|Geno Sisneros is the Auckland man who has taken his dispute with the Bishop of Auckland to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. It wasn’t an easy decision, but as he tells GayNZ.com, he has already achieved much of what he set out to.
From Colorado to NZ
Raised a world away the middle of Bible-belt Colorado, Geno Sisneros ended up in New Zealand after falling for a New Zealand guy. With the former Defense of Marriage Act still an obstinate reality, living in the US was impossible. So Sisneros moved to New Zealand, and while that particular relationship has since ended, others have begun: the Kiwi-American is in love with New Zealand, his new partner of four years, and the forward-thinking Auckland Church St-Matthew-in-the-City.
He has been working at St-Matthews as Events Manager, in charge of what he jokingly calls the ‘Ministry of having a Good Time’ for eight years. He loves the fact that throughout history, the church has been a social centre for communities, so he enjoys bringing people in who wouldn’t normally visit a church.
While he is happy here in New Zealand, he is also delighted at DOMA being wiped at home. “The marriage equality stuff happening here and around the world is a wildfire really. There’s no putting it out. It’s a great time to be gay and be in New Zealand.”
On that note, Sisneros has also lit a fire of his own - challenging the Anglican Church at the Human Rights Review Tribunal for turning his application to become a priest down.
A calling to ministry
Sisneros’ long battle to be an Anglican priest has plenty of backstory. He comes from a Pentecostal background, but eventually found being evangelical was no longer working for him. Around the time he moved to Auckland he had been through a period of trying to reconcile being gay with what it meant to be Christian, in his denomination. He couldn’t. And of course, changing his sexuality wasn’t an option.
Arriving in Auckland, he was looking for both a church to attend, and a job. He came across St Matthew’s website and found not only that it had a job going, but that the theological content and questioning on the website was an avalanche of sense. “It was okay to question here, where it wasn’t okay to question in my former denomination. That all really resonated with me.”
So he started working at the church, and attending it, as well as studying theology at Auckland University, something he says gave him the new ability to critically think.
He had always felt a calling to ministry. As a child he would line up his stuffed animals and preach to them. So he put himself forward. And for seven years he has been delayed; given indirect answers, told he needed time to heal after a relationship ended, told he needed to finish his degree.
“Hopefully people can see where the frustration was coming out of, because that was seven years’ worth of that – correspondence back and forth. And that’s where my frustration came out of.”
Enough is enough
Ultimately, after the years of denials, Sisneros took months to decide to go to Tribunal. He was wracked with anxiety, as he weighed up his decision and sought advice. He struggled with the idea the state would reach in and tell the Church what to do, and also with the impact it might have on his partner of four years, who is an intensely private person.
“He had to be on board with it as well; I wasn’t going to thrust him into the spotlight, which is where we ended up. I was always worried about how he was feeling every time we were on the news, and he has had people asking him about it as well. But he has been a great pillar of support for me.”
His decision to go ahead came due to his frustration, and desire to shed some light on his situation.
And while the wait continues for the Tribunal’s decision to come out, whatever it rules, he says it won’t actually change much for him personally, as the Tribunal will not actually be able to change the Church’s policy.
“The two things we asked the Tribunal to do are to determine whether or not discrimination as the Act states and understands discrimination has occurred. The second part of that is to determine whether or not it was unlawful.
“The Act no doubt does supply an exemption for some religions, for example if I was Catholic I couldn’t be taking this complaint in the Catholic Church, because the Act states if it’s in the Church’s established rules, doctrines and customs, that it then qualifies for an exemption.
“So what that means is while Catholics only allow into their clergy single celibate males, the Anglican Church is not so clear. We have a number of gay and lesbian clergy who are open about their sexual orientation and many of them living in partnerships with their same-sex partners. So it’s not that I came into Anglicanism trying to change what the culture is here. I’m not a new phenomenon in the Anglican Church, we’ve always been here, and this policy of discrimination is relatively new – maybe in the past 10 to 12 years.”
Sisneros says the Tribunal can say the Church is in breach of the law, and put it back onto its leaders to explain why it’s above the law.
“I have always said it was a personal dispute between the Bishop of Auckland and myself, but I acknowledge that it has wider-reaching implications. If the Church doesn’t meet the criteria for an exemption [from discrimination laws] what our leadership does with that, when the Tribunal comes back with the decision, is largely up to the Bishops. They are going to go into the public and defend it.”
Hope for change
Sir Anand is leading a Commission looking at same-sex issues in the Church. There are other irons in the fire too. The Church has set up a heavyweight commission, Ma Whea, specifically to look whether it should bless same-sex relationships, and ordain people in them. It’s led by former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand and will report back next year.
Sisneros’ complaint was laid before that Commission was established and he was worried his action would harm the commission’s processes. He still has a lot of faith in the Church’s processes, Ma Whea being one of them.
“But what I realised, after feedback, was that it’s a strong enough Commission that things like this won’t damage or hinder its work. And they’re not being tasked to come back with a decision, they’re being tasked to present a range of options that the church has.
“As far as I’m concerned, what my case has done, if anything, is put a certain amount of pressure onto the church because all of New Zealand is watching. And there are lot of Anglicans like myself who want to see the church leading the human rights struggle, rather than fighting against it.”
Sisneros has already achieved much of what he set out to do. He wanted to put the spotlight on the issue, and make it clear it’s not acceptable in New Zealand for people to be treated as he has been.
He has also received acknowledgments from both the Bishop of Auckland and the Archbishop of New Zealand, when they were in the witness stand, that the church’s practice is discriminatory, although they qualified that by saying they were within their rights to discriminate.
“What the Tribunal does is gives people a voice and a chance to be heard. I found that very healing,” he says. He is expecting a mixed decision, such as that the Church is discriminating and while it shouldn’t be, it can under the law.
“Whatever happens I feel at peace with the whole process. We haven’t really had much talk about whether, if they don’t find in our favour, whether we would appeal or not. My initial feeling is that we won’t because we’ve already achieved much of what we came for. But of course the ultimate would be that the Church stopped the practice and the Bishop stopped discriminating.”
Sisneros says it’s going to happen eventually, the church just moves at a snail’s pace. He says there are several movements within the church trying to bring about the change, and he thinks the collective pressure will work. “It’s just a matter of time. Maybe in the next couple of years this policy will be ended. “
He says nobody will force evangelical or fundamentalist parishes to take openly-gay clergy. “But from my perspective, if the people here at my church St Matthews recognise the calling in me, living among them in a capacity of ministry, why can’t that be okay? Why does there have to be a stranglehold in the Church? Why do we not honour that?”
Feeling the love
Sisneros has been buoyed by the support he has received from St Matthews, from his partner and his family, and from plenty of Anglican clergy. His advice to anyone taking a case to the Human Rights Review Tribunal is to have a good support system in place. “I think that’s why it never felt stressful for me. I never felt alone.”
St Matthew's has become Sisneros' spiritual home He expected lots of hate mail, saying that’s what would have happened in America. Instead he got 70 or so messages of support, a flood of new Facebook friends, one letter from an elderly Anglican person struggling with his actions – and just one piece of hate mail.
While he has been blocked from training to be a priest, he has been able to preach at St Matthews and the gay-friendly Auckland Community Church several times a year. He says the backing from the congregations has been amazing.
“St Matthews is that little pocket of resistance that’s constantly advocating for equality. We get lots of criticism for our billboards and our public theology here, but for someone like me who was questioning so many years ago, the billboards and the questioning acted almost like a beacon. It said to me ‘there’s a different way of being Christian if the way that you’re doing it doesn’t fit for you.
“I’ve never encountered a place like this before. I am grateful that I’ve found them and it’s become my spiritual home.”
To our community
On his experience many GLBTI people come to St Matthews “wounded” and he believes Christianity has a lot to answer for about the way it’s treated sexual minorities. “I think that’s one of the things the congregation really recognises here, that so many people have been wounded by Christianity and this place and its theology can be very healing – the acceptance is very healing.”
Sisneros is straight up about the fact that the Church, because it moves at a snail’s pace and even fought change, has done a lot to hurt queer communities. He didn’t get a lot of support from the GLBTI community when the case was being heard, but he understands.
“I can understand that for many the Church has become irrelevant, and they see the Church as one of the last safe havens for homophobia and transphobia.
“My message and humble request to the gay community would just be to think critically about it, to understand that any policy of discrimination against one of us is a policy of discrimination against all of us.
“There may be something at stake here for all of us, that we do get treated equally in all institutions, in all parts of society, inside and outside of the church.” Jacqui Stanford - 23rd July 2013