Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Monday, November 20, 2017

Going against the best of the human spirit.

I have been befriending a duck that visits our paddock. In the last few days she has been parading around with nine new children. My wife calls them my new "grandchildren." Unfortunately I suspect most will not survive. Our neighbour has three hungry cats!
Well done Australia!
Our neighbours in Australia have had a hard time trying to decide whether to allow same-sex marriage to happen there. They had a non-binding costly referendum or plebiscite which is to guide the parliamentarians in their decision over the next week or two. The result was a "Yes" with 61% in favour. So there are celebrations happening among the gay and lesbian community "across the ditch". It surprised me that the vote was not a lot more in favour, though there was a lot of nasty sounding opposition. (Often by "Christian" people.) We in NZ had a sense of superiority over our neighbours because we made the decision in a much more civilised way before them. I was pleased that they made the right decision. In my opinion it is a human right, whatever your sexual orientation to have the freedom to express that love in a marriage relationship. Well done Australia.
But I as a marriage celebrant can't marry them.
I retired from Church ministry in what used to be called the Associated Churches of Christ, (Now Christian Churches New Zealand) at the end of 2013. These days I attend and have some leadership in the local Presbyterian Church. I also work as a workplace chaplain for a brewery, for Dunedin's Fire fighters and also as a chaplain in St John Ambulance. Sometimes I am asked to take weddings, so as a minister, I am still a licensed celebrant through my "parent" denomination. The celebrant's list for next year is going through a renewal process, so I emailed the hierarchy of the denomination to make sure I could still be on the list. They were happy to renew my celebrant status, but drew my attention to a remit passed at the notional conference in 2014. The remit stated that if a CCNZ minister led a same sex marriage then the next year he/she would be deleted off the celebrants' list.  There were a few pages of Biblical background reasoning attached. My celebration of the Australian "yes" vote was short lived, when I realised I was a minister in a denomination which took the opposite point of view. While I was still in ministry I had argued against such a move on theological grounds and also saying that because we are congregationally governed, the national body could not make such an edict.  Because I have a conventional wedding booked for February I will continue for next year to be a celebrant on their list. I am probably unlikely to be asked to do a wedding for a same-sex couple anyway, but the principle matters to me. So I will be reviewing my options for the years following that.
It will be a sad change for me.
I grew up in an Associated Churches of Christ family. I was the fourth generation to be involved in the Church, so my grandmother and parents were proud and involved members. But beyond a family link I chose to continue in the denomination because of the founding principles. Alexander and Thomas Campbell were Presbyterian ministers in the USA in the early 1800's who were distressed about the disunity of the Church, and formed a movement within their denomination to bring about unity. (The Christian Association of Washington) Alexander was an intellectual man who had, for his day, a very modern and progressive understanding of the scriptures. They promoted slogans like "No creed but Christ" and "In essentials - unity. In non-essentials - liberty.  In all things - love."  They promoted a congregational form of Church government and lay-leadership.  Eventually they were deemed too "modern" and thrown out of the Presbyterian Church and joined the Baptists. Because of their emphasis on the priority of the New Testament, they weren't able to stay with them, so became a movement on their own. I liked the Jesus-focused spirit of this movement. When I grew up in the late 50's and 60's we encountered a number of intelligent, fine and impressive men who exhibited in their lives and conversation the same sort of broad Christian spirit and thinking. It seemed like they were, in their generation, following the spirit of the Campbells, which I thought was in tune with the spirit of Jesus. So I was happy to continue to be involved and express my faith through this denomination, even though there was a more conservative element within it. All that to say that if, in time, I decide to resign from being listed as a minister of that movement, it will be a sad move for me. Quite an extensive section of my library is made up of books on the history and thought of this movement. 
The Church often fights against the Spirit.
Not so long after the death of Jesus when Jesus' Way was spreading to the gentiles, a big part of the Jewish Church resented this inclusion and argued against the new inclusiveness the apostle Paul and others were practicing. Paul argues that such an attitude is not in tune with the way of Christ, we are "all one in Christ Jesus our Lord" he wrote. When William Wilberforce and others were wanting to ban the slave trade, or later free the slaves, many times churchmen argued against it, quoting scripture. But the spirit of compassion and solidarity within people won out and slave trade and slavery were outlawed. (Although unfortunately in the world today there seems to be a growing concern over human trafficking.) Again racism was an accepted part of society and people inside and outside the Church, listening to the spirit within, challenged it. In South Africa, America and in other places there were Church people who argued against this spirit, saying racism was divinely ordained. But racism is seen now as an evil, though I suspect it will never be fully stamped out. Again and again when the best spirit in men see a new freedom, a better way forward, often the Church is seen to be using religion to fight against the best "spirit within". In the cause of women's rights and place in society the same thing happened. The best inner spirit in people led people to just know that the status quo was not right, and people inside and outside the Church pushed for change. This battle is not complete, but once again large sections of the Church, quoting scripture resented the change toward a more healthy, equal and whole society.  I believe the same is the case over same-sex marriage. People listening to "the good within" are calling for the freedom for same-sex marriage. It seems to be like a creative "right" people should have and celebrate. But the Church in general is dragging the chain. "The Eternal Spirit" who is love, "the cosmic creativity present everywhere and in everything, gently urging all toward the good" is stirring in our hearts, for a better way forward. But my denomination (and others) is found to be out of tune with the Spirit's directions. I believe "Good will live on, love on and conquer all" and such Churches will be seen to be largely irrelevant cults. They will do the cause of Jesus real harm and I am sad and embarrassed. 

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