New Zealand working group reports on same-sex relationships

Posted Feb 22, 2016

In 2014, the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia passed a resolution that created a pathway towards the blessing of same-sex relationships while upholding the traditional doctrine of marriage. The motion called for the appointment of a working group to devise “a process and structure” by which this could happen – and a process and structure to ensure that clergy who believe that same-sex blessings are contrary to “scripture, doctrine, tikanga or civil law” remain fully free to dissent. The Way Forward Working Group has today [Feb. 22] released its report. It proposes two rites of blessing to be considered by this year’s General Synod.

[Anglican Taonga] The long-awaited report of the Way Forward Working Group has been released.

Today’s publication comes almost 18 months since the 13-member group began its work – and it proposes two new liturgies to be considered by May’s General Synod.

These liturgies have been designed to allow for the blessing of couples who have been married in a civil ceremony – according either to New Zealand law, or to the law in the Pacific Island nations which form part of this church. These liturgies also create a pathway for the people in such relationships to become ordained.

Civil marriages between a man and a woman have long been recognized in law in both New Zealand and in those Pacific Island nations. In New Zealand’s case, of course, an amendment to marriage law came into effect in August 2013 – which allows same-sex couples to legally marry.

“A crucial matter for debate”

The Way Forward Working Group (WFWG) report makes a precept-upon-precept case for how such civil marriages could be blessed by the church.

The Anglican Church in this province is governed by a set of documents, the most significant of which are the Church of England Empowering Act of 1928, and Te Pouhere , the Constitution of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, which came into force in 1992.

Te Pouhere in turn specifies a number of “formularies” (such as a New Zealand Prayer Book/He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa ) which guide the Church in its worship and practice.

The new constitution also spells out a way in which formularies can be changed (or added to) –providing these changes don’t, in the words of the report, “represent any departure from the Doctrine and Sacraments of Christ as defined in Te Pouhere’s own Fundamental Provisions.”

The rites of blessing being proposed are being presented as “additional formularies”, rather than doctrinal changes:

“It is the view of the majority of the group,” the report notes, “that the proposed liturgies do not represent a departure from the Doctrine and Sacraments of Christ, and are therefore not prohibited by Te Pouhere, however the group also recognizes that this will be a crucial matter for debate.”

A canonical ‘lacuna’

The report then goes on to consider how blessings of civil marriages relate to the question of ordination of people in same-sex relationships.

Only those people who are in “rightly-ordered relationships” can be considered for ordination.

The Way Forward group has agreed that a right-ordered relationship is “one that has been committed to God and received the blessing of the Christian Church.

This is where the group has identified a “lacuna” (a legal gap – where existing laws don’t cover a situation) in the church canons.

Since the 1970s, New Zealand law has given its legal thumbs-up to civil marriages – to couples who choose to marry, without any Christian dimension to their wedding.

At the same time, there’s never been any question about the church recognizing that these couples are, in fact, married – they haven’t been required, for example, to have their civil marriages blessed retrospectively in order to be recognized as married.

The Way Forward Group’s two proposed liturgies deal with that lacuna.

Should these rites be adopted, heterosexual couples who were married in a civil ceremony (say, on the beach at Bali) will be able to seek for their relationship to be blessed by the Church.

And the WFWG is also proposing a separate, but similar, rite of blessing for same-sex couples who have married in a civil ceremony.

“The two rites,” says the report, “will be found to be largely similar. It is necessary to present both… to allow for the possibility of any diocese or amorangi choosing to adopt the rite of blessing for opposite-sex couples only.”

Extending the definition of chastity

Following on from the two proposed new rites is a proposed change to ministry standards, and an “extended definition of Chastity”, detailed in section 8 of the report.

The canons already make legal space for any priest or bishop who refuses to marry a particular couple.

That same protection, the WFWG argues, extends to clergy who decline to bless the civil marriages of same-sex couples.

“It is not anticipated by the group,” says their report, “that any such minister could be held to be non-compliant with any relevant parliamentary legislation through electing not to perform a rite of blessing for a couple married under civil legislation.”

The WFWG has also moved to head off the possibility of “flying priests” (or bishops) – clergy who parachute into a diocese or amorangi to perform any service of blessing which has been ruled out in that jurisdiction.

The way things now stand in the canons, any priest or bishop travelling outside his or her own territory to conduct a marriage should, as “a matter of courtesy”, seek the permission of the local bishop to do so.

Where services of blessing are concerned, the WFWG proposes “an explicit strengthening” of that courtesy – the local bishop’s approval-to-bless would become mandatory.

A matter of integrity

“The working group believes that the proposed rites and canonical changes… if adopted, will enable every priest and bishop in the Anglican Church of this province to retain their integrity within the Church: those who believe the blessing of same-sex persons is congruent with scripture, tikanga and doctrine, and those who believe that such a blessing is contrary to these.”

Section three of the report lays out the theological platform upon which the working group’s proposals are made, while section four explains how the working group has understood the theology of ordination and marriage – in a way which might allow blessing of legally married same-sex couples, and therefore how such a blessing might affect qualification for ordination.

Section five gives an explanation of the schedule to the proposed canon permitting a liturgy to bless those who have entered a civil marriage.

While in section six, the working group tackles the question of how the General Synod could lawfully adopt the proposals contained in the report – and section seven describes the specific processes by which a change can be made.

Section eight goes on to identify and explain the proposal for changes to canons which would be needed to enable a person who has entered a same sex civil marriage to qualify for ordination.

Meanwhile, the changes to the canons required to introduce formularies for the new blessings for those who have entered a civil marriage are set out in section nine.

Section 10 contains the form of the proposed schedule which would accompany the canonical changes proposed, section 11 is the proposed motion that will be put to the upcoming General Synod – while section 12 contains the two proposed rites of blessing.

  • Click here to read the full Way Forward Working Group report and supporting documents.