Senior Pastor, Craig Vernall, National Leader of the NZ Baptist Union, has notified all Baptist pastors registered as marriage celebrants (on the Baptist List) with the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, that they are expressly forbidden to perform civil unions and same sex marriages under Baptist Administration Manual policy (put in place by the Baptist Assembly Council). Nor can they or any other Baptist celebrant perform such ceremonies in a private capacity, because they are only authorised to their (statutory function) role as marriage celebrants, based on the Call they have to the local Baptist congregation, and having accepted that Call, they are duty-bound to uphold the policies etc. of the NZ Baptist Union (of NZ churches). Vernall has written (NZ Baptist magazine. May 2013, p. 20):
With the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill passing into law in August this year it’s time for us to consider how our churches should respond to this new legislation.
During the months leading up to the Definition of Marriage Bill being passed, there have been a variety of opinions from both sides of the debate. A very small number of Baptist pastors have indicated to me that they would consider marrying a same sex couple, but admitted this didn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of their congregations.
I mention this because Baptist churches maintain a unique relationship with their pastors when it comes to the pastor’s right to conduct weddings. Baptists are firstly a movement of local churches. When a Baptist church calls a pastor, that pastor then has the ability to become a Registered Baptist pastor. Being registered then qualifies the pastor to become a celebrant on the Baptist list which is held by the Government appointed Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
So the ability for a Baptist Pastor to perform a wedding is linked directly to the Call given to him or her by their local Baptist church. This means the authority to perform a wedding belongs to the church, not the pastor. The pastor fulfils this function as a ministry of the church, but not by their own authority.
In recognition of this, the Assembly Council has made adjustments to the policy schedule in the Baptist Administration Manual because we believe this reflects the will of our Baptist churches and the Bible.
The Baptist Administration Manual includes policy covering Marriage and Civil Unions. This is found within ‘The Local Church” Appendix 2-M “Policy on Marriage and Civil Unions.”
This policy precludes Baptist pastors from conducting civil unions or the use of Baptist church buildings for such a ceremony. It was the Assembly Council’s decision, at their April 2013 meeting, to update this policy to include same sex marriage alongside civil unions as a ceremony we cannot condone. The Baptist Administration Manual will reflect this decision in due course.
A number of our pastors have asked questions about their protection under the law with respect to their wish not to perform same sex marriages. It is my understanding that church ministers are not legally required to perform a same sex marriage and that this decision will be protected in law as the legislation is finalised in the coming months.
Neither will Baptist churches have to surrender their buildings for same sex ceremonies. Our buildings are operated under our own authority. If your church congregation is worried about this it would be advisable to adopt the Baptist Administration Manual policies on Marriage and Sexuality and Marriage and Civil Unions (“The Local Church”, Appendix 2M and Appendix 2F Addendum 2) into your church’s constitution. Contact the Baptist Resource Centre for more information.
It will take some time for the dust to settle on this new law. For most of us it will be church business as usual. I’m anticipating that the first point of conflict won’t be with the churches, but with the independent marriage celebrants or court employed marriage registrars who don’t want to perform a same sex marriage for conscience reasons. They are very vulnerable under the present law and will need our support if they wish to defend their personal convictions. The Resource Centre has already been approached by a couple of civil celebrants seeking to be placed on our Baptist celebrants’ list. Unfortunately we cannot do this because the list is specifically reserved for Registered or Accredited Baptist ministers.
A second area of continued debate was highlighted by Green MP Kevin Hague who was quoted in the NZ Herald as saying he, “has drafted a private members bill which would overhaul adoption laws and remove all restrictions to adoption by same sex couples.” (NZ Herald 20th April). The New Zealand public may have something to say about this as the change will deny the rights of a child, in law, to have both a mother and a father.
During the course of the debate, a number of our pastors made the suggestions that Baptists could simply opt out of the marriage celebrant system. That is, hand back our marriage celebrant’s licences to the state. This would leave the state to conduct the legal part of a marriage ceremony and the church would then conduct the wedding as a purely Christian covenant.
This is common practice throughout much of Europe and Central America. It provides a very attractive civil strategy for those of us who are deeply disappointed in our democracy. The Assembly Council discussed this option, but felt that by doing this we Baptists would simply remove ourselves from any future debate around the subject.
On ANZAC Day I joined thousands of other New Zealanders to commemorate and remember the price paid for our democratic freedoms. As I reflect upon what our democracy has given us over the past 150 years I would prefer to ask forgiveness from the men and women who laid down their lives for our democracy.
Is our society a better place since we passed laws such as lowering the drinking age to 18, legalised casinos, decriminalised prostitution and now allowed for same sex marriage? It’s difficult not to sound like some moralising old wowser, but when I saw the results of a text poll carried out by TV’s Campbell Live revealing that 78% of New Zealanders were against same sex marriage, I feel I’m not alone. I don’t think this latest change in the nature and status of marriage was God’s will for our country, and I’m quietly confident that many of those ANZACS who are fallen and now silent would agree with me.
Marriage bill: what it means for churches
NZ Baptist Vol, 129 No.4. 1 May 2013, p. 20.
Craig Vernall is senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church Bethlehem, Tauranga, New Zealand.
The Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill has been widely referred to in the media as the ‘Same sex marriage bill’.