New Zealand court hears discrimination charge against bishop

Diocese of Auckland Bishop Ross Bay faces a state discrimination charge for refusing to allow a gay, partnered man to enter the ordination process. Photo/Diocese of Auckland

Diocese of Auckland Bishop Ross Bay faces a state discrimination charge for refusing to allow a gay, partnered man to enter the ordination process. Photo/Diocese of Auckland

[Anglican Taonga] Testimony before the New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal is due to end this week over a charge that Bishop of Auckland Ross Bay has discriminated against a gay man who wants to become a priest.

Eugene Sisneros, an events coordinator at St. Matthew-in-the-City, was refused entry to the diocesan ordination training program because he is living in a same-sex relationship – and is therefore not chaste in terms of the New Zealand Anglican Church canons.

The bishop’s position is that the Anglican canons do not permit anyone living in a sexual relationship outside of marriage to be accepted for training for the priesthood.

The bishop believes that the canons presently define chastity as being either married in the traditional sense, or single and celibate.

The question of whether the definition of chastity should be broadened in canon law to include those living in committed same-sex relationships is before the Ma Whea Commission, which will report to next year’s provincial General Synod.

If the General Synod decides such same-sex relationships can be blessed, it automatically follows that those in these relationships could be considered for the priesthood.

Sisneros, who says he has been signaling his desire to begin ordination training since 2006, has completed a theology degree. He says the bishop’s decision breaches the country’s Human Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination against job seekers.

The hearing began in the Auckland District Court May 6.

Auckland Bishop Bay told the panel that he had interviewed Sisneros in November 2010, and Sisneros had “indicated that he understood that his relationship would prevent ordination at this point.

He’d wanted to begin the process, nonetheless, and Ross had said he would seek advice about that.

But in March 2011 Judge Chris Harding, the chancellor for the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki, had given a legal opinion which said that any bishop who proceeded with the ordination of a person in a same-sex relationship did so at their peril.

Bay said he came to the view that it would be pastorally irresponsible “to take someone down a path which I know to lead to a dead end.”

In testimony on May 7, the tightrope that the tribunal must walk as it decides the case became dramatically evident.

Archbishop Philip Richardson testified, spelling out how the church makes its laws, and how the present marriage and ordination canons cannot be interpreted in a way that would allow gay ordination.

At one point Rodger Haines, the chairperson of the tribunal, asked whether Richardson accepted that discrimination had taken place.

The archbishop acknowledged that, in terms of the definition in the human rights act, it had. What the defense is claiming, he said, is the exemption provided in the act to religious organizations.

When tribunal member Huhana Hickey asked where in the Bible Jesus states that homosexuals have less spiritual significance than heterosexuals, the lead defense counsel, Bruce Gray, leapt to his feet. He said that out of respect for the tribunal and “a desire for transparency” he had allowed a series of questions that did not, in his view, comply with the law.

But, he said, the tribunal had sailed “perilously close” to going beyond its remit under the Bill of Rights Act – which allows religious bodies to claim exemption from some civil rights obligations where these conflict with doctrine.

“That case for the defense,” he said, “is that there is a doctrine. The tribunal is entitled by its status under the Bill of Rights Act to satisfy itself that there is a doctrine.”

But when its questioning began “drilling into Scripture” and evaluating doctrine and the scriptural basis for that doctrine, it has “trespassed,” he said.

Haines said the tribunal must be able to assess whether the refusal to admit Sisneros was a matter of doctrine or “established custom.”

“What we are testing,” he said, “is whether what is put in front of us is doctrine. And it becomes quite difficult to test that without actually asking questions about doctrine. Where it comes from, the way it finds its way into formularies.”

Testimony at the tribunal showed that at least one New Zealand Anglican bishop had knowingly ordained a gay, partner man to the priesthood in recent years.

“Occasions of inconsistency such as the ordination of a person in a committed same-sex relationship by an individual bishop or the acquiescence, post-ordination, of same-sex relationships are just that; inconsistency,” Richardson told the tribunal. “The status quo has not been changed, that change would require due process.”

The archbishop also said that Anglican Church in New Zealand considers that the form of same-sex marriage recently ushered into law by the country’s Marriage Amendment Act “is not a Christian form of marriage.”

The tribunal will issue a decision at a later date.

Comments

  1. Richard Augustine says:

    It bothers me to know that an Anglican bishop may possibly be discriminating against a qualified candidate for the priesthood based on his sexual orientation. I hope and pray that the New Zealand court system rules that he may seek ordination. I can say that I fully support LGBT clergy, and since our church’s figurehead, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said he supports LGBT civil unions, it just may be a possibility he also supports LGBT clergy!

    • Nellwyn Beamon says:

      I don’t think ABC Welby’s position on LGBT civil unions is as definitive as that. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/apr/18/archbishop-canterbury-civil-partnerships

      The church is wrestling with their position at this time and is expected to make a determination next year, according to this article. I would think that becoming clergy is just more than a job (I sure hope so, anyway). While I would think the church will make the humane choice next year, it is hard to tell somebody to wait after having waited for justice for so long.

    • David Kellett says:

      Wow. A Human Rights Tribunal having authority over church decisions and church policy?

      May I make a couple of points. First, ordination is a calling. God calls a person to ordained ministry. The Bishop, as the Church’s representative, does have authority to test, assess, affirm or deny call. The Church does have the right to test, challenge, and evaluate calls. So, I would argue, judgements on this level can be misunderstood as “discrimination”. But, shouldn’t the argument be, it is God who discriminates. He calls one person, He doesn’t call another.

      But, the concept of “rights” or “human rights”, how does that apply here? Is ordination a right in this sense??? Rights, properly speaking, have to do with civil activities, like voting, or renting an apartment, or getting a job. Rights exist between a citizen and the government. I disagree that Human Rights Tribunals have any authority in matters of the Church. The rules, and the standards in the Church are different than in secular society.

      In the above news story, I am suspicious Eugene Sisneros, the plaintiff, is a gay activist. He can’t get what he wants by asking and by following normal channels. So, he resorts to the Human Rights Tribunal. To me, this is very manipulative. It is political activism, and he is using it to promote his own cause. He is making the priesthood into a job, a career, like being a lawyer or an engineer, which he feels he has a right to enter.

      It sounds like a messy case. I pity the poor Bishops.

      • Caroline Hall says:

        Sisneros may experience a very strong calling from the Holy Spirit to be priest. It is the experience of the Episcopal Church that many LGBT people are called to ministry. In that case surely it is appropriate that he test his discernment against the policy of the church which is excluding a whole class of people.

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