Two Ways Forward

Two ways forward lie before the Anglican Church in the province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. One way is to adopt the recommendations that have been made in the report of the Working Group that was formed in consequence of Motion 30 as agreed at the 2014 General Synod / te Hinota Whanui. To choose that way is to choose to divide our Church. There is not the slightest possibility that conservative parishes and clergy will agree to remain part of a body that had accepted the recommendations framed as they are in the Working Group’s report. Nor could any conceivable amendments make the recommendations acceptable.

The other way is to analyse why the Working Group has got it so badly wrong and to start again and do it right this time. I hope that that is the path we follow, and so I offer my own preliminary analysis here.

A Hopeful Starting Point

Reports from those who attended the 2014 General Synod / te Hinota Whanui say that there was a prayerful sense of unity among the delegates despite the extreme differences in views regarding the blessing of same-sex relationships. It was that feeling of unity, it seems to me, that paved the way for Motion 30. Two integrities were sensed, and a way was to be sought, if possible, to formally recognise those two integrities within the processes, structures and liturgies of the Church, as a common faith in Jesus Christ was acknowledged, and a common desire to serve his kingdom.

The ideal way forward for the working group would have been to begin with that foundation and work very carefully forward: “This is what we have in common; where does that lead us in respect of the charge that Motion 30 has given us?” Every part of the report prior to the recommendations themselves needed to be statements that could be affirmed by all parties. Such a process may then have led to recommendations that all parties could support. I acknowledge that even then it may not have done so, and that the recommendations might still have needed to be adopted by majority vote within the working group, but:

  • I am sure that the liturgical recommendations would have differed in significant ways from those presented in the current report, and have come much closer to something able to be accepted within the conservative parts of the Church.
  • The preliminary sections of the report would have given the General Synod / te Hinota Whanui a clear overview of the issues involved, as seen from both sides, so far better equipping delegates – and, afterwards, the diocesan synods – to evaluate the recommendations and accept or reject them.

Recognising Integrity Despite Diversity

When I say, “I disagree with my sister on this or that issue of doctrine or practice, but I believe that she holds that position in integrity,” it should mean that I have put on her moccasins and walked as far as I possibly could in them. I have started at a point where we were standing together and I have explored in all sincerity the processes of reasoning and the life experiences that have led her to her current belief, and I have asked myself at every turn, “Would God have me make the same decision here?”

Since we are talking about two integrities, we must suppose that at some point I have answered that last question, “No, my sister made a mistake at this turn; I can see why she made the turn that she did, but I cannot follow her.” Nevertheless, that deliberate process of having walked in her moccasins is what enables me to affirm with conviction that her position is one of integrity. An affirmation made on any lesser basis, merely some feeling of good will, is hollow.

And, of course, my sister has a responsibility to reciprocate, not perfunctorily dismissing my position because it differs from her own but understanding my arguments and journey and sincerely testing her own convictions against them. Only when she has done so will her affirmation of the integrity of my position be meaningful. “Let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth.”

Integrity in the Way Forward

The report that the Way Forward Working Group has produced contains some useful observations and findings. Nevertheless, it shows signs of the pressure of time under which it was produced. Its preliminary sections are one-sided, representing the view of the majority who are in favour of the blessing of same-sex relationships and failing to give respectful acknowledgment of the views of the minority who are not. If the Working Group’s recommendations are to form the foundation of the ongoing recognition of two integrities within the Church, surely its own proceedings and report should have modelled that very thing, but they do not.

The Emmaus Road

Page 5 of the Report handles the “Emmaus Road” passage from Luke 24 in a way that many conservative scholars would consider fast and loose, eisegesis rather than exegesis. I am not saying that the Report’s viewpoint is necessarily wrong. With fuller exposition, it might conceivably be acceptable. However, the Report presents its viewpoint as though it was accepted already on all sides and thus it discounts the other supposed integrity.  This is not a wise foundation to lay for the Report’s later recommendations.

Living “in the Now”

The first paragraph of Motion 30 uses the phrase, “in the now”. The Report (on page 5) has turned this into the question, “What does it mean to be human in the now?”  I believe that the instinct of most conservatives would be that this is the wrong question. The correct question is, “What does it mean to be Christian in the now?” Our first duty is to Christ. Observing Christ and listening to his Word, we learn best how to serve humanity. We do not firstly observe humanity for the purpose of learning how best to serve Christ, because – according to orthodox doctrine – humanity is fallen and not a safe guide as to its own best interests.

Again, I acknowledge that there is a debate to be had here, and the Report’s point of view might on deeper consideration turn out to have merit. My point is, it seems wrong and disrespectful for the Report to proceed summarily as though the debate had already been had and the result already agreed.

Complicated vs Complex

Indeed, “now we see in a mirror, dimly,” and “…I know only in part…” (Report, p.6) However, even while stating that, the Apostle Paul makes it clear in the surrounding chapters (1 Corinthians 12 – 14, in particular but also in the entire epistle) that there were clear solutions to most of the differences with which the Corinthian community was struggling. Conservatives will see in their more liberal brethren too great a readiness to appeal to complexity when, after all, the matter is merely complicated and can be solved with prayer and sweat, and consideration of the first principles of what it means to be in Christ.

By including this appeal to supposed complexity, the Report has weakened its chance of persuading conservatives to take seriously its recommendations.

Questionable Appeal to Hebrews

On page 8, the Report appeals to Hebrews 1:1-3a to support its assertion that, “So it is throughout Christian history that Doctrine had to be thought out, and lived out in the worshipping life of the church, with reflections and ongoing decisions made through Councils and Creeds.”  While the assertion may be correct, no conservative is likely to agree that it follows as such from the Hebrews passage. By prefacing that section of the Report with such careless handling of scripture, the Working Group has again undercut any persuasive power the Report may have had for conservative readers.

Unbalanced Bibliography

Other commentators (see, e.g., http://anglicandownunder.blogspot.co.nz/2016/03/a-way-forward-section-5-critical-review.html) have noted that the Report’s bibliography is unbalanced:

  • “…for the most part, recent Anglo-American liberalism and rather obscure” (Brian Kelly, March 31, 2016 at 8:07 AM).
  • “The strangest thing about this imbalance is that even those **evangelicals who favour SSM** have been ignored, even though these scholars are explicitly trying to ground their work in scripture and meet the objections of opponents. That is to say that working groups charged with seeking *a way forward* are ignoring the very works that are arguably the least polarising and the nearest to centre ground” (Bowman Walton, March 31, 2016 at 10:13 AM).

This omission subtracts yet again from the value of the Report, leaving the appearance that the Working Group has not adequately canvassed the options.

Incidentally, the conservative minority in the Working Group must share the blame here. I think everyone on all sides should be well-read in the full spectrum of views, but one would think that the Working Group’s conservatives should have been especially careful to see that the various conservative viewpoints were at least acknowledged in the Report.

Unacceptable Liturgy

Motion 30 upheld the Church’s traditional doctrine of marriage as monogamous and between a man and a woman. By entitling Form 1, “The blessing of the relationship of those who have entered a civil marriage,” and using the word marriage repeatedly in the Form and constructing the Form so that it can be used to bless same-sex unions, the Working Group has in conservative eyes de facto changed the definition of marriage. The adjective “civil” in the title does not alter that fact. The Form as proposed is unwise and another reason why the Working Group should be asked to start again.

Unity that Recognises Two Integrities?

On page 6 of the Report there begins a section entitled, “When we speak of ‘two integrities’ how can we also speak of the unity of the Church?” Although the section as a whole makes some useful observations, the opening paragraph ends with a question that detonates a petard that hoists the Working Group itself: “What would it be like if we as a Church committed to respect one another’s differences, held with integrity, in a harmonious way?”

How can the Working Group credibly hold that out as a hope for the Church when they have not modelled it in their own proceedings and product? I do not ask that question contemptuously but with a sad heart and the hope that the Holy Spirit might use it to bring conviction of sin. There is no shortcut to meaningful mutual recognition of integrity.

Two Integrities Regarding the Identification of Sin?

The “two integrities” section of the Report makes a distinction between first order matters (Māori tikanga) and second order matters (Māori  kawa or kaupapa). The Report hopes to find there some paradigm for recognising unity despite diversity. However, for that to be relevant to the blessing of same-sex relationships, both sides of the debate would have to agree that this is a second order matter. Clearly, that is not the case as far as conservatives are concerned. Sexual connection with someone of one’s own gender is seen as one of the sins that Christ calls his people to forsake, no less nor more than fornication or idolatry or adultery or theft or greed or drunkenness or swindling (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Conservatives have carefully examined and found unconvincing the case that some have tried to make that in those Corinthian verses Paul is referring only to a limited subset of homosexual activities and that others are not in view. Therefore, the only conceivable way forward is for both sides to acknowledge that this remains a first order matter and to seek on that basis to appreciate one another’s point of view. I am of the view that a cogent argument founded in orthodoxy can be found for the blessing of faithful same-sex relationships, an argument sufficiently strong that conservatives can at least acknowledge its force even if not finally agreeing with it. Only on that basis will two integrities be able to coexist in true unity.

The Immediate Way Forward

I said earlier that the Report contains useful observations and findings, but what I have written focuses on its inadequacies. For a wider overview that covers the valuable as well as the bad, I recommend Les Brighton’s paper.

Rev. Bosco Peters has made some suggestions as to how the Report’s recommendations might be amended to improve them (An Improved Way Forward?), and I appreciate the work he has put into devising and explaining his proposed changes. I wish I could believe that changes of this kind could resolve the matter, but as I have tried to show in this paper, the Working Group has failed to model the cooperation of two integrities in the production of the Report and in its content, and therefore if General Synod / te Hinota Whanui presses ahead and adopts it, even if amended along the lines suggested by Bosco, schism is inevitable.

I therefore conclude and urge that the only way forward that can preserve our unity is for General Synod / te Hinota Whanui to

  • declare that the Working Group’s report is inadequate for its intended purpose, and
  • commission them (or a new group) to start again.