This hurts

(Part two of two on the 2014 General Assembly)

Eight years ago I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand as a youth commissioner. It was one of the darkest times of my life… I can’t blame all that on the General Assembly, but it didn’t help. My self-identity was already pretty negative, so sitting in a room with hundreds of people and finding out that 65% of them had just voted to exclude people like me from leadership roles because our relationships are considered immoral, abnormal and offensive was enough to tip me over some kind of edge for a time.

During the debate, I had spoken about how the message would put people off engaging with the church, how it would feel like a rejection to many members of the church, of how gay, lesbian and bisexual young people were already vulnerable and didn’t need another organisation telling them their experience of love was unacceptable, and of how the rule would cause pain to families and friends as well. I finished by saying “We don’t choose who we fall in love with. And we don’t choose to become leaders in the Church. God calls us. Let’s leave our lives in God’s capable hands.”

After the debate I was caught crying on the 6 O’clock news.

It was General Assembly time again at the beginning of the month. Even from a distance I have been experiencing waves of anger, sadness and pain. This year, proposals to remove the leadership rule (banning people in same sex or de facto relationships) failed again, and a new rule was added which bans ministers from marrying same-sex couples.

It hurts. It hurts to receive the message, once again, that we are not accepted and valued as we are. It hurts to have our relationships treated, not only as sinful, but as more threatening than other sins. So much so, that the church needs special legislation to protect itself from us.

So yeah, it hurts. Even for me, supported as I am by a wonderful inclusive community. I worry about the impact another rule will have on people who are more isolated, and especially for young queer people growing up in Presbyterian families who are just starting to figure out who they are.

When I started going to church as a teenager, it was all sort of hypothetical. I didn’t even know any queer people, so I was not very optimistic about the prospect of finding a girlfriend. I went to a church where the leaders proclaimed the “love the sinner, hate the sin” message. As a 14 year old I struggled to know exactly what that rule meant for me. What exactly defined “the sin.” Did having a crush count? Writing a poem about a girl? What about a kiss? At what exact point did things tip over from loving to hate?

As I wrote when I was a little older:

It sounded so simple when he said it,
“We love the sinner, but hate the sin”
yet somehow I can’t keep it all separate.
Sinner and sin.
Person and practice.
Lover and love.
Hater and hate.
Love the sinner, hate the sin…
Somehow I always end up
hating myself.

I was lucky. The support of my family, some of my friends, and eventually the welcoming congregation I found, carried me beyond the messages of hate.

Here I am, at home with my two dear ones. Windhorse, who is sleeping but just let out a little cry. I remember wondering what she dreamed about when she was tiny. Boobies and milk probably. Now she has grasped enough language to be able to sleep-talk about things we can understand! Apparently she dreams about train trips with her mums.

L is sleeping too. Tomorrow I will try not to stay up so much later, but tonight I’ve decided to snatch this late night quiet moment to finish this blog post. Soon I will tip toe into the bedroom and curl up beside her as she dreams.

Tonight, suddenly it has struck me – I have crossed the line.

This is the stuff they hate.

Our lives are so tangled together and so infused with queer love. Love which the church refuses to celebrate. Love which makes us unsuitable people who shouldn’t be given the same opportunities to contribute to our church life. There’s no way to separate out one part which makes us “practising” (and probably parenting without a man involved makes anything else we’re doing a moot point in terms of contributing to the moral decline of society). So this, all this, is what they hate.

How exactly is the church showing us it is still loving?

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From the outside

(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.

The “sides” of the LGBT Christian debate

The book I wrote about in my last post reminded me that we (people with differing views within the church) have some similarities in how our every day theologies are shaped and in how we relate to one another…

…but we are not experiencing the debates about the place of queer people within the church from equal positions.

Quite often I have heard comments implying that the debate about queers in the church is characterised by two opposing groups, both equally extreme in their views, with ordinary people in the middle just wanting to get on with being the church.

We are not equal.

The current Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ law denies congregations the right to call ministers who they are led to call. It denies people the right to follow God’s call and offer their gifts to the church as ministers and elders.

Those of us who oppose this rule are not telling other congregations that they have to call gay, lesbian or bisexual ministers. We’re not even telling them they can’t call homophobic ministers. We are just saying that we want the space to be able to call our own ministers, and to follow God’s call in our own lives.

There are people in the denomination who want a ban on ministers officiating at same-sex weddings.

Those of us who support same-sex marriage are not going to force any minister to marry a same-sex couple. We are asking for the space for ministers to be able to discern for themselves who they should marry… and for Presbyterians in same-sex relationships to be able to have their love affirmed and celebrated in a church ceremony led by a minister if that is what they want.

Some people are debating. Some of us are debated.

There are some of us who are at the heart of this debate. It’s not about abstract issues, it’s not about theology, it’s about us. Our lives.  Our identities. Our right to be believed when we speak about the ways God is working in our lives. Our right to offer our gifts to our church. Our love. Our right to experience the gift of sexuality and the joy of a loving relationship.

As well as the “two extremes” line, there’s the “why do people have to keep bringing up this issue over and over? We just want to have a peaceful time at General Assembly…”

Some of us can’t stop bringing up this issue. It’s about our whole lives.