Divided roughly along North/South lines over the culture war issues -- homosexuality, abortion and the like -- the church funeral of Olivia Durdin Robertson might tip the church over the edge.

This Irish Times story marks the passing of a generation: English aristocratic eccentrics (in this case Angl0-Irish) with oddball country house antics. While Miss Durdin Robertson appears not to have aspired to the cat suits of Dianna Rigg, the conversion of her ancestral home, Huntington Castle in the Irish village of Clonegal in County Carlow, into a temple dedicated to "the Goddess" would not have been out of place in an episode of the '60s television show, The Avengers.

The Irish Times reported:

Ms Durdin Robertson came to international attention in the 1970s when she co-founded the “Fellowship of Isis” with her late brother Lawrence Alexander Durdin Robertson – a former Anglican clergyman -- and his wife Pamela.

And noted:

Her nephew David Durdin Robertson, a craftsman and sculptor who predeceased her in 2009, created an Egyptian temple for her in the dungeons of the castle. In recent years this has been opened to the public for tours at Halloween.

Intrigued? Click this link to learn more about the Fellowship, which appears to have drawn heavily from Robert Graves' The White Goddess. The article notes:

Her funeral on Wednesday will begin with “a private ceremony in the temple, organised by the Fellowship of Isis, by invitation only” followed by a public Church of Ireland service at St Fiacc’s in Clonegal.

And then closes with odds and ends about the Fellowship and the castle.

Well, "what of it?", you might ask. Why would the obituary of the priestess of an Irish-Egyptian cult come across GetReligion's radar? Titillation value?

No -- the two funerals notice is the clue. Anglican churches have a difficult time as it is permitting Freemasons Christian burial. But a church burial for a leader of a pagan cult, even if she is the local squire, is contrary to canon law.

Canon 32, "The burial of the dead", of the Church of Ireland states in part:

(2)    A member of the clergy may however exercise discretion in refusing to read the burial service in full where the deceased died unbaptised or had committed some grievous or notorious sin and not repented of it or had been excluded from Holy Communion under Canon 16 and had not been readmitted thereto.

And in such circumstances:

(3)    And where this is not reasonably practicable such member of the clergy shall report the matter to the [bishop] thereafter.

I wrote to the priest in charge of St Fiacc's (which is part of a larger conglomeration of parishes) asking whether questions had been raised about the propriety of holding a church service, and via email he responded:

Re your query, I am as alarmed as you are at the turn of events. The Christian gospel is compromised. The woman deserted Christ for paganism years ago and a Christian Church is no place for her funeral. Alas I am not the Rector, Just his assistant. I have been away for the w'end and have no details other than what you know already. I understand the Bishop was informed and his advice sought. I take it he has given permission. ...

And I wrote to the bishop -- and he did not respond.

This funeral has all the makings of an ecclesiastical row. The bishop in question, the Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, has led the charge in the Church of Ireland on liberalizing abortion laws in the Republic and on changing church teaching on homosexuality. (He is also the brother in law of the Archbishop of Dublin, but that wouldn't influence things would it?) In 2011 the bishops of Northern Ireland refused to participate in a ceremony where the Bishop of Cashel and Ossory would be present, due to his allowing one of his priests to enter into a gay civil partnership. That crisis appears to have been smoothed over, but the hard feelings remain.

Will the bishop's permission, or indifference, to the church funeral of a pagan priestess reignite the fires?

The moral of the story, from a journalistic point of view, is to pay attention and to have knowledge about the subject you are covering. It could well have been discretion that prompted the silence from the Irish Times on this oddball bit of news. But a religion reporter in Ireland would know that the Roman Catholic Church, and the principle Protestant Churches -- Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist, would forbid a funeral under these circumstances. An analogy might well be reporting a marriage between two persons of the same-sex in Ireland, and not noting that such a marriage would be unlawful under civil and religious law.

The Church of Ireland's standing committee meets this week, and I expect this issue will be raised (unofficially) amongst the bishops. Let's wait and see what happens.

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