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Presbyterians adopt strict rules for ordination

By Julia Stuart

The tension was palpable as the 2006 Presbyterian General Assembly re-convened for the ‘sexuality’ debate, described in the day’s agenda as ‘Barrier Act matter: Standards of Leadership’. The hall at St Kentigern College in Pakuranga, Auckland, was packed, and the public and church media, confined to the gallery and with strict limits on their ability to record and report verbatim, were restlessly attentive.

The 90-minute session progressed in careful Presbyterian order, with newly-installed Moderator Rt Rev Pam Tankersley keeping firm control. The motion before Assembly read:

The General Assembly now rules, in accordance with the supreme and subordinate standards of the Church and with the previous Assembly decisions, that this church may not accept for training, license, ordain or induct anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of faithful marriage between a man and a woman. In relation to homosexuality, in the interests of natural justice, this ruling shall not prejudice anyone who, as at the date of this meeting has been accepted for training, licensed, ordained or inducted.

For the past two years this motion, forwarded from the General Assembly in 2004 under a procedure set down in the Barrier Act, has been considered and voted on in presbyteries and synods around the country. That process had resulted in a 12-10 majority.

Questions of information or clarification began the debate. They ranged from asking how the relevant information would be elicited from candidates (normally in a ‘conversation’ was the response) to the implications of the rule on employment and human rights – even though ministers are not employees.

The debate itself proceeded predictably but with deeply-felt opinions charitably expressed. The final vote, by paper ballot, was not as close as expected; the motion passed with a 65 percent majority. Silence greeted the decision, though emotions broke through as commissioners left the hall and were greeted with the equally predictable media scrum.

A motion later in the day attempting to extend the second part of the motion to apply to those in “sexual relationships outside of faithful marriage” as well as homosexuals, was more narrowly rejected.

Fall-out

Mercifully, there was little of the exultant power-playing that characterised the 2004 Assembly’s support of this decision. Assembly’s mood was clear, however, as later in the proceedings it soundly rejected a proposal that General Assembly support the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, which concerns using force by way of correction towards a child.

Support for the Assembly decision, voiced by AFFIRM chairman Rev Stuart Lange, focused on the endorsement of Biblical standards. ‘The church has had the courage to stand by its own convictions, even though they are in a sense counter-cultural, Stuart said. But he felt for those upset by the decision.

The mood among the Association for Reconciling Congregations (ARC) supporters was quiet, sad and sometimes tearful. Leader Margaret Mayman said they took a long-term view of the issue.

“Many historic struggles for justice have gone on for much longer than the church has been talking about sexuality,’ she said immediately after the decision. ‘We know its day will come and justice will be done,” Margaret said.

Later the cracks started to show, with congregations in Hamilton, Wellington and the South Island saying they would call the best leaders for their needs irrespective of sexuality. Latest to take this stand is Chalmers Church in Timaru, which passed a resolution dissociating itself from the Assembly decision.

Moderator Pamela Tankersley has responded cautiously. “It is only to be expected that those whose views were not sustained by the assembly would be disappointed, and perhaps angry, that what they hold to passionately has not been agreed to,” Pamela said

“We have clear processes to be followed when someone comes forward to be trained, licensed, ordained, and this rule is now part of that process. If a parish chooses not to comply with these processes, we will work with them as each instance arises.”