Commission to study church’s position on ordination of gay priests

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has decided to set up a commission to study and summarize its findings on whether openly gay and lesbian people should be ordained as Anglican priests.

The commission is expected to complete its work and report to the church’s 2014 General Synod/te Hinota Whanui.

At its recent meeting in Fiji, the General Synod Standing Committee – the body that acts for General Synod between its biennial gatherings – considered a proposal from Diocese of Taranaki Bishop Philip Richardson to set up a commission at the 2012 General Synod. But the Standing Committee has said the commission should start its work nine months earlier, in November this year.

A small working group has been set up to propose names for membership on the commission by the end of August with the hope that the November meeting of Standing Committee will formally appoint a commission.

The commission is charged with presenting “a summary of the biblical and theological work done by our church on the issues surrounding Christian ethics, human sexuality and the blessing and ordination of people in same-sex relationships, including missiological, doctrinal, canonical, cultural and pastoral issues.”

The Standing Committee also is asking the commission for recommendations to General Synod on “the principles of Anglican ecclesiology” and “in the light of our diversity, the ecclesial possibilities for ways forward for our three tikanga church.”

Richardson, the original proposer of the commission, earlier triggered widespread discussion when he issued a public statement challenging a petition that alleged bishops “discriminated” against gay and lesbian people who felt called to the priesthood.

The latest developments also follow advice from Judge Chris Harding, the chancellor of the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki.

The Standing Committee had requested Harding’s legal opinion after the Auckland, Waiapu and Dunedin diocesan synods last year passed resolutions seeking clarification on the status of an Anglican Communion moratorium on the ordination of people in same-sex relationships.

Those diocesan synods also sought clarification as to whether each diocesan bishop has “ultimate responsibility” for deciding who gets ordained.

Harding said there was, in fact, no formal legal moratorium. Rather, there was a “request and advice from” the Anglican Communion’s instruments of communion “which bishops are expected to take seriously in their decision-making.”

However, bishops “do not have infinite freedom as to who to ordain,” Harding added.

The canons require people seeking ordination to be chaste – and as the canons now stand, chastity can only be understood as “either refraining from sexual relations with others, or having a sexual relationship only within the confines of marriage.”

Harding continued: “Ordination of persons in same-sex relationships was never contemplated by our present canons. That is because the canons were not ever written to either provide or not provide for such a thing – it simply was not something which could or did historically arise.

“For these reasons, as present, bishops seeking to ordain those in same-sex relationships proceed at their peril, and could face formal challenge either by those of a traditional and more conservative view within the church or by those concerned with the integrity of church process, or both.”

The bishops sought a subsequent opinion from Harding, and in March he spelled out the consequences if, in the face of his previous advice, a bishop chose to “go it alone” and ordain a gay candidate to the diaconate or priesthood.

Such an ordination might now be appealed to a tribunal, which would then pass judgment – and that, he wrote, would be “far from an ideal process for deciding an issue such as this.”

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