BISHOPS could authorise individual priests to offer same-sex blessings in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, if a new compromise proposal is taken up.
A working group was set up after the Church’s last General Synod debate about church blessings for gay marriages solemnised in civil ceremonies foundered amid theological differences between the Maori and Polynesian parts of the Church (which backed the reforms), and the European-origin dioceses (which were divided) (News, 20 May 2016).
The small group of one bishop, two priests, and three lay people from all three groupings, or tikangas, of the Church has now reported back. It recommends that the formularies of the Church remain unchanged, but that diocesan bishops be permitted to “authorise individual clergy within their ministry units to conduct services blessing same-gender relationships”.
Those who object to same-sex relationships on theological grounds should have their convictions “respected and protected”, and there must be “immunity from complaint” for any bishop or priest who decided to conduct, or not to conduct, a blessing.
Civil same-sex marriage was legalised in New Zealand in 2013, but it remains prohibited in Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and the Cook Islands — the other countries in which the Church has a presence.
In a preface to the report, the two joint Archbishops of the Church, Dr Winston Halapua and the Most Revd Philip Richardson, wrote: “There are a spectrum of views and so there needs to be a range of possible ways forward.
“[The working group] have tried to create a toolbox of recommendations which will provide the structural and canonical changes needed to safeguard those of very different theological convictions.”
The report explains that it came out of last year’s “long, fraught, and painful” Synod debate, which revealed that many “deeply spiritual” Anglicans could not find any common ground. Instead of going back over the theological discussion, the working group was tasked with finding a way forward that would keep both sides of the debate walking together.
“If you are a clergy person who is unable to support the blessings of same-gender relationships, then the canonical changes will ensure that you are not required to participate in such blessings, and there will be no disciplinary nor adverse consequences for you declining to be involved,” the report states.
“Similarly, if you are a clergy person who is supportive of such blessings, or you see this as a social-justice issue, then there will be a structure by which such blessings can occur, and there will be no disciplinary nor adverse consequences for you conducting a service.”
Archbishop Richardson, who sat in on most of the working group’s meetings, told the Church’s website that he saw “deep humility” in the new proposal.
“What struck me was the absolute care that every member took to understand what was being said. They each made a real attempt to put themselves in the shoes of the other.
“I think there’s a deep humility in that stance — they’re recognising that this is a work that needs the whole Church to engage in.”
The working group believe these proposals could keep the Church together, Archbishop Richardson said. “My hope is that the Church will greet this report with care, and engage with the suggestions in the spirit in which they’re offered.”
The report will be debated by diocesan synods until November, before an expected submission to the next biennial General Synod, which due in 2018.