Our ACANZP Taonga website has published an edited address to his annual Synod of a retiring diocesan administrator. This edited address includes the following comments in respect of the blessings of same-sex partnerships and the indiscriminate selection of gay and lesbian people for church ministry:
"If I am good enough to have undertaken a ministry of financial management and overall administration of the Diocese – and to have been affirmed in this – then I'm good enough to be considered for all forms of ministry in this church."
"Is it not a supreme irony that the church is the only institution in our society that has an exemption from the Human Rights Act? The church that once led on human rights, social justice, relief from oppression and discrimination, now has a mandate to practise abuses of human rights and discrimination against gay people in church and in other churches and religions, even against women."
"that when I come back to the Diocese I will find two things:
• Firstly, that it will have found the courage to come up with a blessing for same-gender couples. After all, we have blessings for dogs and trees.
• Secondly, that the Diocese will have a policy which makes clear that being gay and in a stable relationship is not a barrier to ordination."
A little barb to prod the church to make progress is this observation:
"And many of you will wonder why the church is seen as increasingly irrelevant to so many."
Let's start with the observation cited just above. A society which wholly and enthusiastically embraces same-sex partnerships will find the church increasingly irrelevant (if it has not done so already). But we can query whether society has been so enthusiastic! Over in California, for example, this week, a proposition forbidding 'gay marriage' has been approved in a referendum. The margin was not terrific; one could say that California is divided on the issue. Tonight we may find in NZ that we have a National Party-led government: if so, that in part will be a reaction to our current Labour Party-led government's 'social engineering'. If our church is ambiguous on homosexuality, perhaps it more evenly reflects the temper of Western society than is implied in the barb above!
As for the rest of the case made above, I find it raises more questions than it appears to resolve.
Is the church another social institution which needs bringing up to date with the remainder of society in respect of 'rights'? I would argue that the church is a social institution with a distinctive set of beliefs not wholly in harmony with the general beliefs of our society around (e.g.) employment and the distinction between private lives and public offices. In church ministry an important question is whether the way we live 'pleases God' (cf. one possible lectionary reading for Sunday 9 November 2008, 2 Corinthians 5:9-10). It is simply insufficient engagement with the teaching of Scripture to assert that living within a same-sex partnership should be inconsequential to acceptance for ordained ministry, or that such a partnership should be blessed without further ado. The church as an institution is precisely a body gathered around the Word of God, existing in the first place because people have heard and responded to the preaching of Scripture. To impose upon it a mandate unfounded (or, not yet agreeably founded) on Scripture is to force an internal contradiction into the very rationale which makes the church what it is.
Should the church be exceptional when measured against conventional understanding of 'rights'? The case made above is that it should not be exceptional. (The case made above also stretches to a condemnatory and unjustified attack on the church as thereby 'abusive', but I shall set that aside here). The difficulty with the case made is that it involves its own (so to speak) doctrine of exceptionalism. Measured against the church's tradition, inherited not only from apostolic times, but earlier in the life of Israel, that followers of Christ should live celibately, or in marriage, the claim that same-sex partnerships should be blessed, and that one or more partners applying to be ordained should not be discriminated against because of that partnership is a claim that stable same-sex partnerships are a valid exception to the church's tradition. But in asserting this exception, without further argument, the question arises, why only this exception? A church engaging with this possibility cannot escape consideration of other candidates for exceptional status: a stable heterosexual partnership which is not a marriage ... polygamy (a 'live' issue at least on the African continent) ... an 'open' marriage ... From the perspective of 'rights' the church could not make one exception without making all. The church is hesitant (I suggest) to make one exception because it feels responsible not only to safeguard and uphold its tradition, but also to avoid discarding it completely through allowing one exception which must lead to all exceptions being accepted. Thus it has some reason for its hesitancy, rather than some phobia it cannot get over.
Then a final question concerns the extent to which the argument about the church being unexceptional vis a vis 'rights' is being applied. I find it is very, very rare in these kinds of discussions for the state and status of the Roman Catholic church to be included. Their policy of celibate male priesthood is discriminatory (from a 'rights' perspective) against married men, married women, and single women (to say nothing of recent moves being made to ensure that not even celibate gay men are accepted into the priesthood). But we hear few if any voices asserting that the Roman Catholic ministry should be brought to heel. If the Roman Catholic church is excepted from our discourse on these matters, why cannot the Anglican church also be excepted? We have our own tradition to uphold and as much 'right' as the Roman Catholic church has to do so!
In our search for a way forward through the moral controversies of our time we need better arguments than proffered here if we are to unite behind a significant change to our received tradition.
As for dogs and trees being blessed ... some of us have never done so and have no intention of beginning to do so!