NZ, Polynesian Anglicans to consider a new plan to allow same-sex blessings in churches

General Synod to vote on proposal to be under diocesan auspices, with safeguards for objectors.

The final report of the working group says: "Our mandate was not to consider the differing theological positions or to interpret scripture on this point. Instead we had a very specific task of considering what arrangements and safeguards could be put in place to hold us together within the same ecclesial family so that no one was forced to compromise sincerely held beliefs."

By Mark Brolly

May 3 2018 

New Zealand and Polynesian Anglicans are to consider a proposal permitting the blessing of committed, monogamous, life-long same-sex relationships under the auspices of dioceses rather than the national Church at their General Synod, which begins tomorrow.

The proposal would provide canonical protection for the theological convictions held by bishops, priests and parishes and would involve no change in the Doctrine of Marriage or the formularies (such as a marriage service, which enshrines a doctrine) of the Church.

The three Primates of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia have written to their counterparts in Oceania – including Archbishop Philip Freier of Australia – Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Secretary-General of the Anglican Communion, Nigerian Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, about the proposal.

Australia’s Anglican bishops, at their annual meeting in March in Canberra, adopted a resolution declaring that they would work within the Constitution and laws of the Anglican Church of Australia if any change were to be made to allow same-sex marriage in Anglican churches and warned that the theological, pastoral and missional issues involved “resist simple solutions or courses of actions” (see TMA, May 2018).

Under its 1992 Constitution, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia provides for the three partners to order their affairs within their own cultural context. Within Aotearoa New Zealand, Tikanga Pakeha (for New Zealanders of European descent) comprises seven dioceses led by Archbishop Philip Richardson and Tikanga Maori comprises five Amorangi, the boundaries of which differ from those of the dioceses, led by the newly installed Archbishop Donald Tamihere. Tikanga Pasefika encompasses Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands, and is known as the Diocese of Polynesia, led by Archbishop Winston Halapua.

Oceania Primates, joined by Archbishops Welby and Idowu-Fearon, met in Fiji in March.

“We wanted to write to you on the eve of our General Synod Te Hinota Whanui to update you on one of many important issues our Synod will be dealing with; that of the pastoral response to members of our congregations who are in committed, monogamous, life-long, same gender relationships,” Archbishops Halapua, Tamihere and Richardson wrote on 30 April. “Some of whom in Aotearoa New Zealand have been married under New Zealand law.”

They wrote that the Church had been working on these issues since the late 1970s with the report of the first NZ Commission on Human Sexuality.

Proposals by a working group presented to the 2016 General Synod were supported by Maori and Pacific island Anglicans but caused deep division among NZ Anglicans of European descent. The report and its recommendations were “left to lie on the table” and another working group was established, taking the name of the General Synod motion that defined its task.

“Its mandate as set out in Motion 29 was tightly focused and its task was to consider possible structural arrangements within our… Church to safeguard both theological convictions concerning the blessing of committed, monogamous, life-long, same gender relationships,” the three Primates wrote.

This working group has proposed that “any pastoral response including blessing of committed, monogamous, life-long same gender relationships should be a matter for the Diocese not General Synod Te Hinota Whanui”.

“What is envisaged is that a diocesan bishop may authorise a priest in a parish to bless such a relationship as a pastoral action. This recognises that the primary unit of the Anglican Church is the Diocese not the Province.”

After recommending no change to the Doctrine of Marriage and the formularies of the Church, the working group proposed that “clergy and congregations who disagree with the action of their bishop to allow, or not allow, blessings by a particular priest in a particular parish have clear canonical protection for their positions, as does the Bishop his/herself”.

The three Primates wrote that a proposal for “communities of consecrated life” – which the working group recommended “to allow for those with clear theological convictions to form Christian Communities and to have those convictions respected and protected” – still had to be worked out in detail to ensure there was substance to their shape and structure.

This proposal defined the communities as “effectively societies of individuals and parishes with similar convictions who will have a bishop protector, or bishop overseer, who works in conjunction with, and with the support of, the diocesan bishop to provide those individuals and parishes with advocacy, pastoral oversight and care”.

“We are also aware of several amendments being brought to the General Synod aimed at clarifying and strengthening these provisions,” the Primates’ letter said.

“We hope that this update is helpful to you. We have been deeply grateful for your prayers and interest in our work on these demanding issues.”

In its final report, published in January, the Motion 29 Working Group wrote that it had received 26 written submissions from a range of groups and individuals across the theological spectrum.

“It rapidly became clear that there were not just two theological convictions or integrities but a widely held range of beliefs about marriage, same gender relationships, and blessing of same gender couples, about social justice, the unity of the Church, forgiveness, redemption and grace,” the report said. “What was equally clear is that the Christian people holding these very differing beliefs had prayerfully and diligently studied the scriptures and were invariably driven by their desire to do what was pleasing to God.

“Our mandate was not to consider the differing theological positions or to interpret scripture on this point. Instead we had a very specific task of considering what arrangements and safeguards could be put in place to hold us together within the same ecclesial family so that no one was forced to compromise sincerely held beliefs. We were asked to find structural solutions which would hold our Church together in that unity which Christ expressed, and which He has gifted to us. We have tried to stay faithful to our mandate and to His example and so the solutions we bring are those which we prayerfully hope will enable us to stay together.

“Throughout our work we have been acutely aware that no matter what is proposed, there will be pastoral implications. We therefore have tried to alleviate some of those implications by creating a toolbox of recommendations which we believe will provide the structural and canonical changes needed to safeguard all theological convictions. We have tried to create places where each can stand without compromise to the beliefs they sincerely hold. The mandate talks of two integrities, but it is more than that – there is a spectrum of views and so there needs to be a range of possible ways forward.”

The report acknowledged “significant concern” among clergy about complaints that could be laid against them under the 1993 NZ Human Rights Act for refusing to conduct a service, but said the working group believed its recommendations “provide measures that make any complaint very unlikely to succeed and the recommendations do not materially increase the risk of a complaint against a clergy person”.

The working group concluded: “We submit this report in the hope that the structural changes proposed will allow the opportunity for faithful Anglicans to remain engaged in an ongoing fair and robust debate on human sexuality in this Church, without that debate occupying formal time at Synods… for some years, and at the same time accomplish a balance along the theological spectrum, between those who wish to conduct the blessings of relationships and those who do not.”

The Church’s online publication, Anglican Taonga, said in its preview of the General Synod: “Will this be the General Synod which, after decades of debate, deals once and for all, with the questions swirling around the blessing of same-gender relationships?

“That seems likely.

“The last General Synod, in Napier, in 2016 was drawing itself up to pass legislation which would have canonically recognised rites of blessing for those in same-gender relationships.

“But that proposal, put forward by the Way Forward group, wasn't acceptable to a conservative minority of Tikanga Pakeha members of General Synod.

“Perhaps the fundamental difference between the 2016 approach and the one being voted on next week is that the General Synod will no longer be making decisions that impose anything on anyone.

“There'll be no changes to formularies, for example.

“Instead, it will be considering whether to make the space for dioceses and hui amorangi to decide their attitudes to these matters.

“So the decisions about whether to bless – or not to bless – same gender relationships will be made later, at a local level.

“Even so, whether that's acceptable to those on the extreme edges of conviction of this matter – both conservative and liberal – remains to be seen.”

The General Synod is to meet in the North Island city of New Plymouth until 11 May.