A new petition urging bishops to end their “discrimination” against gays and lesbians misunderstands both church law and the power of bishops to change church doctrine.
That’s the view of Bishop Philip Richardson, who has released a public response to the “Stop White Collar Crime ” petition being driven by Auckland’s St-Matthew-in-the-City.
The petition’s preamble says individual bishops “have the responsibility to discern who is called by God to ordination within their diocese.” Yet most New Zealand bishops, it says, “feel constrained not to select any gay or lesbian candidates unless they are committed to permanent celibacy”.
It goes on to say the main reason Archbishop David Moxon gives for this discrimination is not to offend the rest of the Anglican Communion. “However, it is an offence to the Gospel.”
But in his response Bishop Richardson says each bishop is ordained “by the whole church as a bishop for the whole church”.
As they are presently cast, the canons – the laws of the church which bishops are sworn to uphold – don’t recognise any relationship other than marriage.
Bishop Richardson writes that ordaining candidates living in any other form of relationship – say, in a civil union – would require the whole church (bishops, clergy and laity meeting in synod) to specifically recognise this form of relationship.
And such a formal recognition would amount to a change in the church’s doctrinal position.
To forge ahead with an ordination on the strength of “the argument from omission” – that is, on the basis that the canons and formularies don’t say anything about other relationships – would risk such ordinations coming unstuck in a church court.
“In my view,” writes Bishop Richardson, “a bishop is not free to act unilaterally and so individually try to create the church’s doctrinal position on these matters.”
Devastating for all concerned
He warns that any bishop who ordains “without the explicit authorisation of the canons” could be challenged under Title D, the disciplinary procedures set down in church canons.
“While I wouldn’t presume to predict the outcome of such a case,” he writes, “what is clear is that the process would leave the decision to one or at best three people.” (ie, members of the Title D Appeal Tribunal.)
“So such a decision, and effectively a determination on this church’s doctrinal position on these matters, would in no way be representative of this church.
“And if a Title D process found against the bishop, one result would be for a public determination that the ordination in question was invalid.
“That would be devastating for all concerned.”
Bishop Richardson makes clear in his response that bishops are copping brickbats from critics at both ends of this debate.
Conservative critics have accused him of failing to exercise the “judgement I was ordained to exercise” by failing to declare publicly that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful – while liberal critics suggest he’s part of a group denying justice to a marginalised people.
The risk of getting in God's way
In a later interview Bishop Richardson made it clear that he’s sensitive to the civil rights aspect of the issue.
“At the time of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, a number of diocesan synods, bishops and the Public Affairs Committee of the church formally supported decriminalization, even though many of our constituency opposed it.
“That’s because it was seen as an issue of civil rights being denied.
“Where ordination is concerned, the question I find particularly challenging is: What if God is calling someone, and current church doctrine and canons prevent that?
“The possibility that I might be getting in God's way really disturbs me.”
“However, I do not believe that ordination is a ‘right’ for anybody, nor that the church is obliged to simply conform to whatever society says is right – even if it says so in its laws.
“There are plenty of examples when the church had to say: ‘We cannot accept what the state or our society expects of us’. Ordination is God’s thing, not Caesar’s.”
The way forward?
In his public response Bishop Richardson also spells out what he believes would be necessary to achieve the change St Matthew’s petitioners are seeking.
“It is my view that what is required is General Synod agreement around a doctrinal position on a) sexual orientation, b) the blessing of committed, monogamous same-gender relationships, and c) the ordination of those in such relationships.”
Bishop Richardson adds that General Synod needs to tackle those issues in the following order:
“First (General Synod must decide) whether sexual orientation towards… one’s own gender is a consequence of wilful human sinfulness, or an expression of God-given diversity.
“This in itself requires the process of collective biblical exegesis, prayer and discussion and debate which we are engaged in.
“Depending on our collective answer to the first question, the church might then be in a position to move to the development of a formulary for blessing committed, life-long, monogamous, relationships other than marriage.”
He writes that as a third step the church could agree that such relationships “so blessed and formally recognised by the church” meet the standards of holiness of life called of every Christian, and especially those in holy orders.
Bishop Richardson says such “a thorough-going process” happened when the church was moving towards the ordination of women.
“There are simply no short cuts,” he writes.
“We have to do the hard work.”