(Part one of two on the 2014 General Assembly)
These are my reflections, from outside and far away from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ). I have so many thoughts and feelings I have separated them into two posts. This one is about the process stuff. The next one is my reaction to another decision which excludes.
This year, there were several proposals to ban ministers from marrying same-sex couples, and a couple of proposals to remove the existing leadership rule (banning people in same-sex and de facto or civil union relationships*) The official report states:
The Rev Hamish Galloway spoke during debate saying that there had to be a better way forward for the Church to discuss what is a complicated issue. He ended his speech by laying down his voting cards and leaving the Assembly floor. Approximately 100 commissioners subsequently also abstained from voting by leaving the floor. People returned to the voting floor once voting on all sexuality and marriage matters was complete.
With a third of commissioners absent from the floor, the marriage rule passed easily. As Tim Watkin points out, it is a deeply un-Presbyterian rule. Traditionally, diverse views are recognised and ministers have liberty of conscious on matters that are not fundamental to our faith (and the learned people of the “Doctrine Core Group” have advised that this is not a matter of the substance of the reformed faith).
From unofficial reports I have heard that many people left in tears, that the moderator was in tears, that debate was curtailed on the next motion. I have heard that people saw signs of hope, that they felt something incredible happened, that there was some movement at last…
I am glad that people I like and respect saw signs of hope. I have been hoping for years that someone would come up with some sort of dramatic symbolic action. I have been advocating for a different sort of conversation, outside of the Assembly debates…
And yet I cannot bring myself to celebrate people walking out of the debate.
The national Church has been shutting me out for years. It has ruled, Assembly after Assembly, that I am not acceptable, that I am not welcome to participate in the full life of the church.
The Church has been literally shutting LGBTIQ people out of the debates about our future. General Assemblies are made up of ministers and elders (and a few youth reps). These are the decision makers in our church… and people like me are no longer allowed to become ministers or elders. While there is a lifeboat clause for existing ministers, the number of out gay, lesbian or bisexual ministers in our church has dropped. There were only a few to begin with, and with some leaving the country, or leaving ministry roles, or leaving the church all together… I only know of a couple who are left and I don’t know if there were any out LGBTIQ voices at this General Assembly. If the leadership rule is upheld, one day there will be none. We will have been silenced in the courts of the church. Despite the church’s attempts to exclude us, some of us are sticking with the church.
I want those who can speak to stay part of the Assembly, to speak for us. Our stories need to be told. I know that some allies did stay, and I am grateful for those who spoke. I know that some who walked out are allies. I am trying to understand their action as a sign of support.
I also feel frustrated at the walkout, because last Assembly the marriage ban lost by one vote. We will never know how it would have gone this time if all the commissioners had voted. Now we have another rule which excludes us.
I have heard a lot of people saying that they are sick of the debating. That it is getting us nowhere. I’ve heard that people are being “wounded” by the debates. I struggle to see how they can feel as wounded as those who are directly affected, whose lives are being debated.
As I’ve said before, the “sides” of this debate are not equal. The debates started because a group within the church decided we should have rules so that the whole church must abide by their views. Some of us keep debating because we want to create space for our views. We want space to live faithfully to God’s call in our lives. We are not saying that the whole church should abide by our views. We are not saying that all congregations should have an LGBTI minster. We are not arguing that all ministers should be obliged to marry same-sex couples. (Weird, anyway, to think that a couple would insist someone who did not support same-sex marriage would be ideal to lead their marriage.) The state recognises a diversity of views and gives ministers the right to discriminate if that is what their faith calls them to do. This church is not leaving ministers the right to NOT discriminate.
As Rob at St Ninian’s sums it up, the issue is not about marriage. “The issue is whether the PCANZ is a church that means what it says when it says all are welcome. Whether the church is able to allow a diversity of deeply held views alongside each other or whether there can be only one point of view acceptable.”
Walking away from the debate does not leave us in a neutral position. The current situation is one where there is space for only one point of view.
So yeah, I’m glad that there is a desire to do things differently… But I wish a dramatic stand had been taken before Assembly. Or I wish that a symbolic action, a disruption, could have happened without walking out. I think only a different sort of conversation will help us move forward, but it needs to happen alongside Assembly processes, because that is where decisions are made. For a diversity of views to be respected, General Assembly will need to vote to change the rules.
Rob reminds us (after Edward Hayes) to associate with the hopeful.
I am trying to understand the signs of hope some saw at Assembly. I am wondering how the signs of hope are going to be shared. I have had several conversations with people who had similar reactions to me when they heard about people walking out, but they had not heard anyone say that there were signs of hope. I am trying to feel hopeful that the walk out will inspire people to take action, to make meaningful conversations happen, to find a way for us to move forward.
I also am glad that at General Assembly there were people who stayed, who raised their voices speaking out for justice. Their voices give me hope.
So, these are my thoughts about the events of General Assembly. They won’t match up with the experiences of people who were there, but the PCANZ has said this is all I can have: General Assembly from the outside. The church from the margins. This is my point of view.
The rule bans anyone “in a relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman” from holding leadership positions in the church. A cynical person might think that it was carefully worded so that those who supported could argue that it’s not discriminating against people. But it is. Only some of us are being told that we have to choose: we can choose to be with the love of our life; that means choosing not to be accepted by the church.