Presidency Consensus and Justice
It is not always easy for those who have not been part of a Methodist Conference
to fully appreciate the nuances and subtleties behind difficult decisions made
with blood, sweat and tears - yes, and prayer too - and as I know myself from
long past experience, it can be galling for Conference representatives when
they return home to discover that their fellow members do not appear to appreciate
the struggle of long days of debate, nor agree with the end result.
But for the majority, the non-attenders, it is the end result that counts, and not the warm fuzzy people process last week’s Conference by its own admission appears to have been . . . not “powhiri . . paper . . presentations . . praise . . prayers . . process . . practicalities . . . . but people, people, people.” It sounds good, and the participants, at least some of them, will look back on a good experience in the garden city of Christchurch “ where the cabbage trees were in full flower, and a 30 deg norwester blew in the elms.”
I have read the 4-page popular report prepared by one who was there for those who were not, and there is a buoyant, even optimistic note from a Conference that both visually and verbally celebrated its rich diversity.
Yet many of us are very much aware that some Conference members returned home more troubled than triumphant, and aware that despite all the feel good appearances, a people matter of supreme importance for the future life of Te Hahi Weteriana was not settled well, and may rankle for months and years ahead. Indeed, some indication of the embarrassment and confusion arising from the failure of the Conference to resolve the central issue of deciding on a president-elect, is reflected in the fact that the same report confines an issue that took hours of Conference time to just six lines of process reporting, and no names mentioned.
The issue was, of course, the sole nomination of a declared lesbian presbyter, Rev Diana Tana ( by 4 synods and Te Taha Maori) as President for 2007, and the inability of the Conference to achieve consensus support for her election despite a Memorandum of Understanding that purported to guarantee a level playing field in the Church without discrimination. Instead, unwilling to bite the bullet, and restrained by inabilities imposed by its own adopted procedures, Conference opted for safety, and for the first time in its history asked incoming President John Salmon and Vice President Mary West to hold office for two years.
Conference people who went home believing this was the best possible result in the circumstances should think again. The fact is that in only the second real test of the 2003 Memorandum of Understanding it has failed to afford protection to a properly nominated person, the only conceivable reason for her rejection being that she freely acknowledges a lesbian orientation and lives openly with a partner ( who as it happens is also an active member of MCNZ, employed by the Church and well known in the Conference.)
It is an outcome that can only be regarded as a huge setback in a Church that with some good reason believed two years ago it had achieved a wide-ranging tolerance of difference in the Church on the range of issues relating to sexuality, ministry and leadership. Indeed, the Memorandum was hailed well beyond our Church as a huge step forward on a bitter division that continues to wreck havoc in other churches.
The nomination of Tumuaki Diana Tana, a woman of stature and mana, and 30 years in ministry in Maori circuits, was made in the full knowledge of the provisions of the Memorandum, in particular, a clause which now assumes special significance
“ Any person approached for nomination to either the position of President or Vice President should take account of all the tasks they are required to undertake, and make their decisions accordingly.”
Weeks before Conference assembled the nomination of Diana Tana stood seeming solid and unopposed. Te Taha Maori, and four synods, including Auckland and Otago/Southland, had sought her consent and satisfied themselves the Church was ready and equipped for her presidency. Had there been doubts as to her competency she would not have won such support, but a responsible Church, warned of hardcore opposition, would have ensured other nomination/s, if only to spare her unjustified rejection. No such initiative was taken.
Now, a week out from the Conference, what can be made of such a significant retreat from a position that gave such hope and even pride to current members , and staked out a claim for some credibility in the secular world? Here, for what they are worth, are just random thoughts in microcosm.
* The Conference practice of allowing caucus consideration of important issues, coupled with consensus decision making, invites the dumbing down of the greater Conference responsibility to stand for justice and truth. Not without significance is the fact that since adopting consensus decision-making the prophetic voice of the Conference has been almost entirely silenced. In the case in point, as I understand it, five caucuses asked to consider their support of Diana Tana’s nomination, three, ( Maori, Pakeha and Fijian) said they could support it, or could live with the decision, but two, (Samoan and Tongan), decided they could not, and according to the dynamics in the Conference process at the time, it was deemed there was not a high enough level of support for the nomination to be approved. Accordingly, the 2005 presidential election was paralysed.
* Not for the first time, Conference has allowed process to obscure policy. The policy was clearly identified at the 2003 Conference, as it had on occasions in the past
when gospel clarity prevailed. The policy is that the Methodist Church will uphold inclusion and oppose discrimination. When process, whether it be untoward caucus influence or consensus stalemate, stands in the way of the Conference implementing its own clear policy, one might assume that it is the function of Conference leadership to ensure that policy is upheld. In this case that clearly did not happen, and a woman of stature and grace is left embarrassed, Taha Maori disenfranchised, and a vital gospel truth compromised.
* Caucus consideration and consensus decision making are fine, but both must serve the gospel proclamation, not hinder it. The fact is there was a strong numerical majority, which included the Maori treaty partner, who favoured the Tana nomination. The opposition to her was not in the main from the conservatives in the Evangelical Network , but a vocal and piously rigid lobby whose theological, biblical and cultural orientation is still firmly rooted in the missionary teaching of colonial Samoa and Tonga. It must be said. These good people have embraced New Zealand Methodism, and with them they bring many gifts we cherish. But they should not expect, nor should the indigenous membership of the Church allow, that they highjack a policy as fundamental to our emerging life as the right to inclusion of gay and lesbian people at every level of leadership of the Church, including the presidency.
We should note the Conference has instructed the new President to convene a representative group of leaders to consider this year’s mess and find a way through. It will not be easy. Severe damage to Conference credibility has been done, and the hopes of intelligent openminded people throughout the Connexion dashed. Let’s hope the solution relies less on consensus and more on justice.