Yesterday on Saturday the 3rd of September 2011, the Auckland Synod of the Anglican Church in New Zealand passed a motion that people involved in sexual relationships outside of marriage but within committed same-sex relationships would not be impeded from being ordained into ministry.
The mover of the motion was Glynn Cardy, notorious for his parish (St Matthews in the City) displaying billboards openly mocking historic Christian belief (I mentioned this a whole ago). Not terribly surprising I suppose!
Here is the motion:
That this Synod
 Holds that sexual orientation should not be an impediment to the discernment, ordination, and licensing of gay and lesbian members to any lay and ordained offices of the Church; and further
 persons in committed same-sex relationships likewise should not be excluded from being considered for discernment, ordination, and licensing to any lay and ordained offices of the Church.
 commits to an intentional process of listening to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, organized by the Archdeacons in consultation with the gay and lesbian community.
 commits to an ongoing discussion with the ministry units, asks the Archdeacons to facilitate this, and invites responses to those discussions to be submitted to Diocesan Council by 31st March 2012; and
 commits to support the process and work of the Commission to be appointed by General Synod Standing Committee, as resolved at its meeting in July 2011.
It’s absolutely crucial to state: Prior to this motion being passed, there was no ban on homosexuals becoming ordained. None whatsoever. This is not about the church’s willingness to include people who identify as homosexual (some popular misrepresentations notwithstanding). This is about whether or not the church is right to refuse to ordain people who are living in a sexual union outside of marriage, something that the Christian faith has always disapproved of, regardless of anyone’s sexual orientation.
These comments that were published with the announcement struck me: “In his synod charge, Bishop Ross Bay said he would ordain people in same-sex relationships if the wider church agreed to it.” The Auckland Bishop’s general approach to moral teaching generally is frankly bizarre, in my view:
People increasingly want to know where I stand on this issue. In one sense as a bishop, I give up the opportunity to hold a strong position on matters where there is a lack of clarity within the diocese as a whole. I take on the role of facilitating the church in its deliberations as we wrestle together to establish our mind.
At the same time I have the responsibility of offering leadership to the diocese in all matters including those which can divide us. I must do so conscious of the care required so as not to unfairly influence the debate and any decisions.
I will therefore be clear that should the appropriate basis for change be found within the church, I would be willing to proceed with such ordinations within this diocese.
As a bishop, one gives up the right to take a stand on issues over which people do, in fact, disagree? This is simply extraordinary. The idea that the job of a bishop is simply to mirror back to the majority within the church what they are already saying has got to be wrong. The Christian faith and its teachings are surely not grounded in the ever-changing present. As representatives of the Christian faith, bishops – like all leaders of the flock – have a duty not just to maintain pastoral sensitivity to those under their care (although of course they do have this duty), but also to, as Jude wrote in the first century, “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” When we ask our Christian leaders what the Christian position is on an issue like sexual relations outside of marriage (and I discussed critiques of the traditional Christian view of marriage as a heterosexual union here), we do not expect to hear an answer like “well, in order to get the answer to that I will need to ask the churches!” This puts the horse well and truly before the cart. Christian churches are Christian by virtue of the content of their faith commitment and practice. Their beliefs and practices are not Christian just because people who go to Christian churches cherish them.
A bishop has traditionally been seen as a shepherd of the flock. The question to ask here, given the above comments, is: Who is shepherding whom?
The other thing to say initially is that there’s a considerable degree of potential frustration for evangelical Anglicans in the Auckland region over this. Each ministry unit present at the meeting with voting rights was the same size – regardless of the size of the church being represented. Given that the younger evangelical congregations are easily the largest, with outposts of theological liberalism offering less and less of relevance succumbing to attrition, a large number – probably the majority – of churchgoing Anglicans in Auckland who form an opinion on this outcome will be disappointed. A number, sadly, will leave the church.
I am unaware of any record of the debate that took place at the Synod, although I know from people present that advocates of this motion made comments suggesting that “all of the texts that people quote about homosexuality are from the Old Testament,” a claim that is demonstrably false and on the face of it quite irrelevant (after all, “love your neighbour as yourself” is also from the Old Testament). Other arguments proceeded not on biblical grounds, but on what has been described as “moralistic bullying” about how uncaring people are to exclude people. Just today (while writing this) I saw an Old Testament lecturer declare that that another biblical scholar engaged in “very thorough scholarship,” but as this other scholar drew the conclusion that the Bible condemns sexual acts between members of the same sex, this scholar must be full of “rabid homophobic bile.” It doesn’t seem to occur to some people that people don’t form their opinions by choice, any more than homosexuals find themselves with same-sex attraction by choice. Within Christian circles it seems, bullying is the new tolerance!
On the other hand, this was a local decision made at a regional level, and does not govern the practice of any other Diocese than Auckland. Anglicans nationwide are not obliged to avert their eyes when they flick to one of those inconvenient passages of Scripture that speak to the issue of human sexuality. Still, for evangelical Anglicans it’s a disappointing. But just as the Presbyterian church in New Zealand swung (or was perceived to have swung) in that direction and has now returned, it’s never over.