It has been a while since I wrote here. We took a family holiday in the United States for several weeks, including introducing two of the children to their birth place, and it has been a bit of a rush since we got back. Even the posting rate on my economics blog has slowed considerably.
I wrote a while ago about how the gay marriage issue had been coming to New Zealand Baptist churches. Next week sees things come to a vote. Apparently a proposal to amend the Articles of Faith, including in the Baptist Union Incorporation Act, to include as an item of faith the proposition that marriage is between one man and one woman, has been withdrawn. But the annual Assembly of the representatives of Baptist congregations around the country will vote on three resolutions.
The first resolution would affirm as Baptist belief (although not part of the statutory statement of faith) that marriage is for one man and one woman only.
The second resolution is that Baptist buildings (churches and other properties) should not be used for gay “marriages”. I’m not sure if this covers just the service in which a “wedding” is conducted, or is more all-embracing, including any blessings and/or receptions.
And that third resolution is that if any Baptist pastor conducts a gay “wedding”, the Baptist Union would no longer nominate that person to the list of authorised marriage celebrants maintained by the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages.
The third of these resolutions is the one that could “bite”.
Statements of belief are all very well, and it would be most welcome if it is passed (and an extremely worrying sign if it is not), but it does not bind anyone who disagrees with it, pastor or not. There will be people at the Assembly, including some pretty vocal prominent people, who will vote against this resolution, and who – quite possibly – will trot all the “homophobic” rhetoric against those who continue to belief and teach the view of marriage that the church has taught through 2000 years (and which societies have practiced and believed more generally through the ages). But this resolution seems highly likely to pass. Baptist churches aren’t strong in the liberal areas of our cities – my bit of Wellington is one example – and as far as I can tell there is nothing about this resolution that strikes at the heart of what it might be seen to mean to be Baptist.
The second of these resolutions might well pass. It can readily be seen as a corollary of the first. Formally, the buildings of Baptist churches are held by the Baptist Union, but I doubt that there is really any way of enforcing the resolution if it was passed. On the other hand, I’m not aware of any other resolutions that have been passed about other activities that could not occur on Baptist premises. Baptists were once strongly averse to alcohol (or gambling), and many individual congregations banned the consumption of alcohol on church premises, but I’m pretty sure this was always a decision for individual congregations. So there will be some opponents who run the line that this too should be a matter left to individual churches – the ability, for example, to hire out halls for gay ‘wedding’ receptions. And in a sense that is the heart of this debate – is gay “marriage” something more akin to alcohol consumption (on which different churches always held different views, and the Baptist view was a distinctly minority one among Christians) or something different. I’m firmly in the latter camp.
But the third of these resolutions does have practical force. Under New Zealand law, church marriage celebrants can become so only if they are nominated by one of authorised denominations listed in the schedule to the Marriage Act. There are civil celebrants, but these people must apply individually and must not just satisfy the Registrar-General that the are of good character, but also:
The Registrar-General must be satisfied that it is in the interests of the public generally, or of a particular community (whether defined by geography, interest, belief, or some other factor) that the person be appointed as a Marriage Celebrant
In practical terms, there are quotas and no open access. There is no certainty that any minister not nominated by his or her denomination would be able to secure registration as a civil celebrant.
If I were a voter at the Assembly, I would certainly support this resolution. Pastors are leaders of the denomination (typically the most visible face of it), and only the denomination can nominate them as celebrants. Assuming the Assembly reaffirms marriage as between one man and one woman, it would be wildly inconsistent for the denomination to continue to nominate as marriage celebrants people who neither believe nor practice the denomination’s teaching. One could easily envisage a different law – I’d happily allow anyone of good character to be appointed as a marriage celebrant – but for now we have to operate with the regulatory regime for marriage celebrants we have.
But here again, ideas of “freedom of conscience” arguments will be run. And being Baptists, the arguments will carry some weight with the voters. But no one is forced to conduct only heterosexual marriages – the resolution says only that you cannot carry the label of Baptist pastor (and nominated marriage celebrant) if you preach and practice another approach to marriage. I’m not aware that there are any other areas of law where civil functions are carried out by people nominated by individual religious denominations. Dissenters can take the alternative route, and seek to become civil celebrants.
Of these resolutions, the principled one (the first) is most important, but the third will perhaps be most telling. If that resolution is lost, or is carried only narrowly, it will be a telling signal of how close the Baptist denomination in New Zealand is to joining the practical abandonment of traditional Christian morality. What becomes optional is no longer a distinctive. Although I’m no longer a Baptist by conviction, it would nonetheless be a sad day in the long decline of the gospel in this country. I pray for revival and a renewal of traditional faith and practice. It has happened previously in other countries, but for now that turning point seems a long way away on most Western countries.
UPDATE: Apparently all three resolutions passed, thanks be to God. It is good news, but I fear it is a stance that won’t hold for too many years, and perhaps the third resolution will never be put into effect. I pray that it is not so, and that Baptists represent a bulwark against the erosion of the evangelical faith into something resembling the old “mainline” Protestant churches.