church comes out
and reconciliation divides
A New Zealand
experience in naming a parish gay-friendly
by Zena Moran, December 2001
is the sad story of one attempt at creating a single-issue
church. While the Church hierarchy gives lip-service
to human rights without owning the issues at ground
level, such destructive aberrations will continue
to happen. Undoubtedly, there are "reconciling parishes"
that work, however the Church as an institution is
Michael's Anglican Church, Kelburn, is typical of the sweet
little turn-of-the 20th century churches dotted around Wellington's
hills, cherished and maintained at considerable personal
cost by small, dedicated congregations. However, unlike
most churches in New Zealand worried about ageing congregations,
St. Michael's attracts parishioners of all ages who enjoy
the intimacy of a smaller congregation in the heart of a
supportive local community.
Michael's prides itself not only in its generation mix but
also in its wide socio-economic grouping, liberal attitudes
and friendliness towards minorities. This is a given.
what's in a name?
For a number of years a group of parishioners had been consistent
in their support for gay rights. Following ideas from USA
about naming parishes as gay-friendly and the example of
two much larger churches in New Zealand, the group proposed
that St. Michael's become an explicitly gay-friendly parish,
naming itself a "reconciling parish".
an interregnum between parish priests, the group managed
to secure a vote in favour of declaring this, and more,
on the church noticeboard, making gay rights a central aspect
of the church identity. Several who objected were won over
by careful teaching and challenge, others were told to shape
up or ship out - and they left.
On his arrival, the new priest, Father Michael Blain,
was told that in this day and age it was not possible to
have so small a parish survive without a special interest
group quality that would bring people in from all over the
city. Father Michael, who had been open in supporting gay
rights in a previous parish, was told that the Kelburn congregation
was totally happy and positive about St. Michael's gay-friendly
it was a shock when the first anniversary of the coming
out, marked by a celebratory mass and address by a local
gay Member of Parliament on human rights and faith, attracted
a congregation of only 25. The locals stayed away and the
expected flood of gay and lesbian visitors did not happen.
Sunday school and children's ministry steadily collapsed
and families stopped joining the parish. Some Kelburn families
indicated that they now worshipped at other churches.
One by one, the gay rights group came into conflict
with the priest and his leadership. Conflicts arose over
changes in the wording of The Lord's Prayer (they took out
"Our Father"), and of the Gloria in Excelsis, the Creed.
Most distressing to Father Michael was dissension over his
unwillingness to baptise in a non-biblical formula. He suspected
on the part of his critics, a deep-seated and unacknowledged
alienation from the church and the diocese and perhaps a
cultural problem reconciling the hard demands of faith with
churches or ghettos - how far do we go before we cease to
Father Michael's argument was that he was a priest in the
Catholic tradition of the Anglican Church, not a puppet
or private chaplain to a clique.
handful committed to this ministry, who had put themselves
on the line to achieve it, were exhausted and bitterly disappointed
that they had failed to attract the new clientele of gay
men and women. Every effort to make Father Michael the scapegoat
and discredit his ministry also failed. However, in the
face of vicious and denigrating attacks, it took him two
years and much professional supervision, to find himself
years later he can report:
"My task has been to rebuild parish life along accountable
lines, where people do listen to each other and do not abuse
their positions of leadership by indifference to the Anglican
Church's identity and riding roughshod over the varied opinions
of good-hearted people.
have kept the older people through these years, and new
people have been joining. We now have some two dozen children
with their adults linked to the church once more. The newcomers,
not knowing the history of those tough years, comment on
the friendly, warm atmosphere of worship and the presence
of God. Such comments could not have been made before."
is new wording on the church noticeboard: "We welcome people
of every race, class and sexual orientation. All are welcome."
St. Michael's no longer talks of being a reconciling parish,
both because it was never true, and because those who pushed
for it have all left.
do it better
Do human rights and faith agendas have to clash so horribly?
Are we in danger of being Pharisees for the faith while
placing burdens too heavy to bear on the shoulders of those
who have a right to recognition and respect? The parish
priest of St. Michael's, Kelburn, has no doubts that negative
attitudes and a steady decline in tolerance for liberal
causes in the Church means that those who expect to change
things are doomed to failure. The rise of Affirm and Alpha
courses will ensure the removal of gay clergy and explicitly
gay-friendly congregations that do function in a healthy
to an enquiry from a priest in another diocese seeking advice,
Father Michael wrote: "If you want to have a 'reconciling
parish' you are giving yourself and the parish a hard run