blessing same sex couples

This is Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The PDF of The Final Report of the Motion 29 Working Group (on blessing Committed Same-Sex Couples in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia) downloads by clicking here.

The discussion around sexuality has occupied Anglicanism with inordinate energy for decades. I have been complicit in the overemphasis on this topic only because of being urged on by many LGBTQI+ persons who feel at risk to speak up in our Church. They often feel unsafe in church contexts. In most of our Church, we have dioceses without a single gay clergyperson openly in a relationship. They also regularly feel they are being “talked about” rather than “with”.

On balance, the Report is an improvement on the draft. But, it presents a very complex solution which continues to confuse even those who have been closest to this debate; it does not go anything like far enough for many; it provides absolutely no security (no certainty of their position) for the clergy or licensed persons in a committed same-sex relationship (surely, one of the most important goals); whether the blessings can be given in a diocese or episcopal unit is solely in the hands of the bishop; and it appears that, even with recent Constitutional changes which the Report understands as enabling the implementation of the Report’s approach, there is ambiguity which may mean a bishop cannot, by definition, authorise such a blessing.

My own proposal
1) to change the formularies in a simple manner so that our practice is in line with our teaching, or
2) to use our approach to divorce and remarriage as a template for committed same-sex couples
has garnered little political energy. So, it may very well be that this Report turns out to be where our Church decides to draw a line for the moment. Read my lips: a ‘mark’ of the Anglican Church will continue to be … an obsession with sex, same-sex to be clear and precise.

Rather than providing a commentary on the whole document, I am only going to focus on a few points.

Orders of Consecrated Life – Christian Communities

It is distressing to me that our Church is considering initiating what it is calling “Christian Communities” not for, say, those committed to a rigorous spiritual discipline of four Daily Offices, meditation, and regular communion and confession; not for, say, those who will live sacrificially amongst poorer people in our country; but for differing attitudes to homosexuals. And the “Christian Communities”, membership of which for individuals, parishes, and other ministry units will be defined by their attitude to homosexuals, are under the heading of “Orders of Consecrated Life” no less.

Although we keep no national statistics, we are a relatively small church. I would guess there were fewer than 30,000 in our pews on Sunday. For this, we have a structure second to none. We have diocesan structures which increasingly look unsustainable (Would the ratio of stipended clergy to bishop be down to about a dozen in some places? A diocesan office can have more people working there than are in our pews in many of our parishes. One diocesan bishop’s stipend is now subsidised by St John’s College Trust Board. Another diocese is now reflecting whether it can afford to replace its bishop). We have a unique three-tikanga structure complete with three archbishops/primates. Alongside these already top-heavy structures we now propose to have “Christian Communities”, each with its own statement of belief and its own constitution, a Visitor or Protector who is a Bishop of this Church, discussion and recognition required by the House of Bishops, and so forth.

Bishops Authorise

Recently, our Church altered its Constitution to allow bishops to authorise services. Our Church is so flexible in its worship practices that I could see little new that a bishop could authorise other than a service blessing committed same-sex couples. We were assured that all that was being done was adding a definition of “authorised services” that was lacking in our Constitution [the alteration to our Constitution is not yet online].

In the Notes provided to support the Constitution-changing Bill, we were told that if we voted in favour

Services could be authorised by Bishops or whole Tikanga, but would have to be… generally be suitable for occasional and non-controversial services in the life of the Church.

All the other parts of the proposed amended canon have been included, but the requirement that bishops only authorise “non-controversial services” has not been included.

The dependency of blessing a committed same-sex couple on the permission of the bishop is a significant limitation. If a bishop authorises such a service, clergy in that episcopal unit who wish to will be able to bless such a couple, and clergy who are unwilling to officiate at such a service will not do so. But in a diocese or other episcopal unit where the bishop does not authorise such a service, clergy in that episcopal unit who wish to will not be able to bless such a couple.

Bear in mind that it has been suggested that we now have the most conservative House of Bishops since the 1970s.

There may even be a more fundamental issue. When the Constitution was altered, we were told that in speaking of “authorised services”, we had “no definition of this important expression in the life of the Church.” “Authorised services” now refers to the recently-altered Title G Canon XIV

Any form of service authorised under this Canon… must not be inconsistent with the teachings of the Formularies.

Because of the nature of the English language, it is not immediately clear whether this sentence is descriptive or prescriptive. If it is prescriptive, then a bishop shouldn’t authorise a service which is inconsistent with the teachings of the Formularies. But, the approach of the Report is that, even if blessing a committed same-sex couple is inconsistent with the teachings of the Formularies, “the Church is still able to regulate for itself what it does and does not discipline” (Section III, page 4). However, if “must not be inconsistent with the teachings of the Formularies” can be understood as descriptive rather than prescriptive, then what is being said is that, if blessing a committed same-sex couple is inconsistent with the teachings of the Formularies then whatever the rite is, by definition it is not an “authorised service”.

If the canon is understood in this descriptive manner, GSTHW can simply clarify the canon at this meeting of GSTHW. A canon can be altered by simple majority at one sitting of GSTHW.

Chastity

Although in some dioceses it might be possible for a gay person to receive a license from the bishop (either to function as a clergyperson or to hold a role as a lay person), a canon of the Church rules that such a person is “to be chaste” and “chastity” is “the right ordering of sexual relationships.” The right ordering of sexual relationships is not defined, but the highest legal challenge decided that “Such relationships can only occur within a Christian marriage which is defined by the Formularies as a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman…Those ineligible for entry [into ordained ministry] include those in a heterosexual de facto relationship and those in a homosexual relationship which is committed and monogamous in nature. Being gay or lesbian is not in itself a bar to ordination. But any candidate not in a marriage between a man and a woman must be celibate (page 2).”

The Final Report is clear that

The WG felt that the question of ordination fell outside it terms of reference. The WG notes that the status of ordination remains unchanged in this Church, and the recommendations in this report do not necessarily lead to a redefinition of the accepted meaning of chastity. We also note that there is an opportunity for GSTHW to consider this question further if it deemed it appropriate to do so. (Section V page 4)

In other words, there is no change to what is formally allowable in ordaining or licensing persons in a committed same-sex relationship. Anyone might still put forward a challenge against the clergy or licensed persons who is in a committed same-sex relationship – with possible loss of licence and livelihood. Similarly, the licensing or ordaining bishop might be challenged, with ultimately similar consequences for him/her.

In case some people are missing the breadth of the issue here, principals in Anglican schools, as just one example, are licensed by the bishop. Any principal in an Anglican school, hence, “not in a marriage between a man and a woman must be celibate”.

Others will note that the suggested blessing is, hence, explicitly a blessing of a relationship that is formally understood as not being chaste.

Gender or Sex

There continues to be discussion whether it is preferable to talk about same-sex or same-gender couples. The Report has opted for the latter. I think it is more helpful to distinguish gender, sex, and orientation. I also think that the days of binary definitions have gone. Here is a link to a helpful illustration.

Confusion

The process leading up to this Report has been fraught with confusion. Even in the last week, we received three different pieces of information about how the Report proceeds: (1) that the whole report requires two separate meetings of General Synod Te Hinota Whanui (GSTHW), (2) that the whole Report requires only one meeting of GSTHW, and (3) that part of the Report can be passed at one sitting of GSTHW, but another part will require two meetings.

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The Ven. Dr Peter Carrell has a series discussing it: Part 1; Part 2. This Report will be debated at the Christchurch diocesan synod (March 3), and there are four pre-synod meetings on this. GSTHW meets about this in May 4-11.

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On Sunday, The Rev. Richard Bonifant, Vicar of St Andrew’s (Epsom, Auckland), published his decision that he would no longer officiate at weddings because the church only permits the marrying of heterosexual couples. Richard writes, “I don’t want to celebrate at the marriage of anyone until I can celebrate at the marriage of everyone!” As I have stressed previously, our canons are quite clear: “Any minister shall have full discretion to decline to conduct any marriage service” (2.11).

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Related news: Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, said that priests should be permitted to bless gay couples on a case-by-case basis. The decision should be taken by “the pastor on the ground, and the individual under pastoral care”.

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