A guest post by John Stringer (former Anglican pastor).
I attend a Christchurch Anglican church that is 170 years old and was here before my suburb. It’s where Charles Upham double VC is buried in our historic cemetery. For several years I was also an Anglican pastor under license to the Bishop of the Canterbury diocese. I also attend another local non-Anglican church. I suppose I’m a ‘double-dipper.’
The 2018 NZ General Synod of the Anglican church of Aotearoa and Polynesia passed a resolution that same-sex unions are ok and can be blessed by God in Anglican churches. Synod changed the constitution and canons of the church to reflect this. It was largely a pastoral response, to make gay people feel more welcome in the church. It was argued the Anglican church has moved on “doctrine” before (on slavery; on women in ordination; divorcees being able to remarry; etc). The African wing of the church disagrees with the 2018 resolution, as do many Australian bishops. The Maori and Pacifica branches of the Anglican church in NZ also disagree, but abstained from the Synod vote, so the decision was a ‘minority’ one when it passed.
This shocked many conservative parishes in NZ. Parishes around the country have met and conducted a series of informational meetings and invited speakers from both sides to put their case. This was respectful, informed, and dug down deeply in to the issues. There were published notes and commentaries for parishioners to read, study and consult as discussion over many months progressed. Other parishes are happy with the decision; some have ignored the issue altogether.
The resolution also stated that no conservative parish must be forced to conduct same-gender union blessings in their churches, and where vicars leave on an issue of conscience, the new bishop (appointed last week, the Rev Dr Peter Carrell, who supports same-gender blessings but not same-sex marriage) must appoint a like-minded vicar (a tenet of “continuity of theology”). A general principle now reigns in the Anglican church, that there are “two truths” and that Anglicans in NZ “choose to disagree.”
This is a position many cannot accept. Some Australian bishops view it as “apostasy.”
The consequence is, that many NZ vicars have already, or will, resign from the Anglican church of NZ and Polynesia. Some parishes will leave on mass with them to form a new Anglican denomination under the oversight of another bishop (perhaps from Tasmania). If they leave, they must forego their buildings and assets and depart.
I understand the Nelson diocese does not agree with the Synod 2018 resolution. In the Canterbury diocese, St Stephens Shirley is leaving on mass with its vicar. St Christopher’s vicar has resigned. St Saviours is leaving, as is St Johns. St Tims is deciding. Many other parishes are confronting the choice soon. There are approximately five parishes leaving at this stage, perhaps with more to follow.
That number is not indicative. Many more parishes disagree with the Synod resolution but will stay and dissent from within and accept the assurances of the bishop about “diversity of belief.” Colloquially called “stoppers,” they’ll stop (stay) and fight the theology from within while others leave completely and form new parishes outside the Anglican fold.
In other words, the Anglican church is splitting apart over the gay issue, as did the Methodists.
My own vicar at St Paul’s Papanui resigned last sunday, and the parish will decide what to do as a group on 9 September at a special AGM (next sunday). Some in my church will leave to start a new parish nearby with the vicar, others will stay at St Paul’s but accept the position we will not be forced to “bless” unions we do not agree with.
For most of us the issue is not actually about the gay question at all, which has been around since time began. The church was born into very open sexuality amongst the Greeks and other non-Jews, so this is nothing new. It is not “progressive” or “modern” or “forward thinking.” It’s just the ‘same-old same-old.’ You can view any number of red-figure Greek painted vases of 450BC depicting explicit graphic sexual activity between two, three or more sexual partners. It’s old hat.
For most of us, it’s actually about the authority of biblical scripture and whether it is a faithful communique on the will of God, and whether we can rely on it to teach, correct, guide and reprove all humans as to the right ways of living. Whether slavery is ok, or child brides, or drunkenness, or stealing, or being dishonest, or corrupt, etc. This also applies to forms of human sexuality and their practice. Mostly in the past we’ve said ‘what goes on in someone’s bedroom is of no concern to anyone.’ I agree. But it’s not just now in bedrooms. Churches are being asked to condone theologically a particular form of private sexual practice. Why?
Even the “MeToo” campaign accepts rules and lines on sexuality: some things are ok, others are not. The debate is about where you draw the lines and on what basis. Many feminists are now confronting the trans-gender movement, saying people do not have the right to re-determine “womanhood.” For many Anglicans their line is their understanding of what the Bible is and its canons of orthodoxy in New Zealand.
For many it is really about whether the Bible is divine or not.
Verses like 1 Timothy 1: 8-11 confront us in this current debate. Written by the Apostle Paul, formerly a killer of Christian Jews, to a young leader in the new church about what is correct and right (the teaching of Jesus) and the conduct of the church, called “sound doctrine.”
St Paul says ….”We know that the law [about what is right or wrong] is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious…for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality…and for whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me (Paul).”
Many feel the Anglican church is now openly supporting something they believe is wrong, and telling everyone it is ok and that God “blesses” it. They feel betrayed and let down. They do not feel they have ‘left’ anything, but that liberal persuasions within the church have left them behind by altering the tenets and teachings of their church.
My own view is this. We are all “sinners” (a very unfashionable word these days). People wrestling with homosexual attractions and who act on that, are in the same waka as me with my own human idiosyncrasies. But the message of Jesus, His Gospel, is that there is a better way to be, and we have to turn and follow Him and live a particular way, what is called “being Christian.” The trying and the walking, and falling down, and getting back up is “The Way” (as the Church was first called in Jesus’ time). Faith in Christ is the righteousness, not the quality, or failure of, moral life. We are all free to be gay, or christian, but for many, those two things are not compatible. For others it is. How that is decided is part of the debate. Because it decides all sorts of other things too, down the track.
I have never accepted “sexuality” (a way of doing sex) as a definition of another person’s humanity. I resist having those definitions pushed on to me as re-definitions of gender, of law, or of “human discrimination.” It is simply a way of having sex, and human sexuality is a movable feast as the LGBTQix initialism attests.
What is a “gay chef”? What is a “gay farmer?? What is a “gay taxi driver”? Why is your bedroom sexual preference a definition of anything, anymore than what music you like or what kind of dog you prefer?
Scripture needs to be discerned and understood with wisdom: it is prose, poetry, historical narrative, epic tales, apocalyptic, song lyrics, and narrative. It also comes to us through the filter of the sacred texts of the ancient Jewish, and then Christian, communities (ca 1200s BC – 90 AD). Jesus radically updated the Old Testament ways with a new generic Law of Love. For example, we were no longer to stone adulterers (as the Jews were taught) but to live by being sexually moral and eschewing sexual immorality and to look after vulnerable women. It was permissible to eat food offered to pagan idols, if your conscience was clear that there is no such thing. But if you thought it was wrong, it was wrong to eat that stuff. Circumcision was now “of the heart” and unnecessary physically, etc.
Others interpret the Bible differently. The debate is about what it is and how we arrive at the conclusions we do, and what underpins the beliefs we have. For example, Martin Luther’s famous 95 treatises nailed to the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517 defined a whole new (revived) stream of Christianity in conflict with the corrupt secularised Catholic state of the day. Or the Scottish Covenanters. Or the whole Protestant Reformation, all of which challenged church or secular positions of their eras. The Anglican church itself, was partly formed out of debates over Holy Matrimony among other considerations.
I will stay at St Paul’s after 9 September. I will not leave with my vicar, a long time friend (with whom I have been in Anglican ministry myself) or go with him to start a new parish community nearby. I respect his conscience and agree with him theologically, but for me it is important to stay together as a faith community at St Paul’s after 170 years; a church that was here before this suburb, and was a light around which this suburb of Christchurch then grew.
• I accept that we are promised by the new (liberal) Canterbury bishop we will not be forced or harassed to accept, or conduct, same-sex blessings in our church. This is an issue of “diversity” and “different beliefs.”
• I accept that we will have appointed by the new bishop, a like-minded vicar, so we have “continuity of theological teaching” at St Pauls.
• We are free – by resolution of the NZ Synod– to disagree and dissent which I and my fellow parishioners at St Paul’s parish will do. We will continue to “worship in spirit and in truth” as we understand it according to our consciences.
• We will continue to love and interact with gay people as we always have, accepting them as people, but not on the basis of their sex lives or having that pushed on to us as some sort of determinant.
This for me, is about faithfulness to God and his teaching as I perceive it; with a loving and respectful attitude; and above all grace towards everyone.
The mission of the first century church, the Apostles, the Holy Spirit, was to establish what were the proper teachings and canons of faithful Christian being (“the truth”) amid a flood of Hellenistic and Roman and other pagan variations and falsehoods (such as: that caesar was a god; that ‘Greeks’ cannot be proper christians; that Jesus never actually died; that you can sin as much as you like so that Grace abounds; that you can believe in Jesus but must keep old Jewish laws and festivals as well; that Jesus was secretly married to Mary Magdalene; etc).
That refining process, and how it filtered down to us today as “the Bible” has had a divine hand over it. But we must discern and understand what is written, and this is an ongoing journey with one another in love and grace. Dogmatism is not always helpful. But on issues of salvation, and what is acceptable to God, we must be clear if we are to be anything, in the same way we all subscribe to certain rules in Rugby. Both change. But Rugby does not change to League or Soccer. It tweaks within its canons.
The world today, as it was in the Hellenistic age of the emerging church, was fluid with sexual mores of all kinds (old men – like Socrates – loving multiple young boys; owners sexualising slaves, people having sex with animals as a religious ritual, multiple partners or spouses, etc). In the early church at Corinth a man was in a relationship with his mother or stepmother. Paul rebuked this fellow (and the church) and expelled him from the christian community.
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.”
Son and mother could live that way, but not as a representation of the new church. So the two different “ways” were differentiated. Paul explicitly says they were not to separate themselves from immoral people “in the world” but to define it as unacceptable inside their church which was a brand new standard-bearer of morality for all, whether slave or free, Greek, Goth, Roman or Jew. Ironically, Romans then persecuted and killed Christians for ‘moral weirdness.’
Paul confronted and corrected Peter for separating himself from Greeks and favouring Jews out of cultural fear.
The world is simply in love with permissibility, that is what it loves, and it wants this to be accepted so it can do whatever it wants. What many Anglicans are struggling with, is adding “God’s blessing” on to that as well. They worry there is will be no “wrong” or moveable definitions.
That is a line too far for many of us who want to hold to canons and traditions that have served civilisation well in the past.
St Paul also said to Timothy…“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
It’s my hope as the NZ Anglican denomination splits apart (simply scaffolding around the real invisible church) that everyone accords the others grace and tolerance as we accept a diversity of belief on this dividing issue.