Blocked by their leadership from marrying same-sex couples, some church ministers are getting around the rules by having weddings on the church doorstep. Other ministers are defying the ban altogether. Isaac Davison reports

Rebel church ministers have been marrying same-sex couples against the wishes of their leadership - at the risk of losing their jobs.

After same-sex marriage was legalised in New Zealand in 2013, most major Christian denominations voted not to conduct gay weddings and warned of consequences for ministers who did.

Retired Presbyterian minister Norman Wilkins outside Old St Paul's in Wellington, where he has married two same-sex couples. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Retired Presbyterian minister Norman Wilkins outside Old St Paul's in Wellington, where he has married two same-sex couples. Photo / Mark Mitchell

That disturbed liberal church ministers who believed they should be able to follow the wishes of their congregation, not their governing bodies. Now, some of them are defying their leadership's rules.

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Retired Presbyterian minister Norman Wilkins, from Wellington, said he had married four Christian, same-sex couples in church ceremonies since the law changed.

"There is a risk," he said. "The Presbyterian Church could remove me from the marriage register as a celebrant.

Interview with retired Presbyterian minister Norman Wilkins who, along with other rebel ministers, has conducted weddings for same-sex couples. Video / Mark Mitchell

"But I believe it is the right and just thing to do," he added. "It is the Christian thing to do."

He was still bound by the Presbyterian Book of Order, which says that "a minister may solemnise marriage only between a man and a woman".

Presbyterian Church of New Zealand moderator the Right Reverend Fakaofo Kaio said ministers were expected to abide by the decisions of the General Assembly. Because no complaint had been made against any minister since the law was changed, no disciplinary action had been considered.

However, the threat of suspension looms over ministers. Wilkins felt he was able to speak freely because he no longer led a church congregation. But other liberal ministers who had married gay couples were afraid to publicise it for fear of being punished by their governing bodies or creating unwanted attention for their church.

Reverend Susan Jones, from Wellington's St Andrews on the Terrace, said preventing ministers from marrying gay couples went against the vow she made when she was ordained, which offered Presbyterian ministers "liberty of conscience" on matters like marriage.

Jones said she knew of a handful of Presbyterian ministers who had conducted same-sex marriages, but would not say whether she had conducted any herself.

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The Anglican General Synod voted last year to allow blessings for same-sex partners, but not weddings.

St Matthews in the City vicar Helen Jacobi said Anglican leaders had warned that anyone breaking the church's rules would lose their marriage licence and possibly their job.

St Matthews in the City vicar Helen Jacobi says she supports same-sex marriage, but conducting a ceremony in her church could endanger her job. Photo / Greg Bowker
St Matthews in the City vicar Helen Jacobi says she supports same-sex marriage, but conducting a ceremony in her church could endanger her job. Photo / Greg Bowker

"The bishops have been relatively clear that is what would happen if they were made aware of it," she said.

The Anglican Church's decision to allow blessings has led to some unusual ceremonies as people try to skirt the rules. In one case, an Auckland couple was married by an independent celebrant on the doorstep of an Anglican Church before heading inside for a blessing from the vicar.

"It's silly, but that's the rules," said Jacobi. "At the moment, that's what we're stuck with."

Some same-sex couples had married in different churches to their own denomination. All Saints Ponsonby vicar Diana Rattray quietly married her partner five days after the law changed in 2013, but in a Baptist church rather than an Anglican one. It was "absolutely hurtful" not to be able to celebrate the milestone within her own church, she said.

Labour MP Louisa Wall's Marriage Amendment Bill legalised same sex marriage in 2013 - and preserved church ministers' right to refuse to marry gay couples. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour MP Louisa Wall's Marriage Amendment Bill legalised same sex marriage in 2013 - and preserved church ministers' right to refuse to marry gay couples. Photo / Mark Mitchell

No New Zealand minister appears to have lost their marriage licence for marrying same-sex partners. But in some cases, the church has responded by tightening the rules.

After discovering same-sex marriages had taken place at one Auckland Baptist church, the Baptist Union Assembly responded by passing a resolution in 2015 which not only banned ministers from conducting gay weddings but also disbarred same-sex marriages on Baptist church property. It also voted overwhelmingly in favour of stripping ministers' marriage licences if they conducted gay weddings.

That has frustrated some Baptist ministers, who feel that the resolutions go against the strong Baptist tradition of independence and autonomy for each congregation.