By Robyn Douglass
If the Anglican Church of Australia’s General Synod approves the blessing of same-sex unions when it meets on May 8-13, GAFCON Australia is all set to go its own way. In July 2021 it established what its chairman calls “a lifeboat church” — the Diocese of the Southern Cross.
The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia (ACANZP) faced a comparable split in 2018. The GAFCON-affiliated Church of Confessing Anglicans Aotearoa/New Zealand formed the next year.
Same-sex blessings were approved in Aotearoa (Maori) and New Zealand (European), two of the church’s three “tikanga,” or partners.
The Diocese of Polynesia (Pasefika) has said that blessing same-sex unions would be “a breach of island laws, customs, and the expressed wishes of Anglicans in the islands.” There is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga, the nations served by that diocese.
So how large was Anglican division in New Zealand?
Professor Peter Lineham, a historian of the New Zealand church, speaks as a member of both Anglican and Baptist churches, and a gay man. He said the decision to bless same sex-relationships had little effect on the wider community and that such blessings remain rare.
“The LGBT community is not that impressed by the … very, very cautious tiptoeing into the water. And how many blessings have been conducted of same sex marriages? I would say virtually none,” he told TLC.
He said the change allowed gay clergy to be open about their lives, and allowed gay people to contemplate ordination without dissembling about their partners.
The Confessing church has gathered 17 congregations, which Lineham describes as “a very limited impact” in a nation of 5 million people and about 500 Anglican congregations. Confessing churches meet in schools and community halls and, amid COVID-19, online.
Jay Behan, bishop of the Confessing church, said the departure from ACANZP was deliberate.
“We all intentionally walked away from our buildings without entering into legal disputes or battles, so the vast majority of the churches have no buildings and meet in schools and/or other community buildings,” he told TLC.
Professor Lineham said the New Zealand church’s legal structure is very clear — Anglican church buildings do not belong to local congregations, but are held in trust for the diocese.
In some parishes, Lineham said, a split had been brewing for some time and the church’s decision on same-sex unions was a catalyst.
The most affected area was the Diocese of Christchurch, where Behan was a parish priest. The region was already reeling from earthquakes in 2010-11, which destroyed the cathedral and other churches. That loss precipitated a decade-long conflict about whether to rebuild the 19th-century cathedral or replace it with something modern.
There are now three Confessing parishes in Christchurch, but Lineham believes the diocese is recovering from what was a “significant blow.”
ACANZP’s General Synod offered a compromise to parishes that oppose same-sex blessings. Congregations that belong to the Anglican Community of St. Mark accept their bishop’s authority, and may refrain from same-sex blessings.
The community’s website says it represents “1,300 individual Anglican Christians and nine parishes across New Zealand, from Auckland to Dunedin.”
Lineham said some strongly evangelical parishes that might have been expected to join this community declined because they have LGBT members.
This may be linked, Lineham suggests, to evangelicalism becoming more mainstream in the ACANZP.
“There is more space for evangelicals in the Church of the Province of New Zealand than there has been for a long time, and I think that the tone of bishops’ meetings has shifted significantly,” Lineham said. He cited the leadership of Archbishop Don Tamihere, an evangelical who oversees the Maori tikanga. No churches in that tikanga have affiliated with the Confessing Church or the Community of St. Mark.
As for the future of the Confessing Anglicans, Behan said that is in God’s hands.
“I see us continuing to hold out the good news of Jesus in these islands,” he said. “We will continue to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, provide a home for any who can no longer remain within ACANZP, and continue to do mission and ministry, including planting churches.”
New Zealand has a strong Protestant community, with particularly large numbers of Presbyterians. The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination, affirms traditional Christian doctrine on same-sex relationships, but there is significant pressure for change from urban churches.
Lineham thinks Confessing Anglicans may find growth from disaffected members and congregations if the Presbyterian Church changes its practice or teaching.
“I don’t think they have a large enough platform to grow by themselves, but there are a couple of things you can’t readily estimate, and those are tensions within Presbyterianism and in some other denominations,” he said.
“This might in fact lead to some kind of middle space where the traditional Protestant churches might opt out from a range of churches and find common territory.”