A Defining Issue
Ken Russell originally wrote this article for the Liberal Society email blog, but has revised it to take account of a ferment stirring in the Mt Albert Parish, Auckland, following another failure in the appointment process when the Presbyter concerned was a highly accomplished woman. a lesbian living in a stable civil union.
It is hardly surprising there is simmering discontent within and around the Mt Albert Parish at the manner in which one of our most able presbyters, having been carefully matched to the Parish in provisional stationing, was then summarily rejected by a special Parish meeting because a proportion of Parish members were alerted that she is living in a lesbian civil union, and therefore was deemed unacceptable - even in a Parish long touted as a liberal stronghold in the Auckland District.
The way I see it, our Conference has faced a number of defining issues in the modern era. In the face of war and conflict we have opted for peace and reconciliation. We strongly opposed the Vietnam war and the Springbok tour. Both those stands cost us, but we retained our integrity. To counter the marginalisation of Maori in the Church we opted for a bicultural power sharing partnership, Te Taha Maori and Tauiwi, an integral relationship of Treaty equals that defines our life as Methodists in Aotearoa, . Again we lost members, but who would dream of leading us away from the partnership that now defines our life as a Church.?
A third defining foundation stone is the 1993 Conference decision to order our life by the provisions of the Human Rights Act. It did not attract the fanfare at the time that the earlier defining decisions did. But the significance of the decision was huge, for in the face of widespread religious discrimination against gay and lesbian people, our Conference refused the proferred immunity from the non-discriminatory provisions of the Act. We stated clearly that we as a Church would not retreat behind religious culture, tradition, prejudice or biblical literalism. We chose justice. And we declared this position to the nation.
Subsequently a number of memoranda of understanding have sought to make the 1993 decision more palatable to the conservatives in the Church, but recent experience has only reinforced how impossible it is to dilute the provisions of the original position. Two very recent occurrences have been a serious breach of the 1993 Covenant, and until connexional and district leaders have the spinal fortitude to stand up against the rogue prejudice such as emerged at Mt Albert last October, I fear we shall continue to subject gay and lesbian presbyters to the same old prejudice and humiliation.
We have to make very clear at every level of our Church that it is our policy to station properly trained and ordained presbyters who just happen to be gay or lesbian. And if in the course of that stationing objections are raised, to be equally clear that the problem is not with the presbyter concerned, but with the parish. Resultant pastoral "crises" are just that, and must be worked through - not merely accepted as a "given" impediment to the appointment. I look back on one particular situation in late 2002, not far from Mt Albert, in which for reasons that appeared sufficient at the time I allowed myself to yield to the kind of ultimatum I understand was delivered at Mt Albert. I deeply regret it. I could/should have done more. But now I see some of our most able presbyters facing a dim future in ministry unless connexionally we adopt a proactive policy, and then carry it out in practice. Otherwise, let's just rescind '93 and be done with it!
I know it is easy for someone like me to sit comfortably in Dunedin and take pot shots, but as with all defining issues the stakes are high. I add my encouragement to those who are refusing to let the issue die, and want better answers than the ones they have been given so far.