A working group set up explore how different strands of thinking on sexuality could be kept together in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has published its interim report. The group was established after the May 2016 meeting of the province’s General Synod agreed to “let lie on the table” a motion on the blessings of same-sex relationships. The Synod instead called for a working group to look at structural arrangements to keep the different sides of the debate together.
In their interim report, the working group recommends that there should be “no alteration to the formularies of this Church” and that dioceses and bishops should be allowed “to authorise individual clergy within their ministry units to conduct services blessing same gender relationships.”
The working group also recommends that bishops and clergy should be given immunity from complaints “for exercising their discretion on whether or not to authorise or conduct services of same gender blessings.”
It also recommends “amendment of the declarations of adherence and submission to the authority of [the General Synod]” and recognition of “Orders of Consecrated Life to allow for those with clear theological convictions to have those convictions respected and protected.”
Explaining the recommendations, the working group says in its report: “We have tried to create places where each can stand without compromise to the beliefs they sincerely hold. The mandate talks of two integrities but it is more than that – there is a spectrum of views and so there needs to be a range of possible ways forward.
“This range of tools means that if you are a clergy person who is unable to support the blessings of same gender couples, then the canonical changes will ensure that you are not required to participate in such blessings and there will be no disciplinary nor adverse consequences for you declining to be involved.
“Similarly, if you are a clergy person who is supportive of such blessings or you see this as a social justice issue, then there will be a structure by which such blessings can occur and there will be no disciplinary nor adverse consequences for you conducting a service.”
On the formularies of the church, the working group says that it “acknowledges that as this Church is not of one mind on this issue it is important that the doctrine on marriage not change and that matters relating to the blessing of same gender relationships in this Church continue to be tested and debated across the theological spectrum.
“To enable ongoing debate, the [working group] thinks the formularies must remain as they presently are.”
An authorisation by a bishop to a priest to conduct a blessing for a civil same-sex marriage would be allowed under the provinces Canon XIV, which allows a bishop to “authorise a non-formulary service for use within a named ministry unit.” The working group recommends that this should be used when “the couple are duly married under civil law, when the vestry or equivalent leadership body within the clergy’s ministry unit has been consulted and its advice considered in good faith, when the service is in a form authorised by the bishop, and when the service would not contravene the general laws of the jurisdiction in which it is to take place.”
But they stress that bishops and clergy should not be “liable to complaint for exercising their discretion in this matter.” In the report, the working group says that it is “important that a bishop’s permission to conduct a service is granted only to clergy who wish to do so. No clergy should feel obligated to take services contrary to their theological conviction and conscience.”
And they go on to recommend immunity from complaints, saying that “a ‘no discipline’ policy is the best way to safeguard the consciences of clergy and bishops.
In order for each viewpoint to safely co-exist within this Church each needs to acknowledge that the other must have freedom of conscience and action that aligns with their theological convictions.”
In a letter to the bishops, clergy and people of the Church accompanying the report, Archbishops Winston Halapua and Philip Richardson explain that “Following a long and demanding debate at General Synod / Te Hīnota Whānui there was no clear way forward. Rather than force the issue, and largely due to the suggestion of the late Archbishop Brown Turei, it was recognised that more time was needed to safeguard all concerned and the matter was left to lie on the table.
“General Synod / Te Hīnota Whānui did however ask the Primates to establish a further Working Group. Its mandate, as set out in Motion 29, was to be tightly focused and its task was to ‘consider possible structural arrangements within our the three Tikanga church to safeguard both theological convictions concerning the blessing of same gender relationships.’”
They said that while the group’s mandate was to examine “possible structural arrangements which would safeguard persons holding different theological positions, there was also a primary focus that any recommendations made should hold our people together in the same ecclesial family without the need to pull apart.
“The biblical image held by the working group was that of Christ as the cornerstone of this church holding together both structurally and in love its many different parts. The mandate talks of two integrities, but the working group recognised, and many submitters acknowledged, that there are more than that; there are a spectrum of views and so there needs to be a range of possible ways forward.”
Dioceses and other ecclesial units of the church have been asked to provide feedback by 17 November, so that a final report with recommendations can be prepared for consideration by the General Synod in May next year.