The Marriage Amendment Act One Year On: How are the Churches Responding?

kiwisLast night, the Centre for Theology and Public Issues and the Otago University Students’ Association Queer Support co-hosted a public event on how churches are responding to the Marriage Amendment Act that passed through the New Zealand parliament last year. A wide number of people were invited to speak at the event, five of whom said ‘Yes’. These were Kelvin Wright (Anglican Bishop of Dunedin), Greg Hughson (Methodist Minister and Otago University Chaplain), Mark Chamberlain (Roman Catholic Priest at the Church of the Holy Name and Otago University Chaplain), Bruce Hamill (Minister at Coastal Unity Presbyterian Church and Convenor of the Doctrine Core Group for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand), and Neill Ballantyne (Queer Support Officer, OUSA).

Each were invited to respond to the following three questions:

Question 1: In general Christian Churches in New Zealand were opposed to the amending of the Marriage Act to include couples of the same gender. This passed on the 17th of April 2013. This amendment allowed for ministers to refuse to marry a couple for matters of conscience. In your experience how are the churches responding to this change and in your opinion how do you think they should respond?

Question 2: It has been said that there is a sense of inevitability that the church will become more inclusive in its attitudes towards LGBT people and sexual morality. How would you respond to this claim?

Question 3: What does the marriage equality process show about the relationship between church and society in New Zealand on issues of morality. Are the churches still able to give moral leadership to wider society or is wider society giving leadership to the church?

Kelvin did well to highlight the nature of Anglicanism as broad and determined to hold together, through its polity and eucharistic centre, irreconcilable positions on all manner of subjects, a characteristic for which it remains deeply indebted to Queen Elizabeth I. Greg documented something of the long and painful journey that New Zealand Methodists have travelled on their road to, in 2003, signing a Memorandum of Understanding  which would allow diversity of opinion on the matter of marriage of LGBT persons and which made it possible for people to stand together with their differences and ‘with integrity’. Mark draw attention to the nature of all human sexuality and relationships as ‘gift’, stressed that the church must walk a difficult path of being deeply immersed in the culture while not being held captive to public opinion and to take its marching orders from the Gospel as interpreted through, and in continuity with, Scripture and the tradition. He could not, therefore, envisage a time when Rome might change its line on marriage. He did not, as far as I can remember, use the language of ‘sacrament’, although such was clearly informing his definition of marriage. Neill’s overall point last night was a good one – that the inclusive nature of the kingdom (or ‘queendom’) of God is radically at odds with the expressions of pharisaism and gate-keeperism that too often characterises those communities called to bear witness to that kingdom – but he might have found a more gracious and considerate way to make it.

The stand out response, in my view, was that by Bruce (who managed to cram a two-hour lecture into about 10 minutes!). Below is a transcript of his response:

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Thanks for the privilege of being part of this forum and also for the commitment of CTPI to let theology out of the closet (so to speak) on this issue.

Let me speak about what I know a little about – the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – my denomination. Our response as a denomination was to reaffirm a traditional definition of marriage in stark contrast to the Act. This decision came after many years of bitter conflict in our General Assemblies, first over homosexuality and leadership and more recently over same-sex marriage. At this point the conservative view is in the ascendancy and consistently gets over 60% of the vote on these matters. It looks as if this next Assembly will be no exception and I suspect there will be a move to ensure that those minister’s whose conscience calls them to reject the national church position will no longer have the possibility of ‘conscientious objection’ on this matter.

I know that the denominational response is what the ‘public’ sees. However, in my view the denominational response is unlikely to be the best response. Let me explain. In my view, churches need to respond with discernment in community – and denominational bodies are not really communities (certainly not primary communities) let alone communities of discernment. Even the way most local Presbyterian congregations are structures means that thy usually don’t function well in this way.

Before I say something about what I think the Church should have done (and why), a few comments on Question 3.

I think the response of the church to date shows at least two things about the relationship between church and society.

  1. It shows that the wider society has been profoundly influenced by Jesus Christ and his crucifixion, and his decision to live in solidarity, without violence, with those who were the victims of society. We cannot underestimate the influence of this story on our culture in the West.
  2. It also shows a willingness on the part of the church not to take the decisions of the wider society as morally authoritative. Both of these things I take to be good things.

As for moral leadership, I think this is a loaded and not particularly helpful question. You could say that both Church and Society are giving moral leadership but with a different set of morals, or in different directions. The question assumes that there are universal moral principles at stake here that all parties agree on and then someone just needs to act on or make statements on in order to give leadership. If there is no such thing then it’s not a question of who’s leading who but of who’s leading in the right direction. In other words the question of who’s leading who can only be answered in the context of a wider narrative of what the good life is. For Christians this is really about what it means to live in conformity to and communion with Christ and thus ‘with the grain of the universe’.

The irony is that, in my view, the wider society, with its willingness to make space for minority groups, seems to be more closely conformed to Christ on this matter than those who claim to be Christian.

To return to Question 1: In my view what the PCANZ should have done is not simply to reaffirm the traditional definition of marriage but should have been prompted to rethink the limits and nature of our understanding of marriage. Actually in 2012 when the PCANZ did reaffirm a traditional definition there was also a motion put to the Assembly that the Doctrine Core Group (which I convene) produce a discussion paper on the theology of marriage. The motion was rejected. It was only in February of this year that the Council of Assembly did call for a discussion document, which we have since produced.

What I want to do today is offer four reasons, from within the tradition itself, in support of a rethink.

  1. As a protest wing of the catholic church, we of the reformed tradition have a little motto which goes ‘the reformed church is constantly being reformed’ (we like to say it in Latin so no one understands it). I think the point is a simple one. The institutions within which the people of God live their lives are not platonic forms. There is constant pressure from the triune God for their reform. The working out of the gospel means that the church is always learning how to be the church. Reform of institutions is something we are called to do on good authority. Both Jesus and the Apostles were right into it. Think of Israel’s great institutions – the Temple, the Purity Codes and the Sabbath – none of which came of unscathed with their encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Not to mention the way Jesus profoundly challenged the centrality of ‘Family’. I often wonder whether Jesus’ motto ‘the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath’ might well apply to marriage. Think of Peter’s vision of unclean creatures and the way it paved the way for a rethink of ethnic identity. Look at Paul’s deconstruction of the role of the Torah (Law) in the light of Jesus’ coming. Should we exempt marriage from such reforming processes? It seems to me that the onus is clearly on the traditionalists to come up with a reason for why the incarnation makes no real difference to how we think about marriage.
  1. Secondly, in Christian ethics, nature and the structures of creation play a subordinate role to the ‘new creation’ in Christ (see, e.g. Gal 3.28). This is to say that Christians understand human life and action in the light of its ‘end’ (eschatologically). For us the fulfilment of creation’s purposes, the ‘kingdom of God’, has arrived in the middle of time interrupting all our practices and redirecting them towards a new form of life. The good life is an embodiment of the future made possible now. In Paul we see this as he elaborates on the close connection between the church’s relationship to Christ (which he calls ‘a profound mystery’) and the marriage relationship. A similar analogy is drawn in Hosea. And both, as Rowan Williams observes in his wonderful essay ‘The Body’s Grace’, remind us that ‘there is a good deal [in the Bible] to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be.’ When the Bible talks of marriage it has little interest in the pragmatics of human reproduction. And so the case can be made that whatever biological assumptions have been made up until quite recently in discussion of marriage, these things don’t really get to the point of marriage as the church is learning to practice it in the light of the eschaton.
  1. Having said that, the ‘kingdom of God’ arises in the context of an old creation and is not divorced from biology and history. An account of marriage must in turn take into account any new understanding of creation and of human biology and psychology (and so on). Scientific disciplines help us at precisely this point. In the ancient world of the biblical writers there was little understanding that the dynamic processes of human desire might be constrained and structured according a same-sex orientation as well as a heterosexual one. This is a significant mandate for reconsidering the modes of marital expression that the kingdom of God might take among the people of God. So (1) the call to reform (2) the priority of eschatology (3) the biological context, and finally what I want to call …
  1. Marriage as sanctification: The biological context of the Christian life suggests to us that there are some partners, for some of us, who are apposite without being opposite. It may be that this situation ought not to bar same sex couples from marriage precisely because of the significance role that marriage can play in Christian discipleship. If indeed the bodily relatedness, the one-fleshness of marriage is a kind of icon of the trinity (the relatedness of God) and if indeed it reflects something of the mystery of Christ and his body, if indeed it is a discipline of learning to love our nearest neighbour as our self, if in short it is really about sanctification, then the conservative elements in the church may be effectively seeking (in the words of Eugene Rogers) to ‘deprive same-sex couples not so much of satisfaction as of sanctification.’ (A lot more needs to be said here of course). Because bodies matter in salvation. Because we are being saved as embodied creatures in all the particularity of our limitation, then we should seriously consider revising the limits of our doctrine of marriage. To quote Eugene Rogers again ‘no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples needs sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples’.

For these four reasons I say, it’s time for a rethink.

In conclusion (and in response to Q. 2): Is a more inclusive church inevitable? There is no inevitability this side of the eschaton. However, if we don’t define ‘church’ according to the particular institutions that claim that title, I remain hopeful (confident even) that God will raise up communities who will find ways of including LGBT people in the way of Jesus Christ.

8 thoughts on “The Marriage Amendment Act One Year On: How are the Churches Responding?

  1. Thank you Jason for putting this up on-line, it is a thought provoking statement from Bruce and one I will need to digest further when time prevails. I liked the comment about denominations not being [primary] communities or ‘communities of discernment’. I have been toying with this concept a little recently in work I am currently doing. So much of the denominational decision making processes are to do with ‘the party’ who senses their ‘spirit-led’ power of the moment, than actually discovering how to do a ‘re-think’ of ethical issues. With this debate I often think of the re-think that eventually took place among southern Presbyterians in regard to the marriage of the deceased wife’s sister some 25 years or so after it was made legal. Good to to have the marriage paper I hadn’t caught up with that.

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  2. Terrific, Bruce, just terrific. To be copied to file and printed for bookshelf.
    And thanks, Jason, for your discernment – i.e., for blogging Bruce’s concise yet comprehensive as well as propaedeutic response.

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  3. You’re very welcome, Murray. You did a stellar job chairing, and your crowd control skills are as exemplary as the extraordinary efforts that the CTPI and the Department of Theology and Religion are in hosting so many of these fine public events.

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