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A church comes out
and reconciliation divides

A New Zealand experience in naming a parish gay-friendly
by Zena Moran, December 2001

This 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 not gay-friendly.

St. 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.

St. 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.

So 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".

During 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.

Minority becomes majority
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 identity.

So 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.

The 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.

Inclusiveness or compromise?
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 personal identity.

Boutique churches or ghettos - how far do we go before we cease to belong?
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.

The 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 again.

Four 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.

"We 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."

There 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.

Humanitarians 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 way.

Responding 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 ahead."




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