I am publishing this article so that it can be shared – unless it appears somewhere, we can not share it on social media. Scroll to the bottom for more links. Rosemary Neave
Talanoaga e lē talafeagai
To Anglican Church in the Province of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia:
We write this letter to the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia in response to the Report of the Motion 30 Working Group established by General Synod / te Hīnota Whānui 2014. We are publishing and distributing this letter privately because there is no opportunity to make our voices heard within the existing structures of the Anglican Church.
Indeed, that is the premise of this letter: that there is not now, nor has there been any opportunity for the voices of sexual and gender minorities, the people most affected by the so-called Motion 30, to be heard, either in the General Synod’s debates, nor in the Working Group established by General Synod. We are then left with two choices: to attempt once more to engage with the Church with Easter hope, or to remain silent at the foot of the Cross and then to walk away. We choose Easter.
We are fully aware that our voices will be an inconvenience to the Church, a disruption to the longed-for order and unity within the Church. There is already disunity throughout the Anglican Communion, which is unlikely to be reunited in the foreseeable future. This disunity was not created by sexual and gender minorities, but by intolerance and hate. Furthermore, unity cannot be attained by exclusion. Unity by exclusion is contrary to the kerygma of Christ and the Resurrection, which was to be proclaimed ‘to all peoples ‘ (Matt 28:19), and to the experience of the early church when Peter was admonished ‘It is not for you to call profane what God counts clean’ (Acts 10:16).
We are also keenly aware that the Anglican Church deeply desires to move beyond the contentious issue of sexuality which has distracted it arguably for the last 50 years. We agree. We would like nothing better than to move on, to get on with addressing the urgent issues that face faithful Christians around the world, and indeed care for the world itself. However, we are not willing to move on by being moved out. We believe that the Body of Christ can be strong through diversity, just as the earliest Christians built a strong foundation for the Church out of diversity, when there was no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Gal. 3:28), but all equal heirs of the promise that is Christ.
Our principle concern is that our voices have been deliberately silenced by the Church, and that there has been no opportunity for self-identified sexual and gender minorities to engage with the Church on the key issues related to sexuality including the recognition of relationships or ordination. There will doubtless be members of General Synod and the wider Anglican Province who will say that there was ample opportunity for the voices of sexual and gender minorities to be heard during Ma Whea Commission’s hearings and its report to General Synod / te Hīnota Whānui 2014. We note that there were no openly 2
identified sexual or gender minority persons on the Ma Whea Commission panel; since this panel was appointed by General Synod / te Hīnota Whānui we take this exclusion as a deliberate. The Ma Whea report states that it would be impossible “to encompass all the beliefs and opinions that were expressed” (p. 15) during its hearings, and presents some key themes in summary form.
The words and experiences of sexual and gender minorities are presented only thematically in the Ma Whea report. Thematic summaries simply cannot do justice to the individual expressions and experiences of exclusion and pain which have been experienced by these individuals, their partners, their families and their communities. Yet we note that many people bothered to turn up and give evidence at these hearings, which we take as a sign of hope and engagement with the Church. The Province, however, has never heard those voices.
A Way Forward
The details of A Way Forward Report of the Motion 30 Working Group are being debated throughout the Province, and it is not our intent to engage in a detailed exegesis of all aspects of this report. Such an exercise would result in a document longer than people may be willing to read. We believe the Synod process itself was flawed because it intentionally excluded and prevented participation and consultation with self- and publicly-identified sexual and gender minorities, and has resulted in an inevitably flawed outcome. The lack of consultation is deeply troubling, and suggests that the Anglican Church has not learned from the Treaty of Waitangi / te Tiriti o Waitangi and its core principles of partnership, protection and participation.
We appreciate that the intentions of the Working Group, despite its flaws, were well-intentioned, but good intentions do not necessarily produce good results, especially when this Working Group was constituted in an unsatisfactory manner. But nothing that follows here is intended to be a criticism of the purposes of the participants who were charged to seek ways to respect the deep feelings aroused by the issue on all sides.
Nevertheless there are several general issues which we believe are important to identify.
- The requirement that the Working Group “affirm traditional marriage” while devising a form of blessing for same-gender relationships was perhaps an impossible task. There is no single traditional form of marriage, and the solution of the working group in fact shifts the doctrine by dividing marriages into two categories, those blessed and those not blessed by the Church. For all its variety in marriage in its history (starting with Henry VIII), the Anglican Church has never done this. The English Marriage Act of 1836 established civil marriage precisely to respond to the resentment of non-Anglicans who were required to undergo a marriage in an Anglican Church, a problem created by the Marriage Act of 1753. The Motion 30 Group report establishes different classes of marriage (after the manner of the Vatican’s Ne Temere decree of 1907) by requiring the blessing of civil marriages undertaken by certain classes of persons in order to recognise those marriages as ‘rightly ordered’., and in order for those persons to participate completely in all ministries of the Church.
- By requiring a blessing of a legal civil marriage in order for those marriages to be considered ‘rightly ordered’, the Motion 30 report creates a significant place for this blessing by priest or bishop in church law. This creates a notion of marriage which is quite different from the traditional understanding that the couple marry each other. Yet, a priest or bishop only presides at a marriage when s/he is licensed by the state to do so. Marriage then is always a civil matter, since no marriage is legally recognised without a valid license and carried out in compliance with the conditions of that license.
- Further, the Motion 30 report effectively establishes two classes of Christians: those who have access to the full range of rites and ministries within the church, and those who do not. This is not only incompatible with Christian mission, but with the proclamation of Christ.
- The Motion 30 report is silent on whether it will recognise same-sex ecclesiastical marriages undertaken in jurisdictions where they are legal and possible. It is silent on what if anything it will require of ordained clergy who undertake a legal marriage to a spouse of the same gender in Aotearoa New Zealand in order to be granted a license or permission to officiate. It suggests that it will leave these issues to each diocese/hui amorangi, which will, of course, further fracture the church, and perhaps inevitably codify these fractures indefinitely by practice.
- In effect the Motion 30 report transfers the issue of the status of priests and marriages from the Province to the dioceses. This is an extremely risky step and in effect undercuts the unity of the church, leading to severe problems for priests visiting other dioceses for example.
- Finally, celibacy has been understood in the Anglican tradition as particular calling, not a requirement to full sacramental life in the church. We note that divorce is always a choice, condemned by Jesus (Matt 19:8) to the Pharisees, yet today divorced persons are permitted to participate in the full sacramental life and ministries of the church. Every reputable contemporary authority acknowledges that same-sex attraction is something that is inherent and innate within the individual (see also Matt. 19:12). General Synod / te Hīnota Whānui and The Motion 30 report, by declining to recognise full marriage equality, effectively condemns same-sex identified Anglicans to a life of compulsory celibacy and isolation in order to participate in the sacramental life of the church; this is no longer something it requires of divorced persons. This is an untenable choice. The Anglican Church has evolved its positions on marriage, and it can, and we propose, must, do so again.
We do not doubt that the church has its right to have its own theology and understanding of marriage from that of the state, but it is a risky step if that theology includes giving no status to people who hold an identical marriage license to that issued by other marriage celebrants.
The church has faced this issue in the past over recognising the right for divorced people to be remarried in church, and it has shied away from establishing a system of ecclesiastical courts, such as the Catholic Church maintains. In other societies the Anglican Church has been obliged to grapple with the question of polygamy, but has been hesitant to completely reject polygamous marriage because of the pain faced by the discredited spouses. The analogy is surely clear. One solution could be that the church adopts the French solution, of declining to conduct any marriages but only conduct blessings after the civil marriage, but we suspect that this would not be acceptable in our society.
We believe that the closest parallel to the current situation about sexuality is the Anglican Church’s 19th century response to slavery. Although slavery was banned in England from the 10th century, it was legal in British territories outside England. The Society for the Promotion of the Gospel, for instance, branded its slaves at the same time its missionaries proclaimed Christian love in the Pacific Islands. When the British Parliament voted to ban slavery throughout British territories in 1833 the Bench of Bishops of the Anglican Church opposed that ban, because, they said, slavery was ‘ordained of God’ (and there is ample evidence in the Scripture for slavery).
The Anglican Church apologised for its support of slavery in 2006. The American Episcopal Church had refused to act on abolition of slavery at the time of the America Civil War because it was afraid of fracturing the unity of the church. That church finally apologised in 2008 for its role in promoting slavery. The lesson we have learned from various civil rights movements around the world, and the discourse in which we are now engaged is not about troublesome minorities: it is about majority privilege, and the way the majority protects its privilege.
Another comparison would be with the Roman Catholic Church’s approach in the twentieth century to marriage between a Roman Catholic and a non-Catholic. As a result of the Ne Temere Decree of 1907, that church insisted that Catholics could only contract valid marriages if they were conducted by a priest (and even then without nuptial mass), and this led to the requirement that the priest would superintend promises from the Catholic partner that children would be brought up as Catholics. The history of this approach is well known.
In Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand it led to widespread Protestant protests, and in New Zealand it led to the Marriage Amendment Act of 1920 in which it was deemed illegal to criticise the standing of any marriage as invalid. A legacy of bitterness about these marriages continues to linger. If the Anglican Church seeks to treat one type of marriage (those not conducted in the church, and therefore all same-sex marriages) as second class, then it risks the same popular opprobrium. 5
We see no evidence of Synod’s ‘apology’ in the Motion 30 Working Group report, but rather a tangled web of proposed legal manoeuvres designed to maintain the privilege of the powerful and exclude the powerless. This is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for (Matt. 23:1-12). Eventually the Anglican Church will move forward to be more inclusive on this issue, and to recognise that the love of God has an endless array of expressions, faces and genders.
However, we pray that sexual and gender minorities will not need to wait 150 years to receive their real apology from a truly repentant Church. We are aware that numbers of sexual and gender minorities and their families have quietly left the Church over the last 30 years, something the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia can ill afford. If we have not accomplished Archbishop Vercoe’s vision in 2004 of ‘a world without gays’, we have gone a considerable way to creating a segregated church.
We note that it is not merely sexual and gender minorities who have been excluded by the General Synods / nga Hīnota Whānui that appointed the Ma Whea Commission and the Motion 30 Working Group. Parents and children, brothers and sisters, wider family and whanau inevitably experience the effects of exclusion, and find ways to celebrate marriages and relationships outside the Church.
Understandings of ‘marriage’ have changed throughout the thousands of years of recorded human history. Indeed there are few if any named marriages in Judaeo-Christian Scripture that would conform to contemporary understandings of marriage, and even a cursory glance at the history of marriage makes it obvious that it has been shaped and conformed to time and place. Some historians have even proposed that contemporary opposite-sex marriage rites have their roots in ancient same-sex marriage texts. No one is hurt by new understandings of marriage except those who are determined to hold on to their power to maintain control of the gates of the church. We propose that power belongs to God alone.
We make no claims to represent anyone but ourselves in this letter, but also hope, of course, that other Anglicans will endorse and support the positions we express. At the very least we hope that it will engender conversation so that Synod delegates recognise that they must break out of the echo-chamber of their own voices. It is our aim above all that the voices of sexual and gender minorities be heard by the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, and in some way to influence the dominant discourse of exclusion and casuistry that has inevitably resulted from Motion 30. We hope that the General Synod / te Hīnota Whānui 2016 will reject the Motion 30 Working Group report, and instead find a different, more inclusive way forward.
With Easter hope in Christ,
- Let the Anglican Church Welcome All in Christ – a petition
- Full report of the NZ Way Forward Working Group has been announced – for May 2016 General Synod – article in NZ Taonga
- Changing Attitudes Facebook page