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Should the Church Bless Same-Sex Relationships?

By Paul Titus

In recent months the issue of same-sex marriage has become a talking point around the world. Some governments have legalised such unions but Pope John Paul II and President George Bush have stated strong opposition to the concept.

Here in New Zealand a pending private members bill in Parliament would recognise same-sex marriage. The Civil Union Bill holds that married couples gain numerous legal rights and responsibilities, and gay and lesbian couples face discrimination because they cannot share these rights.

The bill’s sponsors say same-sex partners who have lived together for decades cannot be considered next of kin or family and this can cause hardship. There have been cases where a gay or lesbian partner has been refused access to their dying partner by the partner's family and other situations where people have lost their homes and property on the death of their partners because law didn’t recognise their relationships.

If same-sex unions gain the same legal status as marriage, churches will have to decide whether to celebrate and bless such relationships.

To find out where New Zealand churches stand on the issue Touchstone spoke with Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian leaders.

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Convenor of the Faith and Order Committee of the Methodist Church of NZ Rev Dr Terry Wall says the committee looked at the issue of same-sex relationships for several years. It did not make any proposals to the wider church on the topic.

“There are people in the Methodist Church who want to take the idea of blessing same-sex relationships further, and there are others who don’t. Given that there is no common mind and the church has adopted consensus decision making, we concluded we could not take the matter forward,” Terry says.

MCNZ president Rev Norman West recognises there is a range of opinion within the church. He personally believes the church should recognise all good human relationships based on genuine care and loving.

Norman says if the government recognises same-sex unions the church may have to look at the issue and see what part it can play in affirming such relationships.

“However, it is very important within the church that we acknowledge people’s differences and live with them rather than push others to accept our views.

“People should act out of their own integrity. Some would be able to take part in such services, others would not.”

Superintendent of MCNZ’s Evangelical Network Rev Marion Peterson says the network’s stance is based on principles of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage, and marriage is a relationship between a man and woman.

The Evangelical Network’s executive has discussed the implications of civil forms of same-sex marriage but has not reached agreement on the topic.

Marion acknowledges the church may arrive at a decision that leaves the decision whether to bless same-sex unions up to individual presbyters but this would leave some questions unanswered. Would, for example, marriage celebrants who refuse to oversee same-sex marriages be liable under the Human Rights Act?

The Samoan Synod of MCNZ has a stand on homosexuality that means it would oppose any move to sanctify same-sex marriages. Superintendent Rev Iakopo Fa’afuata is not certain Samoan Methodists would block moves to leave the question up to individual presbyters, however.

“We are trying our best to live in unity within the church. We would look at ways of trying to compromise our stance for the unity of the church but it would be very hard for us if the Church made that decision,” he says.

Bishop of the Anglican Church’s Christchurch diocese Rev Dr David Coles says the Anglican Church in New Zealand hasn’t yet begun to look at the issue.

Internationally the issue of same-sex unions is causing major debates among Anglicans. David says the Canadian diocese of New Westminster (Vancouver) is the only one in the world that has formally proceeded with same-sex blessings and it has caused a huge reaction.

Some conservative parishes within the diocese are looking for alternative Episcopal care.

One way that might be done is through ‘flying bishops’. This was a solution the Anglican Church in England used where some clergy would not accept the ordination of women. They were able to opt out of their dioceses and accept the authority of bishops who moved around the country. They were known as flying bishops and some have suggested a similar solution be applied to the issue of homosexuality.

Presbyterian Church of NZ moderator Rev Michael Thawley says his church has not taken a position on the possibility of Government giving same-sex couples the same legal rights and status as married couples, and it awaits the Churches’ Agency on Social Issues (CASI) discussion paper on the issue.

“We hope congregations and parish councils will discuss the matter in relation to CASI’s position paper. CASI may make a submission to the government on its own behalf and congregations can do so too. But ultimately only the General Assembly can determine Presbyterian policy on the issue.

“At the moment the Church has no specific policy on either the authorisation or prohibition of the blessing of same-sex relationships” Michael says.

Rev Dr Margaret Mayman is a Presbyterian minister in a same-sex relationship. She says supporting civil legislation is the minimum the church should do.

“Gay and lesbian relationships are a fact of life in our society and some gay and lesbian couples are Christian. The church has a responsibility to nurture and provide guidance in these relationships. It is appropriate that the church should offer blessing and celebration of gay relationships within a liturgical context.

“Some gay and lesbian people do have stable long-term relationships, others do not. I think this is partly because the church and our society have not valued these relationships.”

Margaret says relationship blessing is an opportunity for a couple to seek the support of a wider circle of family and friends and would also convey that the church cares about the quality of this relationship.