A twenty-year debate stirred strong emotions among the 400 church General Assembly delegates from Presbyterian churches all over New Zealand, who are meeting in Christchurch this week. Following the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, the Church announced that it would not accept future leaders who are in a gay or de facto heterosexual relationship.
Sixty-three percent of the delegates gathered for the meeting voted against allowing “anyone involved in a sexual relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman" to become leaders of the Church.”
The ban also extends to heterosexual couples in de facto relationships.
Stuart Lange, a spokesman for the Presbyterian Affirm movement, said the practice of homosexual guidance was inappropriate. He said the Church would have lost very high numbers if it did not take a stand on homosexuals' role in the Church.
"The indecision has been debilitating. Large numbers have been hanging in there very frustrated at the lack of decision," said Lange.
For the 37% who voted against the proposal, however, the decision came as a saddening blow.
"It's really sad ... if things go the way they are going there may not be a place in the ministry for me," said Ross Scott, a former Presbyterian minister based in Christchurch, who was "in the closet" when he entered the Church, but came out eventually in 1991 when he was sent to a General Assembly to vote against allowing homosexual ministers and elders in the Church.
Scott said that banning homosexuals from becoming leaders in the Church would strengthen the conservative part of the Church. "On one level it will ensure the Church stays together but it will not end the debate," he said.
Fraser Paterson, a minister from Wellington, said he felt very disappointed with the announcement. "It was a very somber moment. It felt to me like we had made a mistake."
However, according to Paterson, the decision made by the General Assembly had been overturned twice by congregations over the last 10 years, so there was still a chance homosexuals would be allowed into leadership positions.
Rev. David Clark from Remuera, who was angered by the decision, said that prohibiting homosexuals from taking leadership roles in the Church was not going to make the problem go away. "You can pass all the rules you bloody well like, but we will always be among you."
However, Hamish Galloway, chaplain at St Andrew's College, who supported restricting homosexuals from becoming ministers, commented, “Nobody is talking about excluding anybody. It's about who will be an appropriate leader."
He mentioned that homosexual ministers would be able to continue in the Church, as the decision made Wednesday night was not retrospective. This includes those ministers in training also.
Galloway told a local news agency that he supported restricting homosexuals from becoming ministers because it might contribute to the breakdown of the family in society.
"I see a link with increasing promiscuity and the breakdown in marriage and family life, so I tend to take the conservative view," Galloway stated.
Galloway said that churches which had more Biblically conservative points of view had grown fastest. Similar observations have been made by other sources as well.
The General Assembly’s next topic of debate will be the controversial Civil Union Bill. Following Wednesday’s decision, some delegates speculate the Church will oppose the legislation.