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A Small Voice from the Centre of a Storm

Mon 14 Oct 2002 In: Features

Reverend Dr Margaret Mayman, whose proposed move to Wellington's St Andrew's On The Terrace Presbyterian church created a flurry of media speculation two weeks ago, reflects on what happened when one unhappy Wellington parishioner rushed to the media. The past three weeks have been a bizarre experience for me, for my family, and for my church. There has been a great deal in the mainstream news media about my calling to St. Andrew's on the Terrace but my voice has seldom been heard. This is partly as a result of my choice, my attempt to maintain confidentiality in the process even when that has been breached by others. Now I welcome the opportunity to reflect on what has been happening for me through For the last six years I have quietly been the minister of St. Ninian's Presbyterian Church in Riccarton, Christchurch. Six months after I arrived here, I separated quite amicably from my husband of sixteen years. We're much better friends than we ever were spouses. Going through the process of divorce in such a public setting as parish ministry was nerve wracking but it was nothing compared to the process of coming out that I began six months later as I shared the news of a wonderful new relationship with the woman who is my partner. I did coming out gradually and by 1998 I was out both to family, parish, and the national church. The family and the parish have been great. I can't say the same about the Presbyterian Church. Since 1996, we have had four General Assemblies that have all been intensely focused around gay and lesbian leadership issues. There have been a number of decisions that impact on the status of gay and lesbian clergy and elders (lay leaders) over the years. In 1985, they declared that "homosexual acts are sinful" and in 1991 that God's intention for sexuality is heterosexual marriage. In 1996, things went downhill with a decision that gay and lesbian people may not be licensed (the final stage of training for ministry), ordained, or inducted (appointed to a parish). The same year another decision allowed that gay people ordained before 1996 would not have their status prejudiced by the ban. People such as Rev. David Clark of Auckland and myself were told that meant we could stay in our current parishes but not move. A few months ago I was invited to apply for the position of minister at St. Andrew's on the Terrace in Wellington. St. Andrew's has had a long tradition of liberal theology and commitment to social justice. Located close to parliament and in the heart of corporate Wellington, it has seen itself as a bridge-builder between church and city. I have a background in Christian social ethics. I lived and studied in New York City for twelve years and have recently completed a PhD in ethics. I do my ministry and theology in the context of believing that my faith involves a commitment to work for social justice. (My dissertation was a philosophical reflection on the agency of women and children who are survivors of domestic violence.) St. Andrew's has long appealed to me as a situation for ministry. Its urban location and high profile would provide opportunities that St. Ninian's in quiet, suburban Christchurch might not (though the openness and liberal theology of St. Ninian's makes it a very unique congregation in such a setting). It seemed that St. Andrew's and I would be a good fit for ministry. Happily, the Board of Nomination for St. Andrew's and their Session agreed, both supporting my application unanimously. It was at the next stage of my introduction to the congregation that a problem emerged. St. Andrew's had declared itself a reconciling congregation ten years ago. There are a number of gifted gay and lesbian people who are members of the congregation and it had a reputation for their inclusiveness and advocacy for gay and lesbian people within the PCANZ. However, when my name was shared with the congregation and they were told that I would be coming to preach, one member of the congregation went to the news media. By the time I arrived in Wellington for a weekend visit, a large headline in the Evening Post read 'Lesbian minister divides congregation.' I was gutted because, as is usual in an employment situation, I had not told people at St. Ninian's that I was exploring the possibility of ministry at St. Andrew's. So they read about it in the papers. Other headlines over the next few days included words like 'outed' and 'exposed.' I had been open about my sexuality through the whole process so that was completely misleading. The only exposure was that I was looking at another position. The weekend itself went well despite the glare of the media. People arrived at church on Sunday to a bunch of TV cameras and reporters. Fortunately, TV remained outside but throughout the service, I could see the cameras pressed up against the glass doors of the church focused on me. Despite all this, the energy in the service felt positive. I preached on finding voices for vision and about the need for all voices to be heard as we work with God toward a peaceful and just society. The woman who breached my confidentiality resigned from the congregation a few days later. Then I waited for the congregation to vote. It was a very slow two weeks. On Sunday, I was encouraged to hear that the congregational meeting had been warm and positive and that the level of support for my nomination was strong. There were some negative votes but that is often the case when a new minister is called and as they have not stated their reasons, I choose to assume that they will accept the decision of the majority. When I came out at St. Ninian's there were people who had reservations about having a gay minister. A handful left, others have come, and now it is simply not an issue. I hope that it will be similar at St. Andrew's. This week we move into the next phase of the process. The decision of the congregation will be taken to Wellington Presbytery (the regional oversight body) on November 20 and they must sustain the call. Theoretically, we only need a simple majority to proceed, however there is provision for a member of Presbytery to 'dissent with complaint.' If that happens then the matter will go to the General Assembly which will set up a judicial commission. The legal crux of the matter is whether the 1996 decision which protects the status of gay clergy allows us to move. I strongly believe it does; however, it has not yet been tested. If there is no complaint, the call must then be sustained by Christchurch Presbytery. If the church blocks the call I will have to explore my options under the Human Rights Act, another untested area of law. It's an incredible process, and bad enough if it is confidential. To be going through it in the glare of the public gaze is stressful. I'm still angry that one person's homophobia can cause such chaos in the lives of so many other people. It's been disruptive to my partner whose possible move has also been revealed to her employers, to our son who is fourteen and high-functioning autistic, and to my partner's father who is not well. At first I thought the media shouldn't have printed confidential information about my employment but there's apparently nothing to stop them if they believe it is in the public's interest to know. I look forward to this all being resolved and wonder if, then, the media will want to know any of the things about me that make me well qualified for the position. And about my passion for women's well being globally; for an end to domestic violence; for solving global conflict by law and not more violence; for dialogue between people of different faiths; for a church that can share the good news in a way that makes sense in a post-modern world; and for a world where there is justice and peace for all people. In the meantime, I am thankful for the overwhelming support of many friends within the church and the gay and lesbian community. - 14th October 2002    


First published: Monday, 14th October 2002 - 12:00pm

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