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.


How can we speak with one another about God?

Sometimes we have more similarities than we might think.

I have just been reading a fascinating book about two congregations wrestling with the place of gay people* in the church. God, Sex and Politics: Homosexuality and Everyday Theologies, by Dawne Moon, has given me a greater understanding of my own beliefs, and raised some questions about how I relate to others within the church.

Moon did an ethnographic study of two congregations within the United Methodist Church (UMC) in the USA. One congregation, which she calls City Church, was debating whether to join the Reconciling Congregations Programme (RCP), an organisation seeking to welcome and affirm gay, lesbian and bisexual people.  The other congregation, which she calls Missionary Church, had some alliance with Transforming Congregations, an organisation supporting the ex-gay movement and promoting the belief that homosexuality is sinful. There were a range of views in each congregation.

As someone who was raised in the UMC but is no longer a Christian, and informed by critical theory, Moon was able to analyse the ways people naturalised beliefs. That is, the beliefs that were different between groups, which might change over time or in response to different social situations, became timeless, natural, God-ordained truths for some people.

She also observed that the debates about homosexuality were actually about much more – understandings of community, sin, the nature of God. Debates about homosexuality threatened to expose deep theological differences within the denomination. I have been aware of this within my own denomination – but Moon articulates it well.

Moon examined the way that every day theologies were shaped. People’s beliefs were influenced by all kinds of things. Yes, the message they heard from the pulpit played a role, but their beliefs were also shaped by their own experiences, interactions with other people, bible verses which seemed to leap off the page or resonate with them, and feelings – whether a belief or course of action made them feel settled, untroubled.

What I found most fascinating was the similarities between the two congregations.

1.       In both congregations people saw themselves as inclusive and welcoming.

At City Church, a lot of people wanted to declare that gay people were welcome and didn’t have to change who they were. They wanted their church to be a sanctuary for ordinary gay people (but perhaps not weird or radical queers) who had been hurt.

At Missionary Church, people thought that gay people should be welcomed to the church, as all sinners were welcomed. People saw themselves as sinners, struggling with their own issues, and trying to live as God intended them to. Ordinary gay people (as opposed to those lobbying/converting/taking advantage of the vulnerable) were not seen as the other, they were fellow sinners and should be supported to let go of that sin so they could come closer to God.

2.       In both congregations people saw the bible as sacred and a source of God’s truth and both understood it contextually

At City Church people generally understood the bible as God’s word written, translated and influenced by people. They saw examples of the same-sex temple prostitution and sex with slaves which are condemned in the bible as very different from contemporary gay relationships and saw the purity codes as overruled by the coming of Jesus. They drew connections between biblically-justified/church-supported oppression in the past and oppression of gay people today.

At Missionary Church, many people were aware that in the past the bible had been used to justify slavery, racism and exclusion of women from ministry but saw these examples as different from homosexuality. They saw that sometimes scriptures could be misunderstood or misused. They did not see that the same could be happening with debates over homosexuality – because homosexuality is condemned every time it is mentioned in the bible

Moon observed that in both congregations, scripture had to make sense – it had to fit with what they already knew to be true. “Members looked to scripture to naturalize their understanding of God’s will, and they looked to what they knew about God to help interpret scripture.”

3.       In both congregations people had a list of does and don’ts

At City Church people sometimes denied having a list of does and don’ts, but as they talked in seemed like it actually came down to a short list. Do love God and love others. Don’t hurt people. Sin seemed to equate to being unloving or cutting people off from God’s love.

At Missionary Church people generally believed that God demanded that they follow scripture and not commit various sins – don’t lie, don’t be promiscuous, don’t be an alcoholic, don’t have gay sex. By sinning people hurt others, hurt themselves, and drove God further away.

4.       In both congregations people saw those with opposing views as wrong

Some at City Church thought that those who saw homosexuality as sinful were misguided, ignorant and fearful about homosexuality, and if they could be educated about how ordinary gay people were and how much gay people had been hurt by the church they might change their views.

At Missionary Church some saw the bible as a complicated message which was hard to understand if you were immature in your faith journey. Sometimes people who were pro-gay were ignorant and misguided about what God meant. Other times people were deceived by the pro-gay lobby.

5.       In both congregations people saw the body as earthly/separate from the sacred

In both congregations people framed the human body – and sex – as earthly, profane, fallen and very separate from what was sacred. Church debates often focused on gay sex, locating gay people in the physical and profane realm. In addition, those who were pro-gay often talked about homosexuality as biological and innate as a way of countering claims that it was a sinful choice. This also reinforced gay people’s separation from what was sacred and spiritual.

Moon observed that gay people, and their allies, seemed to be trying to move where the dividing line between body/spirit, profane/sacred was, so that they could be on the other side of it, rather than challenging the divide itself.

There was so much more that I found fascinating and I’m probably not doing the book justice. You should read it.

What does it mean for me?

“The right to be believed when one testifies as to God’s power in one’s life. The right to receive the church’s blessing for answering God’s calling…”

Moon’s summary of what gay church members seek really resonates for me. I have felt God’s presence in my life. I have a deep sense of God’s blessing of my relationship and my family.  I sense God calling me to be part of change within our church, creating a space where all are welcomed and supported to reach their potential. I have an understanding of a loving God who celebrates diversity and of Jesus who believed in radical love and sought liberation for the oppressed. This understanding has been influenced by reading scripture and learning about its context… listening to ministers and theologians… my own experiences… the still small voice… the sense of resonance and rightness in my heart of hearts.

God, Sex and Politics has reminded me that others hear that still small voice, or feel something as God’s truth in their heart of hearts,  but they have very different beliefs about God’s intentions.

There are people within my denomination who have very different theologies. We debate issues like the place of queers in the church but we don’t acknowledge we have very different understandings of what God is like and what God intends for us and the world.

I have known people who have believed that homosexuality is sinful, and they were not ignorant, deceitful or setting out to hurt people. And yet… I find myself thinking they must be misguided, ignorant about biblical contextualism, misled by the rhetoric of anti-gay lobby groups… how could they have got God’s message so wrong?

I don’t want to frame others as ignorant or malicious if they’re not. I don’t want to make judgements about whether others are really experiencing connection with God. Some of the people at City Church who thought homosexuality was sinful felt like their views weren’t heard. They were offended to be lumped in with racism and sexism (the implication of comparing their stance to things Christians have supported in the past) and they felt hurt and infuriated by the way the issue was being discussed. Is it possible to talk about this issue without someone feeling hurt and frustrated?

I can’t stand by while injustice is present in our church. I guess I have a similar bottom line to some of the people from City Church; that is, love God, love others, don’t hurt people. I know that the message that homosexuality is sinful hurts people, and I want people to be aware of that.

But, with the stories of this book to reflect on, I will continue to reflect and pray about how I can relate to those with opposing views.

And, I will continue to work to create the space where LGBTQueer people can experience God’s love and follow God’s intentions within the community of the church.

Whatever others believe, that is what I know God calls me to do.

* Almost all the time within both congregations people talked about “homosexuality” and “gay people” rather than LGBT/queer people and I have used that language here while discussing their perspectives.


Still with me? Here’s part 2.