Sergius & Bacchus

This post will only interest those following the debate in NZ Anglicanism around holding together those of different persuasions in relation to blessing committed same-sex couples. General Synod Te Hinota Whanui has moved from trying to come to theological agreement to enabling a structure in which these differences can be held within one church.

The Motion 29 Working Group report – in full can be found here
The Archbishops’ covering letter to this report
My summary and initial reflections are found here.

I have been urged to submit constructive suggestions to improve the proposal, and I am grateful to those who have helped to sharpen my own ideas. My submission is written, as all that is presented on this site, in the context of a very busy life and IRL ministry – please take that into account as you digest my points.

As always, we have worked hard to have a positive culture on this site – one with more light than heat – and any constructive comments need to hold to this approach. Anonymous statements are not normally accepted unless there is clear reason for the anonymity.

Submission on blessing same-sex couples

The Anglican Church has an unhealthy obsession with sex. There is dissembling, hypocrisy, and dishonesty. Some people are caught up in this in relation to ordination or a Church licence, or they simply want a sense of belonging in a particular church community. Troubled persons can struggle to find appropriate care. Confidentiality adds a further dimension. The combination of secrecy, power, and sex can be particularly destructive.

The Anglican obsession with sex focuses predominantly on homosexuality, a ‘non-pathological, regularly occurring minority variant’ in the human condition. This obsession has rent the “Anglican Communion” in a way no other disagreement has – so much so that calling it a “communion” is arguably erroneous. When was the last time that the Anglican primates actually all had communion together? At the recent meeting of the Anglican primates, there was a media statement on behalf of some Anglican primates that they were put “in a difficult spot” because another Anglican primate, The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (TEC), prayed for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting! What was the reason why some primates felt they were put in such a “difficult spot”? They disagree with the way TEC allows for a breadth of positions on homosexuality. We are now so used to such disunity that the reaction of the Archbishop of Canterbury to this complaint was that he was “slightly taken aback.”

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has been debating homosexuality for decades (with commissions, hui, groups, papers, books, General Synod Te Hinota Whanui debates, and meetings, including special diocesan synod and Inter-Diocesan Conference meetings), all without a single step forward.

Anglicanism allows for a wide breadth of opinions and positions on everything from the Eucharist through to the ethics of abortion and euthanasia. When, for example, was the last time you heard any issue being made of blessing a hospital in which abortions are carried out?

With so much in our country and in our world that should be the focus of our attention, we should be gravely concerned about the energy expended on controversy about blessing committed same-sex couples. The best estimate for the number of same-sex couples that might seek the Church’s blessing in my diocese, the second largest in New Zealand, is four a year. To be clear: we should not ignore minorities because they are small – quite the opposite. The teaching of Jesus, the Bible, and Christian tradition call, instead, for a preferential option in their favour. But can we be honest with ourselves, in the face of immense problems and an aging Church with rapidly-declining statistics, that this is distracting, misdirecting, and even scapegoating?

Notice how, for the majority heterosexuals, changing sexual regulations is uncontroversial. The Church’s teaching on marriage is clear: “between a man and a woman… life-long and monogamous” (Introduction to the WFWG Report). But, in our Canon of Marriage, Anglican clergy can ignore this doctrine of the life-long nature of marriage and “The marriage service of a person who has been divorced may be conducted by a minister even though the other party to the prior marriage is still living.” (2.9). A canon, of course, was much easier to change than the doctrine of our Church. No effort was put into the latter. For the majority, heterosexuals, we changed from being one of the strictest denominations on divorce to one of the most lenient. Why can such an easy solution be found in the case of the majority – heterosexuals? A (May 2016) letter about this discrepancy, which was received by General Synod Standing Committee, the Church’s Chancellors, and the Liturgical Commission, has not received a reply. Clearly, there is no reply.

Response to the Interim Report of the Motion 29 Working Group (IRWG)

First off, I express appreciation for the work of the working group.

We need to be clear about the limitations of the group’s brief: to propose a structure, without a change of doctrine, which “safeguard both theological convictions concerning the blessing of same gender relationships”.

Many people would say the group was handed an impossible task. This includes those who argue that our doctrine forbids such blessings. They make such claims, I underscore, in the context of a church that explicitly allows for the majority, heterosexuals, to marry divorcees in conflict with the same doctrine.

Others hold that a committed same-sex relationship is not a marriage, and hence the doctrine of marriage does not apply.

Still others (from laity to bishops) see no distinction between the marriage of a man and a man, a woman and a woman, or a man and a woman.

The greatest deficiency in IRWG is its failure to address the ordaining and licensing of people in a committed same-sex relationship. The threat of disciplinary action against bishops and licence holders, in such situations, continues to hang like a sword of Damocles.

I think the structure suggested by IRWG is unnecessarily complex. And I am astonished that IRWG proposes a link with Religious Orders. My understanding is that there has been little to no consultation with Religious Orders about this. By all means, formally recognise Religious Orders at General Synod Te Hinota Whanui (GSTHW) level. Honour and acknowledge them, but that is, or at least should be, quite a separate action to lumping Religious Orders in together with groups that are formed around the basis of what they think about homosexuals!

Some people see the proposal to have formally-constituted (so-called) “Christian Communities” with additional episcopal oversight (called a “Visitor or Protector”) as pointing to a theology of taint that again underscores the exceptional focus that homosexuality can engender. There was, they would point out, no call for additional episcopal oversight in the case of bishops who were women or divorced and remarried, even when, in the case of the former, males ordained by a bishop who is a woman did not have their ordination recognised, and could not serve, in many parts of the “Anglican Communion” where males ordained by a male clearly could.

It is unsurprising that many who effectively hold to such a theology (being comfortable with disagreeing with their bishop on many things but not about homosexuality) are unaccepting of additional episcopal oversight, first calling for alternative episcopal oversight, and, more recently, advancing that to a call for separation into an extra-provincial diocese. [UPDATE 21 November 2017; 4:57pm: A helpful comment by Rev. Dave Clancey clarifying this is now found below.]

The simplest way forward, in this regard, is a clear and positive recognition and acknowledgement that we are living together with disagreement – differences in belief and practice. Let us have a clear statement acknowledging explicitly that a bishop does not have to be in full agreement with what happens in every ministry unit under his or her oversight with regards to blessing committed same-sex couples. And, furthermore, that people (including clergy) do not have to be in full agreement with what happens within the ministry unit or episcopal unit that they are part of with regards to blessing committed same-sex couples.

The seeking of authorisation for a rite of blessing of a committed same-sex couple is an unnecessary further delay. The Church does not have authorised rites for any number of services (from consecration of a building, through blessing an army tank, to installing a vicar). But, even if a rite of blessing a committed same-sex couple is authorised by a bishop, other “home-grown” options would be allowed within the frameworks of A Form for Ordering the Eucharist or An Alternative Form for Ordering the Eucharist or A Form For Ordering a Service of the Word (not to mention the Worship Template). Rites will simply commend themselves by their inherent quality. A more formally-produced rite already exists – the Liturgy for the Blessing of a Relationship prepared in 1992 by the Liturgical Commission of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia as part of the raft of rites facilitated by the Worship Template (that blessing rite sits along with four other rites, including a Liturgy for Recognising the End of a Marriage).

As to the proposal to amend the declarations of adherence and submission to the authority of GSTHW, if this helps some people, great. I cannot see it making any real difference. People who made these declarations, from lay to bishop, believed women could be ordained when our doctrine said they couldn’t, just as people now, from lay to bishop, think that people of the same sex are as married as people of opposite sex. Retaining or amending the declarations will not alter the flexibility with which the declarations are approached.

I make two key proposals to conclude this submission. The first is already in the IRWG: the acceptance of providing immunity from complaint for bishops and clergy for exercising their discretion on whether or not to authorise or conduct blessings of committed same-sex couples. This can be effected by the passing of a canon. This requires a simple majority at GSTHW and would have the same status as the canon which effectively grants immunity from complaint for bishops and clergy for exercising their discretion on whether or not to conduct a marriage of a divorcee while the other party to the prior marriage is still living.

This approach fits within what many will see as a movement of the Holy Spirit. Those under the oversight of Pope Francis are encouraged to pastoral compassion for individual contexts without altering doctrine. That, let us be clear, has been our approach for decades now for heterosexuals in relation to divorce.

The second key proposal is the acceptance of providing immunity from complaint for bishops for exercising their discretion on whether or not to ordain or licence anyone in a committed same-sex relationship. People have different interpretations of the term “chastity” found in Title D Canon 1 10.4.1 (“Ministers are to be chaste”). Rather than further delaying with new studies and debates on “chastity”, this proposal suggests that, whatever one’s position, those in a committed same-sex relationship will not fall foul of Title D solely because of their orientation. Commitment would be the same for homosexual as for heterosexual couples.

Summary

This submission suggests:
• If discussion since the publication of IRWG deems it sufficiently helpful, amend the declarations of adherence and submission to the authority of GSTHW.
• Have an explicit, clear and positive recognition and acknowledgement that we are living together with disagreement – differences in belief and practice on committed same-sex couples.
• Provide immunity from complaint for bishops and clergy for exercising their discretion on whether or not to authorise or conduct blessings of committed same-sex couples. Clergy and couples can choose from available resources and/or work together to produce a service of blessing.
• Provide immunity from complaint for bishops for exercising their discretion on whether or not to ordain or licence anyone in a committed same-sex relationship.

Conclusion

In a world rapidly moving away from binary oversimplification about gender and sexuality, the Church is seen as focusing on yesterday’s questions rather than today’s. In a world of increasing ethical complexity, the Church’s focus on homosexuality is not providing moral paradigms that can easily translate to these third-millennium debates. In a global village that needs, more than ever, to have models for how to live together with significant difference, Anglicanism models how not to – all the way to the inability of our primates to pray together, let alone share communion together. My fear is that my submission adds further air to the overemphasising of this debate, but I do so on the advocating by and with the encouragement of others more vulnerable than I am in this regard. It comes with my prayers.

In Christ,

(Rev) Bosco Peters
www.liturgy.co.nz

15 November 2017
This submission is public.

I am not the first nor the only one to publicly make essentially the above suggestions as can be seen here.

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