A working group established by the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is recommending that bishops should be able to decide whether to authorize a service of blessing for same-gender couples, using provisions already within the province’s canons for “a non-formulary service.” But it says that there should be no change to “the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage [which] is to affirm marriage as between a man and a woman.”
In 2014, the provincial General Synod called for proposals for the blessing of same-sex relationships. A “Way Forward” group was established and put forward proposals for the 2016 synod that would have authorized new rites of blessing as “additional formularies” rather than doctrinal changes. But instead, the Synod voted to let the motion lie on the table “with a firm expectation that a decision to move forward will be made” when the Synod next meets later this year. The province established a working group to explore “structural arrangements” that would allow people who hold differing convictions about same-sex relationships stay within the Church. It published an interim report in July last year for consultation and has now released its final report.
In the report, the Working Group (WG) says that while it “recommends no changes to the Formularies of this Church, there is a recommendation to authorise a non-formulary service of blessing for the relationship of two people regardless of their sex or sexual orientation, in prescribed circumstances. This will include circumstances where the minister has satisfied him or herself that the relationship is loving, monogamous, faithful and the couple are committed to a life-long relationship.”
In setting out how it approached its work, the WG said that its terms of reference were “tightly focused” and its task was to consider possible structural arrangements within the Church “to safeguard both theological convictions concerning the blessing of same gender relationships.”
They received 26 submissions “from a range of groups and individuals across the theological spectrum,” the report says. “It rapidly became clear that there were not just two theological convictions or integrities but a widely held range of beliefs about marriage, same gender relationships, and blessing of same gender couples, about social justice, the unity of the Church, forgiveness, redemption and grace. What was equally clear is that the Christian people holding these very differing beliefs had prayerfully and diligently studied the scriptures and were invariably driven by their desire to do what was pleasing to God.
“Our mandate was not to consider the differing theological positions or to interpret scripture on this point. Instead we had a very specific task of considering what arrangements and safeguards could be put in place to hold us together within the same ecclesial family so that no one was forced to compromise sincerely held beliefs. We were asked to find structural solutions which would hold our Church together in that unity which Christ expressed, and which He has gifted to us. We have tried to stay faithful to our mandate and to His example and so the solutions we bring are those which we prayerfully hope will enable us to stay together.”
They describe their report as “a toolbox of recommendations which we believe will provide the structural and canonical changes needed to safeguard all theological convictions.”
They say that the “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.”
But they recognize that there may be clergy or ministry units who wish “to leave this Church as a result of the recommendations made in this report” and urges “respectful conversations” with them. It considered submissions advocating for extra-provincial oversight from overseas bishops. But it said that “other ecclesial arrangements like this were beyond the scope of what [it was] asked it to consider,” saying that its “task was to find structures within [the province] to safeguard theological convictions on human sexuality.”
It went on to say that “should faithful Anglicans in this Church wish to consider other ecclesial arrangements, it would be appropriate for this Church to consider how best to embrace this challenge with the same grace and spirit as is reflected” in the Synod motion establishing the WG, “seeking to find ‘breathing room’ for one another; to live out our commitment to each other in the light and life of the gospel.”
The Working Group ends its report by expressing its “hope that the structural changes proposed will allow the opportunity for faithful Anglicans to remain engaged in an ongoing fair and robust debate on human sexuality in this Church, without that debate occupying formal time at Synods…for some years, and at the same time accomplish a balance along the theological spectrum, between those who wish to conduct the blessings of relationships and those who do not.”
The 2018 meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia will take place 4-11 May, in New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island.