The head of New Zealand's third-largest church has asked its ministers to consider a temporary ban on gay marriages to preserve the church's "peace and unity".
The call from Presbyterian Church Moderator Ray Coster comes as all the country's biggest Protestant churches remain divided over how to respond to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, which comes into force on Monday.
Several ministers, including lesbian Presbyterian minister Margaret Mayman at Wellington's St Andrew's on the Terrace, are already taking bookings for same-sex weddings and plan a "progressive Christian" website listing ministers of all denominations willing to conduct such marriages.
But the conservative Presbyterian Affirm movement is challenging a legal opinion by a church advisory committee that ministers can choose whether to perform a same-sex marriage.
The Anglican Church, still the nation's biggest in the 2006 Census, says its ministers cannot conduct same-sex weddings pending a report from a commission chaired by former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand to its next general synod in Paihia next May.
Methodist Church president Rex Nathan said his church, the fourth-biggest, was split "50/50" and would leave the decision to individual ministers and their congregations.
The Baptist Church said in April that its churches were also independent and free to make their own decisions, but national leader Craig Vernall said the national governance council decided soon afterwards that pastors would not be allowed to conduct gay marriages pending a formal decision at a national gathering in November.
"We have a liberty to make a decision but it's a decision we make together," he said. "It's a work in progress."
Pastor Brenda Rockell of Auckland's Cityside Baptist said she was one of only two or three Baptist pastors in the country who would be willing to marry same-sex couples, but she was trying to clarify the church's national position first.
"There is a letter-writing process and a clarifying process with the leadership at the moment," she said.
Other conservative churches, including the Catholics, second-biggest in the Census, are uniformly against gay marriage.
An 75 per cent majority at the last Presbyterian General Assembly in October also voted to uphold marriage as "the loving, faithful union of a man and a woman", but the assembly did not pass another resolution that would have prohibited ministers from marrying same-sex couples.
That motion failed by one vote to get the 60 per cent majority required to become church law.
The church's Book of Order advisory committee ruled last month that same-sex marriage therefore remained subject to each minister's "liberty of conscience and right of private judgment" unless a future assembly changed that.
Presbyterian Affirm spokesman Dr Stuart Lange said the committee was wrong. "Such 'liberty' of private opinion has never been about freedom of action."
On August 7, Mr Coster wrote to all churches saying he had received more than 50 letters from people expressing "deep concern" about the opinion and urging him to declare a moratorium on same-sex marriages until the next assembly, in October next year.
He wrote that the moderator did not have authority to declare a moratorium, but added: "However, ministers could decide that for a period of time that we will not marry same-sex couples. This would be respecting the decision of the General Assembly and recognising that this is a contentious and potentially divisive issue."
Yesterday he said Presbyterian ministers still had a right to marry same-sex couples but that they might wish to "hold the peace and unity of the Church".
Dr Mayman said she had agreed to marry a same-sex couple in St Andrew's in October.
"It didn't cross my mind for a moment that the peace and unity of the church was more important than supporting those two people within our congregation who love each other," she said.
The church opinion also ruled that any church that makes its buildings available for hire by the public cannot refuse to hire them out for a same-sex marriage because that would be discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, prohibited under the Human Rights Act.
Auckland University human rights law expert Professor Paul Rishworth said yesterday that whether a particular church building was generally available to the public "will be a question of fact to be resolved on the basis of the specific facts of any contested case".
The Department of Internal Affairs said a total of 31 couples had indicated that they would be getting married on Monday.
Fifteen couples from Auckland, six from Wellington, six from Christchurch and four couples from Rotorua have made notice to marry on Monday.
Internal Affairs also reported that 977 marriage forms had been downloaded from its website this week - including 125 for civil union to marriage changes.
Churches on gay marriage
Catholics, Mormons, Ratana
Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists