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Too hot to handle

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    Too hot to handle - 28-Jun-2008
    Anglican diocesan manager Russell Armitage has always been open at work about being gay. But it's something the Church struggles with.

    Russell Armitage has spent the last decade as a curiosity.The Anglican diocesan manager sits in a tidy office at the Hillcrest administration centre at Te Ara Hou social services village.

    Dressed in business clothes, Armitage is an urbane, bubbly character whose rapid sentences often end with a joke. He chats to the staff, offers them some sandwiches he's bought from his favourite cafe.

    Yet the 64-year-old acknowledges that in recent years he has often been the subject of discussion at his workplace.

    "Exhibit A" is how he describes himself with a wry smile.

    Armitage is gay, and to say the Anglican Church is struggling to come to terms with gays in its church is a supreme understatement.

    He's had nine "very happy years" working for the Church but admits that being gay in this environment has been "rather surreal and a bit uncomfortable although I suspect more for some people rather than me."

    Armitage has become used to his sexuality being discussed, "pulled apart" and "reconstructed" as if an academic exercise, as Anglicans grapple with how to handle homosexuality.

    "It was as though I was somehow not there or not a real person."

    He retires in November and for some time has contemplated making a farewell statement summing up his time at the diocese.

    Events across the world have hastened this desire.

    On June 16 it emerged that David Lord, a Hamilton doctor and an Anglican priest, had married English Anglican minister Peter Cowell in a glitzy ceremony in London. Not just a civil union. A marriage.

    It was no small occasion.

    On May 31, the couple arrived in a horse-drawn carriage at the 12th century St Bartholomew the Great church and as 300 guests watched, walked up the aisle to Mendelssohn's Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream accompanied by two best men one for each groom and two bridesmaids also dressed in blue and pink.

    The traditional service by rector Martin Dudley opened with the words: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God to join these men in a holy covenant of love and fidelity."

    The couple exchanged diamond-encrusted wedding bands, each declaring: "With this ring I thee bind, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

    The couple cut a giant, seven-tier cake, before their first dance together.

    Pictures have appeared around the world of the event which reportedly cost 80,000. They show Cowell, 50, and Lord, 28, dressed in identical morning suits dancing and holding bouquets of pink roses.

    The wedding whipped up a frenzy of condemnation both in the UK and New Zealand.

    The Bishop of London has ordered an urgent investigation into the wedding, which one senior member of the clergy condemned as "blasphemous".

    The timing of the marriage was interesting.

    Beginning this week in Jerusalem was the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), a meeting of hundreds of conservative Anglican clergy, mainly from Africa. Dissatisfaction with the liberal agenda of parts of the Church has dominated discussions; homosexuality the most controversial issue of all. Hanging over the discussions has been the possibility that the Anglican Church may implode and split as the divergence in beliefs gets too wide.

    Homosexual clergy and the wedding in particular is also bound to be discussed next month at a worldwide summit of Anglican bishops called the Lambeth Conference.

    As the fuss continues, one of the participants in the nuptials David Lord returned to Hamilton but is lying low.

    Lord is understood to have met David Moxon, the Bishop of Waikato, shortly after news of his London ceremony broke. Moxon has said he knew nothing of the wedding plans. The pair later issued a joint statement announcing that Lord had felt it appropriate to lay down his clergy licence.

    The Times asked him to comment or even make a statement for this article but he opted not to take up the offer. It appears he has an agreement with Archbishop Moxon not to talk publicly.

    RUSSELL ARMITAGE knows David Lord but says he was caught by surprise by the recent wedding.

    He prefers not to give his views on what occurred but after the Times approached him was happy to share his own story since he joined the diocese after a 20-year career as an accountant and economist with the Fishing Industry Board in Wellington.

    Armitage ended up in the job after he and partner Bruce MacKay attended church at St Peter's Cathedral and he got involved working part-time with the vestry. Ultimately it became a full-time job.

    "It is something I never imagined I would do after a career as an accountant and an economist. Working in an environment for almost a decade in which compassion, social justice, service to the community, the spirit and the non-materialistic are concerns has been very rewarding."

    He's done some good work for the diocese.

    Top of his list of accomplishments are restructuring the investments of the cathedral to give them a more secure financial footing, expanding accommodation facilities at the Anglican camp at Waihi Beach to make it more economical, acquiring the land at Te Ara Hou and negotiating the location of the youth justice centre Te Hurihanga. He also organised the building of the diocese's new administration centre Te Ara Hou which opened earlier this month.

    Armitage and MacKay have both been married in the past and have children. They have been together 15 years but never felt the need to enter into a civil union. Armitage says most people in the diocese have been very respectful of his sexuality and he's been totally open about his relationship.

    "I've always been quite happy to give my life story and people have been very understanding and supportive and admiring, actually, for me being so frank."

    But there have been uncomfortable times.

    "Imagine being at meetings when the matter of homosexuality and the Church is being discussed which has been all too often over far too many years. Those at these meetings discuss, express their views some showing their ignorance and bigotry usually politely, pull us apart and reconstruct us as an academic exercise.

    "For them it is a workshop, a discussion to be had and ticked off and then to go home. Whereas for me, they have been talking about the essential core of myself as God made me.''

    Armitage says at times he felt like quoting Shylock the Jew from the Shakespeare play Merchant of Venice.

    I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter. If you prick us do we not bleed?''

    Armitage lives in Chartwell, where over the last 12 years he and MacKay have painstakingly developed a half-acre gully section. MacKay, a landscape architect, has planted the gully extensively with natives and the pair have even got a Queen Elizabeth II covenant placed on the gully.

    Armitage teases MacKay about how strict he is about what can and can't be planted there.

    Armitage has built walkways and bridges over a stream and scattered the gully with his own artwork: mosaics and sculptures.

    He says many of his friends as well as his son and daughter have expressed bemusement that somebody like him could work for the Church.

    These friends of long-standing say the Church has over its history burnt witches, executed heretics, persecuted scientists, supported slavery and apartheid, treated women as inferior, as chattels and continues to discriminate against gay people. And in all cases justified by reference to scripture. How can you use your talents for it?''

    He says such appalling actions by the Church have been a betrayal of what Christ stood for and were quite contrary to the message of the Gospels.

    These mean something to me as a moral and ethical framework for life and my goodness, such frameworks are sorely needed today more than ever before.''

    Armitage says the Anglican Church has a long tradition of inclusiveness which tolerates a range of theology and views. It is a relatively broad Church.

    This makes it a reasonably safe place for gay people rather sad that one has to think of churches in that way.''

    He loves the Church's traditions of architecture, music and theological thought and has respect for its pillars of scripture, reason and tradition.

    There have been some wonderful people I have met and worked with in this diocese and hope I will always know, who are trying to make the Anglican Church a more tolerant body.''

    He took great heart from what occurred at the Church's General Synod in Wellington earlier this year when the Tikanga Maori section of the Church took a strong stance on the gay issue.

    Maori clergy who spoke said they would not be told what to do by Lambeth and rather than be constrained when dealing with the issue they would rather leave the religion.

    One Maori bishop stood up and said `I have a gay grandson and if at some stage he and his partner want a blessing then I am going to give it to him even if it means taking off my collar'.''

    But Armitage says there is also a bigoted element within the Church and it is that minority which tends to get the most press coverage.

    Even accepting that we do live in a sex-obsessed age, it still amazes me how much time and effort this group spends on getting into a lather about other people's private lives.''

    He says it brings the Church into public ridicule and disrepute and even more importantly it is a great frustration for people who work in Anglican Action and are at the forefront of what the Church should be about social justice, social transformation and serving those in need.

    And yet their excellent work and credibility gets dumped on and undermined by the embarrassing intemperance of this faction.

    How can the Church be taken seriously or receive any respect for its views on the far more important issues of poverty, violence and social justice when the public keep being reminded of this blot on its integrity the continued discriminations against gay people?''

    MacKay also feels strongly on the issue of gay people in the Church and feels the Church is missing the boat''.

    He was raised in an Open Brethren family and has had involvement with the Anglican Church over the years but is now disaffected.

    I've had fewer issues in coming out working for local authorities than I have had with the Church.

    I think they have completely lost the plot in terms of being open and accepting.''

    Mackay feels the Church has used Christian morality as a means to enslave people to a set of rules.

    The Church wants to be seen as welcoming everyone but at the same time want to constrain that welcome by rules contrary to the Church's call to eliminate injustice and alienation.

    They still victimise gay people who are called to serve God.''

    He says he's glad Lord and Cowell held the wedding. I think it was the right thing to do.''

    They probably didn't intend it to be, but the wedding is a challenge to the Church to face up to the issue, he says.

    Worldwide, the issue of the place of gays within the clergy and how relationships are recognised is no closer to resolution. The high profile marriage of Lord and Cowell has become a lightning rod for debate.

    Victoria University religious studies professor Paul Morris says the wedding is the latest in a whole set of challenges to established traditions.

    He says while such actions are seen by those wanting change as positive interventions'' they can harden the views on either side.

    Morris says it is not just Churches grappling with the issue of homosexuality but society as a whole as it deals with modernity issues''. He points to the controversy surrounding the civil union legislation which is only three years old.

    It's not just a Church thing. It's more a case of tradition versus contemporary values such as equity and equal rights rather than anything specifically theological.

    It's an incredibly broad issue in our culture. Churches are not alone in this it involves us all.'' Morris says it takes time to change such long-standing traditions.

    At a Waikato level Moxon has written to parishes to clarify the Church's position on the ceremony. He says all licensed clergy and lay people in the Anglican Church are accountable to Canon Law. The Canon on marriage provides for a sacramental action of the Church for weddings between a man and a woman.

    Moxon says Anglican authorities have begun a process of dialogue and study about the way Anglicans use the Bible to help it with its thinking and practice about human sexuality. All provinces throughout the Anglican world have been invited to take part.

    Moxon says at this stage it isn't possible for priests to conduct or be subject to formal blessings'' outside the agreed liturgies for example a traditional wedding.

    When this does happen, the appropriate course of action is the voluntary laying down of a licence as has happened in this case.''

    Many of the Anglican clergy in Jerusalem intend boycotting next month's Lambeth Conference in protest at the presence there of bishops who helped ordain the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, US, in 2003.

    Hamilton West vicar Michael Hewat, who is known for his more conservative evangelical views, is attending the conference in Jerusalem.

    The conservative and liberal elements of the Church appear poles apart, although the prospect of a schism may have receded in recent days. Senior African leaders at the conference have stepped back from the brink and declared they are not seeking to start a new church. No one really knows what will happen.

    As retirement from the diocesan looms, for Armitage, there is huge satisfaction from his time in the job and hope for the future.

    He says as a student of history he knows right will prevail in the end and gay people will be accorded the same rights as others in the Church.

    Because this is what is right. I know that many in the Church have the same view but are reluctant to say so.

    Some of the people I have worked with over the past decade in my job at the Diocese may feel hurt or let down by some of my comments on some aspects of the Church.

    But I ask them, put that alongside my obligation to speak out on behalf of what has been a persecuted minority over a very long time and in which the Church has had a leading role and is still perpetrating by tolerating intolerance.''

    Does there need to be a split in the Anglican Church? Is the divergence of views so great that it is inevitable?

    I would have thought there certainly does not.

    All I can say is that they need to come into the 21st century.

    The Church is not being as clear and courageous as it should be.''

    He says ultimately new structures always arise often renewed and refreshed having cast off baggage from the past.

    On a personal level he feels he has made a contribution from the inside as a living example.

    For some young people (within the Church) they've never spoken to a gay person before,'' Armitage says. I'm told that by being here and by being the person I am, that has been a positive thing for the people in the diocese.''

    Armitage is proud that since he joined the diocese he has always been upfront about his sexuality.

    But at this stage in his life he just has to.

    At my age I feel evangelical about speaking out about discrimination against gay people.

    If people like me don't do it, you don't get change.''
    Ref: - Waikato Times


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