Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Te Runanganui: words that won't go away

In June 2004, Archbishop Hui Vercoe declared “there are no gay priests in the Pihopatanga”. But that statement could also be interpreted as, "If we don't look, we won't see."

• Changed realities v. dreams that never die

• Reaching out to other indigenous Anglicans

Lloyd Ashton  |  10 Nov 2009

In June 2004, Archbishop Hui Vercoe declared that “there are no gay priests in the Pihopatanga”.

According to one Pihopatanga observer, that statement was capable of another interpretation. Such as: “If we don’t look, we won’t see”.

In 2007, in the wake of the turmoil surrounding Gene Robinson’s ordination, Te Pihopatanga decided to set up its own commission on the subject. It produced a report suggesting, in essence, that gay orientation should not be a barrier to ordination.

And judging by most of the speeches at 90minute session devoted to that subject at the Auckland hui, Te Pihopatanga is now pretty relaxed about orientation and ordination. Or as one participant told me later: “Ninety percent of our people are OK with it.”

Bishop Kito Pikaahu, who chaired that commission, introduced the session by having each hui amorangi sing their own versions of No 116 in the Maori hymn book: E Te Atua Kua Ruia Ne/O Purapura Pai (God who has sewn the Good Seed) .

Each sang the same lyrics – but each sang a tune distinct to their rohe. Bishop Kito’s point, perhaps: we’re all different. We’re all valued in God’s sight.

He spoke too, of the sense in which Te Pihopatanga felt pressured to come up with a definitive position on the sexuality question “when it’s not a priority issue for us.”

Bishop Victoria Matthews, from the Diocese of Christchurch, then traversed the history of the Communion’s grappling with the subject.

She’s ideally placed to do that – she was on the Canadian church theological commission which investigated the blessing of same-sex unions, and she’s a member of the Windsor Continuation Group which has been charged with addressing outstanding questions arising from the Windsor Report.

Bishop Matthews also spoke of the embracing love of God, citing the 1 Corinthians 12 passage about the hand being unable to say to the foot: ‘I have no need of you’.

And she outlined to the hui what was shaping her thinking: “I think that the hospitality of the gospel encourages us to say: yes, we are one fully, because of the saving acts of Christ.”

However, she later told journalists that the timing of any development “is incredibly important.”

Whenever a part of the church “sprints ahead” on any issue, “we revert to talking about ‘us and them’”.

The golden rule of New Zealand tramping had impressed her: you tramp at the pace of your slowest member. And the difference in tone between Lambeth 1998 and Lambeth 2008, she suggested, was proof of the gains that can be made when people are not rushed.

Several members of the Pihopatanga commission then offered their thoughts. Rob McKay, for instance, Tai Tokerau’s Community Theologian, told of how the congregation at Holy Sepulchre had itself had begun its own “Listening Process”.

So it was all sweetness and inclusivity? Not quite, because Tom Poata, vicar of St Faith’s Ohinemutu, then strode to the microphone and declared that he could have saved himself a trip from Rotorua – because he’d heard nothing he couldn’t have read on Google.

He wasn’t too impressed with the commission’s original report – he later described it as “a plethora of nice, plausible, enlightenment, postmodern expressions” – and was hoping for something more from the hui.

“A word like ‘abomination’ doesn’t go away easily,” he said.

“We’ve got to go back to the texts, and see if there’s any plausible, rational explanation as to why the writers have framed our understanding of homosexuality in the way they did.

“Whatever we find – whether it’s positive, negative, indifferent – we have a responsibility to do that work.

“We haven’t. It’s been skirted around, thrown around as being a cultural aberration, a Pakeha issue and not a Maori one – but it’s the church’s issue, and the church has a responsibility to address it head on.”

What’s more, suggested Tom, appearances can be deceptive:

“What you heard”, he said, “was an hour and a half of ‘from-the-bench’ talk. I know that most of those people there do not believe that homosexuality is appropriate for ministry.

“And many will not say it.”

Te Runanganui received the commission’s report.