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NZ Presbyterians vote to bar gays from leadership

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) has moved in a different direction from other mainline Protestant churches in Australia and New Zealand with its Assembly decision to exclude gays, lesbians, and people in de facto heterosexual partnerships from leadership positions.

In making the decision the PCANZ rejected a compromise proposal similar to those of the Uniting Church of Australia and the Methodist Church of New Zealand that would have left the decision whether to accept people in such sexual relationships as leaders in the hands of presbyteries or congregations.

The resolution PCANZ adopted with the support of 62% of delegates states “this church may not accept for training, licence, ordain or induct anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman.”

The ruling covers both elders and ministers of word and sacrament. It is not retrospective.

PCANZ spokesperson on the issue Rev Graham Redding says the motion required 60% support to pass. Over the next two years presbyteries will have the opportunity to discuss the decision, and it must then gain the support of 60% of Assembly 2006 to be adopted permanently.

Graham was part of a work group that presented the non-legislative, compromise proposal to Assembly. In preparing the proposal the work group took into consideration a series of ‘committed conversations’ among people of different views involving some 500 people in 50 parishes.

“The report was not simply a matter of finding a middle ground. It had a theological foundation regarding the way the Bible functions in the life of the Church and how we understand the unity we share in Christ.

“We suggested being one in Christ commits us to a ministry of reconciliation in which we bear one another in costly grace while we continue to work through issues that threaten to divide us.

“Assembly did not follow this line of thinking, however. It focused on pragmatic concerns and preferred to frame the debate in terms of homosexuality as sin. If it is sin, how can we tolerate it in leadership?”

Graham says those who support the resolution believe it will create a way forward and end debate on the issue but many people are not convinced.

“If the resolution becomes church law it raises questions about definition and application. For example, what is the definition of ‘faithful’? Does it cover those who look lustfully at another person, which Jesus warned against when he talked about adultery of the heart? Does it cover someone who has had an affair but is subsequently reconciled with their spouse?”

“It also raises pastoral questions. No matter how much we say it’s a leadership and not a membership issue, that is not how it will be interpreted by those most affected by the ruling, who will feel that we now have two classes of citizenship in the church.”

Rev Stuart Lange is co-chair of Presbyterian AFFIRM, an evangelical network of people committed to the spiritual and theological renewal of the church. Since its inception in 1993 one of AFFIRM’s main concerns has been to oppose “practising homosexuals” in leadership.

Stuart says AFFIRM opposed the compromise proposal because it would have given equal validity to conflicting theologies that are offensive to each other.

“We didn’t accept that a radical revisionist interpretation of scripture should carry the same weight and status as the orthodox, mainstream understanding of Christian sexual ethics.

“It may have been acceptable to liberal and middle of the road Presbyterians but it was unacceptable to the biblical conscience of thousands of evangelical Presbyterians and the ethnic streams within the church.

“If it had gone through the church would have haemorrhaged with the loss of many elders, priests, youth leaders, youth, and parishes. There could have been a collapse of national finances and very likely a major schism within the church.

Stuart believes the decision may signal the end of the era of liberal dominance in the PCANZ. As a result the church will be spiritually strengthened, which will have a good effect on New Zealand.

He emphasises that AFFIRM is not a fundamentalist but a mainstream evangelical organisation. It is not narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, or literalist, and it has never opposed women in church leadership.

Rev Fraser Paterson of Khandallah Presbyterian Church opposed the resolution. He calls it exclusive, divisive, and judgmental and says it is counter to the Presbyterian tradition that congregations have the right to call their own ministers.

Fraser believes it will reinforce social attitudes that the church is narrow-minded and out of date. And he disagrees that the church’s classical positions cannot be changed.

“The classical position was that women should not be leaders in the church. It is explicitly supported by the authority of scripture but we got over that.

“For 1500 years Catholicism was the classical position of the church. Presbyterianism is part of the reformed church. Reform doesn’t stop. We have to keep examining ourselves as we learn new things and over the past 30 years we have learned much about homosexuality we didn’t know before.”

“The authority of scripture was used to justify Apartheid. But overall the teachings of Jesus are more inclusive. Jesus was involved with people who had been marginalised. He supported people like the tax collector, not those trying to uphold strict laws.”

Fraser is also concerned about the implications of the decision under human rights legislation. While the church may be able to claim exemption from parts of the Human Rights Act, this is sad. The church should be at the forefront of human rights, not trying to avoid or talk its way out of them.