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Churches arrive at civil union crossroads

By Paul Titus

The Civil Union Act will come into force at the end of April, and churches must decide what role they will play in marking such unions.

Neither the Methodist or Presbyterian Churches have yet discussed the issue thoroughly. For the time being at least, they will leave the decision whether to take part in civil union ceremonies up to individual ministers and congregations.

After he consulted with members of the church’s Faith and Order Committee and Evangelical Network, Methodist president Ron Malpass has issued interim guidelines that will be in place until Conference 2005.

Among the key provisions are that presbyters who wish to be a civil union celebrant must apply as individuals.

“The church will not stand in the way of any presbyter who applies to become a civil union celebrant,” Ron says. “However, such application cannot be made as a representative of the Methodist Church of New Zealand.”

Any fees to be paid on application or for annual registration must be met by the presbyter. There can be no expectation that the parish will meet these costs.

Registration as a civil union celebrant does not entitle a presbyter the automatic right to use Methodist or Uniting Congregation church property for such celebrations. Only if the parish council or leaders meeting decides to allow the buildings to be used for this purpose may civil unions be conducted on church property.

The Presbyterian Church’s executive secretary Kerry Enright says General Assembly has not considered the matter of civil unions. While the matter was raised at the last Assembly there was insufficient time to discuss it.

"We are in the process of developing some material to aid ministers and marriage celebrants in their reflection on civil unions,” Kerry says. “The Church respects the range of genuinely held beliefs on civil unions, and we encourage thinking and discussion on the range of issues raised. At present, individual celebrants are making their own decisions about whether to apply."

Some Presbyterians would like to see the church make a decision whether or not it would allow its ministers to perform civil union ceremonies. Only the Assembly can set such binding rules and the next Assembly is planned for September 2006.

In order to gauge the range of opinions regarding civil unions Touchstone spoke with two Presbyterian ministers with opposite stances.

Rev Norman Wilkins is the minister of Kapiti Uniting Parish and has applied to become a civil union celebrant. He did so after consulting his parish council, which supported his decision.

Norman says he supports civil unions for a series of reasons. One is his understanding of Christian ministry and his perception of Jesus as a supporter of those people society marginalized.

“Jesus seemed to try to get alongside and enhance the lives of people who were not seen as respectable. My suspicion is that if Jesus confronted with gay people he would at least he been friendly and supportive.”

A second reason Norman supports civil unions is that he sees society becoming increasingly open and accepting of different people. In the past Protestants hated Catholics and vice versa but now they accept one another. In the Southern United States there is now greater acceptance of Black people.

In New Zealand attitudes have changed toward the Chinese and after a long struggle women were given the right to vote. In both cases society is better for being more accepting.

“Recently New Zealand legalized prostitution and society hasn’t changed in the least. In a few years I think gay couples will be integrated into society and we will hardly notice. Society will be unchanged by it.”

Thirdly and most importantly, Norman says he supports civil unions because he believes people living in stable, long-term relationships are happier, live longer, save more money, and bring up children who are functioning members of society.

“Stable marriage is the ideal building block for society. There is lots of evidence for this and no evidence that gay relationships that are stable and loving are any different or have less benefit to society that such heterosexual relationships.

“As a church we are here to enhance goodness, stability and fulfilment. It gay relationships are strengthened by being recognised by society, then we should do so too.”

Norman says he hasn’t always supported homosexual rights. He signed the petition against homosexual law reforms in the 1980s but since then an accumulation of small interpersonal experiences have changed his mind.

He believes it would be sad if the Presbyterian Church tried to legislate against ministers becoming civil union celebrants. It would be an embarrassment because the church should be part of society and becoming more accepting is the way society is moving.

Rev Colin Marshall of St Johns Presbyterian Church in Mt Albert says there are several reasons Christians should steer well clear of the new civil unions. This new social status was designed and promoted to minority communities under the Labour Party manifesto of 2002. In fact the Labour Party web-site still carries the full detail on its Rainbow web page.

According to the web-page, civil unions were to be introduced to ensure “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, fa’afine, takataapui and intersex communities” received full “rights and responsibilities equivalent to those of marriage”. Labour’s social engineering agenda states any discrimination against these groups regarding adoption and guardianship will also be removed by law. The bill goes to some lengths to make clear, that unlike the Marriage Act, those joined by a civil union may be of the same sex.

“Why it is called a ‘civil union’ bill?,” Colin asks. “According to the bill a civil union is meant to deliberately distinguish itself from marriage. What is the distinctive aspect of marriage that it removes? It is divine authority. Christians, along with other religious and quasi-religious groups lay claim to marriage being a God-given institution.

“In contrast, this state sponsored bill seeks to remove any religious context or connotations from what it promotes. Cynically though, religious groups are granted permission to solemnise events in accordance with their beliefs. This is a bill that creates the authority and presence of marriage in the domain of the state.

“For Christians who believe that a marriage is a union of man and woman whom God, by His Spirit, has brought together, and with whom God is intimately involved, this is sacrilege at its worst. Christian marriage is more than a physical co-habitation, human loving and protection of ‘legal rights’. It is a life-long spiritual union in which God’s Spirit shares an integral part.”

Colin says marriage is a sacred institution in the Judeo-Christian world with roots to the earliest scriptures. The act of God in creating a help-mate one for another of differing genders (Genesis 2) and His intent for them to be faithful to each other through life is clear. God intended life-long partnerships of a man and a woman and only hardness of heart stopped it from being so.

In Mark 10:1-12 Jesus’ validates the Genesis text. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh.’ It is one thing to deal with the pastoral realities of our sinful failure. It is another to try and re-write God’s Word to suit ourselves – or to be sucked into a secular world that wants to exclude God at one of the most crucial times of life.

“In light of this one wonders how Christians in any walk of life would want to be associated with civil unions, let alone ordained ministers. How can Christians sponsor state sin? But then didn’t Jesus have to deal with ‘experts’ who knew better?”