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Path clear to ordain gays and lesbians

The Methodist Church of New Zealand (MCNZ) has reached an understanding that it will ordain openly gay and lesbian people. Groups within the church who oppose this principle can state their opposition to it but not block such ordinations.

The understanding reaffirms the Church’s criteria for ordination, which do not include sexual orientation. It also reaffirms the criteria for stationing, which mean no gay or lesbian presbyter would be appointed to a congregation that does not accept that presbyter’s sexual orientation.

This step follows the decision of Methodist Conference 2003 which sought a way that would allow people with differing opinions on the issue to stand with integrity within the church. The Maori wing of MCNZ, Te Taha Maori, accepted the principle of ordaining homosexuals but some groups within the Tauiwi wing did not.

Conference asked that a memorandum of understanding be prepared that would respect the integrity of those who oppose the ordination of gay and lesbian people and at the same time to enable the church to move forward on the issue.

President Rev Lynne Frith and vice president David McGeorge initiated the process of preparing the memorandum. In consultation with the Taha Maori tumuaki and the executive officer for Tauiwi Strategy and Stationing they formed a task group.

This task group included representatives of the MCNZ’s Evangelical Network, Sinoti Samoa, Vahefonua Tonga, Wasewase ko Viti kei Rotuma and Te Taha Maori.

Among the issues the task group considered was the role and function of the MCNZ president. Lynne Frith says it is clear the president must abide by and act upon decisions of Conference and is not free to stand aside from them. This means he or she would have to ordain all those the Church has accepted for ordination so people approached for nomination to the office of president or vice-president must reflect on this.

“There was also a lot of discussion about ordinands and collegiality. The memorandum states that people who are ordained as presbyters and received into Full Connexion enter into a collegial relationship with other presbyters and deacons. People preparing for ordination need to take this into account.”

Lynne says it was very clear during the consultations that the Pacific peoples’ synods have made a significant shift so they can live with the decisions of Conference on this issue.

“This doesn't mean everybody's happy about it. Some gays and lesbians and more liberal people feel it is not a sufficiently strong statement, and some evangelical people won’t be satisfied either. But we all recognized we couldn’t work to either extreme position."

Vahefonua Tonga superintendent Rev ‘Epeli Taungapeau says the negotiations that led to the MOU were not easy. They had to reconcile differing traditions, theological perspectives, and views of the way the church should work. But the result is encouraging.

“It is very good that the Church has moved from a negative, reactive mode to a positive mode. This issue has sapped the energy of the church but it only one part of our ministry.

“There are a whole host of other things we can now concentrate on to make ourselves a positive church. We have been looking inward and now we can move forward to carry out the mission of the church,” ‘Epeli says.

Evangelical Network superintendent Rev Nigel Hanscamp says he is satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations with the president and other groups, and the memorandum of understanding gives the Network most of what it sought.

"The memorandum of understanding states clearly that the Evangelical Network, among others, represents groups of people within the Methodist Church who do not support or endorse the ordination of gay or lesbian people. We continue to reaffirm our belief in celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.

"The memorandum provides protocols we have asked for that respect our integrity. One important point is that it states clearly that if a congregation is associated with the Evangelical Network, no gay or lesbian presbyter will be stationed there without its consent," Nigel says.

Openly gay minister Rev Susan Thompson says with the memorandum of understanding the church has reached a good point. It has been a long and difficult process of argument, conversation and prayer.

“This understanding is a compromise made in the good spirit that was present at last year’s Conference. People were genuinely looking for solutions, hearing one another, and seeking a way forward.

“It is not the end of the journey, however. We will keep working until gays and lesbians are accepted in the whole of the church. Any journey is a number of steps. This is a long and difficult journey. A significant milestone is to be celebrated and we are grateful for it.”