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

God-given diversity?

Edward Prebble challenges Bishop Richardson to second a General Synod motion recognising that same-sex orientation is "an expression of God-given diversity"

Edward Prebble  |  13 Jun 2011

Dear Bishop Philip,

Many thanks for the very helpful statement you have issued through Anglican Taonga.  It is useful in the context of this controversy to have such a clear statement, which, though you make it personally, may be taken at least as reflecting the views of the Bishops of your diocese.  I expect it applies to the majority of the Bishops of our Church.

I hope I am fair in distilling two key points out of a finely nuanced statement, first that the authority for setting policy around these sorts of issues does, and must, lie with General Synod, and second that in the absence of positive sanction from that body, you or other bishops do not have the authority to bring about what you see as a departure from accepted practice.

On the first point, I absolutely agree. That is why I and the late Professor Richard Sutton successfully brought to the 2004 session the following motion. That this General Synod/te Hinota Whanui

A  Acknowledges and honours the contribution that gay and lesbian Anglicans make to the life and ministry of our church,

B  Notes with concern the inability of the Anglican Communion to reach a common mind on issues relating to homosexuality, notably the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates, and the blessing of unions of those in same-sex relationships, and

C Requests the Standing committee of the General Synod/te Hinota Whanui to establish an appropriate process which

Makes a new study of these issues from an Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia perspective

Enables the Church to listen actively to the opinions of gay and lesbian persons, both practising and celibate, about these and related issues, and

Leads to a report on these issues, together with recommendations on policies for this church to the next session of General Synod/te Hinota Whanui.

While acceptance of the motion was not unanimous, it was agreed without division by a very clear voice vote, and remains the last substantive statement by General Synod on this matter. So what happened to the motion? 

It became clear that we were so divided at every level of the church, including within and between each Tikanga, that we could not find an acceptable way of making progress. 

So we committed ourselves to the Listening Process (that motion also moved by me), to Respectful Conversations, Indaba processes, and three Hermeneutics Hui. I suppose that work would be seen as partially meeting the request at C.1. and just possibly C.2. 

But the widespread view became accepted that synodical processes are unsuited for a decision on such a controversial matter. 

I recall a particularly fraught and unresolved debate in the Waiapu Synod around that time, which persuaded John Bluck that synod motions were not the way to proceed. So ever since, we have avoided making Synod decisions. Lambeth 2008, while not a synod, is perhaps the most notable example.

Which brings me to your second point. 

You have eloquently argued that a bishop is not free to act unilaterally based on an argument from omission. 

Your argument is similar to the argument from some Conservative Evangelical writers on such websites as the Latimer Fellowship, that biblical laws are proscriptive, i.e. a behaviour is forbidden unless it is positively permitted by scripture, rather than permissive, i.e. behaviour is permitted unless it is positively forbidden. 

Some of your colleagues and predecessors as Bishops of our Church have taken the opposite view. It was the view of successive bishops of Waiapu and Dunedin; it was certainly the view of Bishop Penny Jamieson when she ordained a number of gay and lesbian candidates. At least one of them was strongly encouraged in her sense of vocation by you in your earlier life as Warden of Selwyn College. 

This alternative view can be summarised as: Our Church has not declared sexuality to be a criterion for ordination, nor declared committed same-sex unions, as recognised by the State, to be forbidden. I have a candidate who is in every other way suitable for ordination, or a couple who present a godly expression of love and commitment. My understanding of the Gospel encourages me to proceed.

I understand that this is not now your view, and you are certainly in good company in the restrictive view you are taking. But it seems to me that to say only General Synod can make these decisions, and that bishops cannot proceed without Synod’s authority, but we do not wish to force the issue by making Synod come to a decision, you leave gay, lesbian and bisexual Anglicans in a cruel Catch-22.  That is why the people at St Matthew’s –in-the-City have some justification in calling this “White Collar Crime”.

You state “I believe that General Synod needs to reach an agreed position on these three inter-related issues”. I agree, and also agree that the priority is the first one you spell out: “whether sexual orientation towards those of one’s own gender is a consequence of wilful human sinfulness, or an expression of God-given diversity”. 

Perhaps, after eight years, this is a matter whose time has come.  I am quite sure that I could persuade one of my friends in the Auckland, Waiapu, Dunedin or Te Wai Pounamu delegations to the 2012 General Synod to move the following motion:

That This Synod/ Te Hinota Whanui regards sexual orientation towards those of one’s own gender as an expression of God given diversity.

Would you be willing to second the motion?

With warmest Pentecost greetings

Edward Prebble