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Civil union divides opinion

By Joanna Davis

Heterosexual couples could learn from the loving, committed relationships of their same-sex peers, says Methodist president Rev Dr Lynne Frith, speaking in support of the Civil Union Bill currently before Parliament.

“I know a number of gay and lesbian couples who could provide an example to other people and it’s a pity more marriages aren’t like those,” says Lynne. “Love is a gift from God and therefore I don’t believe that God would find loving, committed relationships of any kind abhorrent.”

The Methodist Church does not have an official position on the Civil Union Bill and the accompanying Relationship (Statutory References) Bill but many church leaders believe the bills address an important issue of justice.

Convenor of the Faith and Order Committee Rev Terry Wall says he personally supports the Civil Union approach because it would provide full legal rights to gays and lesbians. The committee last year considered the ordination of gay ministers but has not been asked to look at this particular issue.

Others within the church think the law change would acknowledge diversity and provide another option for committed heterosexuals as well as same-sex partners. Trinity College principal Rev Mary Caygill says in New Zealand there are a diversity of committed relationships.

“We want to support them, particularly where there are principles of fidelity and a long-term commitment. I’m aware of heterosexual couples to whom marriage does not appeal for one reason or another. Civil union provides another option.”

Mary says the Bible does not mention homosexuality per se and is open to different readings. “There’s a huge diversity in terms of scriptural interpretation. Scripture does uphold marriage but it’s not helpful to debate on scripture alone.”

Lynne Frith says the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. “There are a few references in the New Testament to some kinds of sexual behaviour between men, but it doesn’t actually talk about committed homosexual relationships.”

Superintendent of the Methodist Church’s Evangelical Network Rev Nigel Hanscamp has a different view. He says one thing is clear from the Bible: “Scripture talks about a standard of behaviour in terms of sexuality, and I would want to hold to that. The Bible talks about sexuality between a man and a woman in very positive terms and when it does talk about homosexuality, it condemns it.”

“Our core belief is that marriage is for a man and a woman and the public don’t see any difference between it and civil union. For the average Joe on the street, civil union begins to look and smell like marriage.”

Nigel guesses the bills will make it into law in some form and is not completely against that. “We acknowledge some issues need to be addressed in the law, particularly for de facto couples. It’s similar to prostitution law reform. There was an injustice there but the law went too far.”

Nigel believes the Evangelical Network’s position is not well supported within the church community but he says the network is used to being a dissenting voice on issues such as the ordination of gays.

“We have struggled with what it means as a church to live together. Through discussion, prayer and even argument we have to agree to go ahead with some things. Personally I would prefer the church left aside some issues.”

One issue he would like left aside is that of Methodist ministers blessing civil unions. “The Evangelical Network doesn’t get stridently up in arms unless our buttons are really pushed. This one pushes buttons in terms of the church context. We certainly object to it.”

It’s clear that many Christian ministers would bless civil unions. In June a group of about 80 Christians met in Wellington to form a national network Christians for Civil Unions. A panel of church members from Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic and Baptist churches spoke in support of the legislation.

Methodist Rev Susan Thompson is part of the Hamilton branch of Christians for Civil Union. As an openly gay minister, Susan has had “wonderful support” from her two congregations. Susan and Christchurch-based partner Nan Russell are both involved in the church – Nan as a layperson – and actually met at Methodist Conference. The pair has discussed registering a civil union although Susan is not certain the legislation will pass.

Susan's parish council have supported the bills and Hamilton Christians for Civil Union will make a submission in favour of them. Susan says legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships is an important issue but she believes it is a political compromise compared with a change to the Marriage Act.

“The Civil Union Bill still gives a feeling of a second-class status to gay relationships but you have to balance that with what’s politically realistic.”

Susan disagrees with those who say the Bible condemns homosexuality. She believes the Bible was a product of its time. “They wrote out of their own context and understanding of sexuality, but that was 2000 years ago. Faith is dynamic and living.

“When I look at Jesus, his ministry and his teaching, I see somebody who talked about love of God as an inclusive love. He challenged tradition and was interested in the quality of people’s relationships.

“To me, what’s most important about a relationship is whether it’s based on qualities of respect, love and mutuality. A marriage license does not mean you have a good relationship.”