Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

What we face today... is a disunity

The big question - how can we be together when we have different understandings of Scripture? Bishop Richard Ellena's thoughts on that.

Bishop Richard Ellena  |  03 Feb 2013


How we might be together as Church with different understandings of scripture.

‘Unity in Diversity’ seems to be the primary value or the distinguishing feature, which we like to use to describe our ecclesiology.

It was certainly the driving force behind the changes in our constitution to create a three Tikanga Church back in 1992 – formed through a desire to affirm and enable our cultural diversity so that we might create an even stronger unity with three unique, independent and equal partners. We even saw it as a metaphor for the dynamic creativity inherent in the Trinity.

What we face today within our church is not just a broad diversity caused by differing points of view on one of the many, emotive issues that are challenging us as a church. They are only presenting issues that mask something deeper.

And that is a disunity (rather than a simple diversity) that has grown out of our inability to find common ground biblically, theologically (and maybe even spiritually) upon which we can discuss and debate these presenting issues. This is, of course, a consequence of post-modernity, a fertile seed-bed for the rise of contextual theology that values each individual’s contextual reading of the text – unless of course the other person’s context involves the acceptance of some foundational truth; then we have a problem!

As the Bishop of Nelson I represent, or reflect that part of our church found within each of our Dioceses (speaking for Tikanga Pakeha), that would, broadly speaking, describe itself as evangelically orthodox. We have a commitment to, and a high respect for, the authority of scripture, a commitment and respect that is also reflected in the constitution and formularies of our church and the primary reference point in the formation of the doctrines and the practice of the Church.

This is a defining issue for the evangelically orthodox because is is linked to core doctrines of  creation, redemption, human identity and therefore to the authority of scripture in determining a way ahead.

Over the past decades we engaged, with the wider Church, in deep theological and hermeneutical study of those difficult passages in scripture that presented a barrier to the ordination and remarriage of divorced people and to the full inclusion of women into the ordained leadership of the church – although some of the more ‘reformed’ parishes (most notably in the South Island) have members who still struggle with this latter issue.

We were very committed to fully participating in these hermeneutical huis that were designed to help us explore the difficult biblical passages referring to homosexuality. But we have not any closer to a common understanding and therefore a possible way forward. Although we had some excellent papers presented to us, the subsequent discussion and the feedback still comes back to the same issues that divide us as a church and the same polarised positions that threaten our unity.

Two new developments also entered into the process since it first began.

Firstly, the change in emphasis from a discussion on sexual orientation to a discussion on sexual preference.

Secondly, the popularity of contextual theology.

In traditional hermenetical study ‘context’ was everything. The author’s context was explored and studied in order to more fully understand the nuances of the passage being read. Our own contexts were brought under the microscope so that we might be aware of the cultural lenses through which we interpreted the author’s words.

Today our own context seems to be the determining factor in understanding and applying the words of scripture to our life and our situation. And because it is so individual there is no place for debate.

We are now drawing to the end of the final hui and (as already mentioned) we have found ourselves with very little common ground biblical or theologically. How do we move from this point and maintain 'the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace' when there is no peace?

I do agree with Bishop Victoria that there is a theological discussion to be held and that should be done carefully and patiently - I'm just not convinced that we have the tools to engage in that discussion.

It seems that General Synod has three ways to move from here.

Firstly it can take the discussions we have held - over several years now - and move to appove the motions regarding human sexuality that currently lie on the table of Synod. There is certainly a groundswell of support for that option within this gathering.

I personally would find myself in a very difficult position should General Synod make that decision because I would identify with all of those who feel they could no longer affirm their allegiance to General Synod because of what they understand to be a total rejection of the authority of scripture in determing the life and practice of the church.

Secondly, it could take the opposite action and refuse to agree to these motions and thus alienate those who passionately believe this to be an issue of justice.

Or thirdly, General Synod could explore a way ahead that would structurally enable individuals, parishes and Dioceses to become some kind of theological 'tikanga' or some other similar provincial structure  within which their belief in the unique and universal Christ and their commitment to the authority of scripture in determining their life snd practice is recognised and respected.

We've done this in 1992 and we are still united the sky hasn't fallen in - to he contrary, we are stronger because we made this courageous decision.

Maybe its time for an equally courageous move?