Since 1974 Rainbow Christians have met at St Matthew in the City
This short history of Auckland Community Church was produced by Grant Young in September 1995 for the church’s fifteenth anniversary. It was revised and converted to hyptertext in January 1997. Additional bits have been inserted from a history put together by Mark Hangartner, sourced from a couple of conversations with Peter Hovey et al, and some notes Peter H wrote for Mark, plus a bit of fossiking in our cubby hole at St Matts.
This resource is an invitation to explore and reflect upon the history of Auckland Community Church. It seeks to identify and interpret some of the key events and themes of ACC’s past. It should not be seen as authoritative or exhaustive. If it reminds us of our past, raises questions about who we are as a community, and provides a context for our stories, then it will have served its purpose.
An apology. This bare statement of yearly events cannot reflect the place that ACC has been in the lives of its members. So if the real life of the community, and the bonds which were formed when a small group met, sometimes just in the choir stalls, don’t appear in the text, please excuse it for ample evidence is given by the continuing ministry in this house of God.
When we know where we have come from, it is easier to chart our course for the days and weeks ahead. … Appreciating our place in the history of gay and lesbian liberation reassures us that we are not alone. Others have paved the way for us, and we are carving out a path, and setting signposts, for those who are to follow. (David Bromell, National Gay Christian Conference 1991)
Although it is fifteen years since the establishment of Auckland Community Church (March 1980), the story of our community really begins more than twenty years ago. In 1974 a study group for gay Christians began to meet at St Matthew-in-the-City. This was almost certainly the first formal gathering of gay Christians in New Zealand.
Before the seventies, Christians with a homosexual orientation were for the most part isolated and unsupported. The prevailing models for their sexuality were either religious (ie. “sinful”) or medical (an “unfortunate condition”). While some liberal clergy supported the homosexual law reform movement, they tended to see homosexuality as a condition to be borne rather than celebrated.
Gay liberation reached New Zealand in about 1972. An extension of other counter-cultural movements in the sixties, it presented a much more positive and radical model of homosexuality. New groups were added to existing social networks and clubs as gay men and lesbians began to organise themselves politically.
From M.H. 1974 – A group for gay Christians began meeting at Saint Matthew’s-in-the-City. John Bluck (presently Anglican Dean of Christchurch) helped to initiate the group and acted as a resource person. Morris Russell was also involved.
From M.H. There were five people present at the first meeting : 2 clergy and 3 lay. Peggy and Hec Turner, still faithful members, were at that meeting. Saint Matthew’s allowed the group to use the church building with the congregation of ACC being responsible to the priest-in-charge at Saint Matthew’s.
In 1974 the law reform movement managed to introduce its first bill to Parliament. This, combined with the new visibility of the gay movement, meant that in that year the whole of New Zealand seemed to be talking about homosexuality. Churches began to discuss the issue, although most would still talk about gay men and lesbians as if they existed “out there,” beyond the Church.
John Bluck, assistant priest at St Matthew’s, offered his views on the issue in an editorial published in the New Citizen magazine. The Church, he said, needed to welcome homosexual people. When gay members of his own congregation challenged him to put this into practice, John helped organise the Sunday evening study group.
By 1976 the group had grown from half a dozen people meeting for discussion, to a community of between fifteen and twenty-five Christians from a variety of denominations, meeting regularly for fellowship and worship. Don Mence, a Presbyterian minister, took responsibility for pastoral care
From M.H. 1976 – The group had grown to be a congregation of between 15 and 25. Don Mence (a Presbyterian minister) began to exercise a pastoral direction.
Hec and I have always felt very privileged to be so warmly encircled by A.C.C. over the years. It was all new to us at the beginning, and we hope we have helped the unhappy and confused – to become their true selves. We certainly have made some wonderful friends – Peggy
The community continued to grow and mature, and in 1977 sought to establish itself as a church. An obvious model was that of the Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Church (UFMCC, or MCC) – a separate denomination that had developed within the American gay liberation movement. UFMCC was already established in Australia and was keen to extend its mission to New Zealand. The community sought affiliation and were accepted as a mission church of UFMCC. An Australian, Peter Alexander-Smith, was appointed as full-time pastor.
I attended my first service many years ago when the group was MCC, enjoyed the service and fellowship so much, that in twelve or so years I missed only about six evenings. We had a slightly more charismatic service and our congregation was varied, volatile and very dramatic at times, with a mixture of love and care for our “family in Christ” threaded through it Heather
From M.H. 1977 – Rev Peter Alexander-Smith became Pastor to the group whose numbers on a Sunday night ranged from 12 to 50. Peter gave his all and died in the year. Prayer meetings were also held on Wednesday evenings. The Sunday night took this form : gathering at 7 for a social hour, celebration of the Eucharist, coffee and discussion after communion.
From M.H. 1977 – The group was affiliated to the Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Church. This unites the hundreds of Metropolitan Community Churches, including the community now in Auckland, in a Pentecostal fellowship.
Peter had a high profile within the gay community, and his own “holy union” (relationship ceremony) received media attention. Sadly, he died in 1978, after just a year and a half of ministry. Don Mence became the interim pastor – until UFMCC could find a replacement for Peter.
From M.H. 1978 – Michael Elliott, Susan Adams and John Marcon began taking a part in the team ministry about this time. We are grateful for the continued involvement of these latter two.
After five years in existence, the community church had developed its own distinctive style and acquired a good profile within the church and gay communities. When the Auckland congregation of Ascent, the New Zealand gay Catholic movement, was established in 1979, its founders remarked on how well “the ‘gay’ church” (MCC) had organised its meetings. Despite its links with the UFMCC denomination, the community church was decidedly inter-denominational, drawing on support from the liberal minority within the mainstream denominations. Clergy from these churches formed the community’s ministry team.
Split with MCC
In early 1980, Stan Harris (Bishop and Co-ordinator of Extension for UFMCC in Australia and New Zealand) and his partner David Kromer, who was to be the church’s new pastor, arrived from Australia. It soon became clear that the Australians intended to bring the community more in line with Metropolitan Community Churches (MCCs) in Australia and America – churches independent of mainstream denominations, usually Pentecostal or evangelical in character, and with strong, often charismatic, leadership. Soon after his arrival, Kromer dismissed Don Mence and the church’s board, alienating a large proportion of the community and the clergy who supported it.
A series of meetings failed to resolve the conflict and at the end of March members of the former board agreed to disaffiliate themselves from UFMCC. With the support of John Mullane, the vicar of St Matthew’s, this group remained at the church, renaming themselves “Auckland Community Church”.
About a third of the congregation left with David Kromer to form “MCC of the Resurrection.” Eventually settling at Pitt Street Methodist Church, MCC has remained committed to the UFMCC and at times had branches in other parts of New Zealand. Although ACC and MCC have come together for certain events (such as a 1982 combined service or the 1991 Gay Christian Conference), the two churches have little to do with each other.
From M.H. 1980 – In March, during the visit of Stan Harris, then in charge of the MCC’s outreach in Australia and New Zealand, certain differences became clear concerning the inter-denominational nature of the group. Despite meetings to discuss these differences, what became ACC was forced to disaffiliate from the UFMCC to continue as it had before. Auckland Community Church dates from March the 28th 1980, when the name of the church was chosen.
From M.H. An Auckland branch of MCC now meets : in the past MCC and ACC have had a number of links. In November, a Congregational Meeting was held first to discuss putting finances on a surer footing and then to invite Don Mence to serve in a full-time ministry. Both of these were achieved.
Full time minister
In November 1980 the community invited Don Mence to serve as its full-time minister. Don resigned in March 1982, but continued to take an active role as part of the ministry team. Michael Elliott, a priest at St Matthew’s, offered pastoral support until Kim Benton was appointed pastor in November 1982. Kim was pastor until the end of 1985 but, like Don, remained involved in the community until he left New Zealand in 1987.
Both Don and Kim enjoyed support from the mainstream churches in Auckland. The Anglican Archbishop, Paul Reeves, and leaders from other churches were present at Kim’s induction in 1982. For its mainstream supporters, ACC represented an important ministry to gay men and lesbians and also to the wider church.
When I was asked to be one of the Anglican Church’s representatives in the ministry team I agreed full of trepidation for I had never encountered a large group of gay and lesbian Christians before. For several weeks there was a rather formal relationship while we sized each other up. Then one Sunday evening after service members of the congregation insisted I accompany them to the Queen’s Birthday Celebration at the Acquarius nightclub. There I met a host of people – including the bank teller, insurance agent and petrol pump attendant – with whom I did business in my everyday life. It was a life-enhancing experience which jolted me out of my somewhat aloof priestly demeanour, and opened the way to being as much ministered to by the congregation as I was ministering to it – Michael
Although Don, Kim and others have excercised pastoral responsibility for the community, it is important to stress the wider clergy involvement and lay leadership – distinctive features of Auckland Community Church. Over the years many people have brought their gifts and energies to the community.
From M.H. 1982 – Don Mence resigned as pastor on the 7th of March, but continued to take an active part in leading worship as part of the team. In August, Kim Benton first preached and celebrated with ACC. By the end of November Kim was commissioned by the then Archbishop of New Zealand, Paul Reeves, and senior representatives of other mainline churches as Pastor of ACC. This exciting and memorable service was attended by 120 people. Kim’s time with ACC reads as a record of much activity. Worship services were new and vital, even dramatic. Bible studies, retreats and a deepening spirituality were also features of these years.
From M.H. 1983 – The Anglican Diocesan Development Subcommittee made the first of three annual grants to ACC. Kim spent two months in the USA on study leave. The distinctive logo was put together around August by Bill McCormick. A one-day retreat with the theme of living as a gay Christian was held in October with 10 participants. Rev. Sue Adams and Rev John Salmon, two priests involved in ACC, were married in December. A Galations series of bible studies were held with 6 participants.
From M.H. 1984 – At the beginning of April ACC hosted a welcoming service to Bishop Ting and Mr Wenzae of the Christian Church in China, which a large congregation from other churches attended. In all Kim blessed three relationships, one was refused (this attracted the interest of newspapers). Stephen Cowan, a member of the congregation, died in August. A one-day retreat with the theme Future directions and our personal involvement was held with 10 participants. Attendances on Sunday evenings ranged from 15 – 50.
From M.H. 1985 – The Anglican Diocesan Synod raised the question of its support for ACC, in a motion to censure that support. In part the foresight of keeping lines of accountability to Saint Matthew’s intact, and the strong upholding of ACC’s ministry by John Mullane (much applauded) won the day. The Synod also affirmed the Bishops’ support of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, in adopting Kim Benton’s motion.
Homosexual law reform
From M.H. Lenten bible studies were held, and a one-day retreat on spirituality and sexuality for gay people. Despite overtures from TVNZ, Credo did not make a programme on ACC. Substantial submissions were made to the Homosexual Law Revision Committee to support the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. An annual award ceremony was held to raise funds. Kim relinquished the post of full-time pastor after 3 years’ service. Like Don he remained active in ACC. Joan Smythe passed away in the year. The first memorial service for a person with AIDS was held in May.
In the seventies and early eighties attempts at law reform failed, mainly due to the conflicting goals of liberal reformers, gay activists and lesbians. By 1985, when Fran Wilde introduced another homosexual law reform bill, these differences had been resolved. In addition, the 1984 snap election had returned a younger more liberal parliament. This time opposition would come from the new groups of the religious Right, who focused on the homosexual law reform issue as a means of attracting support for their broader political programme.
Auckland Community Church became caught up in the controversy surrounding the bill. At the 1985 Auckland Anglican Synod, the Diocese was criticised for its financial assistance to ACC and for allowing the community to use St Matthew-in-the-City. John Mullane and Kim Benton made a strong argument for the ministry of ACC, and helped persuade the Synod to support law reform. ACC made its own submission to the bill’s select committee.
When the bill finally passed, in July 1986, ACC held a special celebration service, hosting many other groups from within the gay community.
Christ came to bring freedom – ‘He has sent me … to proclaim release for the prisoners … to let the broken victims go free’ (Luke 4). Four years in a prison camp during the war, 1941-45. Then freedom – open doors. Back to New Zealand and twenty-seven years of service with Scripture Union. A joyful experience, but lived before Stonewall. In 1977 I left my denominational church, joined ACC and ‘came out of the closet,’ meeting with a great group of ‘Heroes.’ Freedom! I thank you all for the love and friendship I have received over the last 15 years. 1994 – No Discrimination. Hallelujah! ‘The best is yet to be!’ – Doc
From M.H. 1986 – A retreat on couples was held in June. After the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill in early July, ACC held a thanksgiving service in August to which a number of non ACC groups were invited to make their celebration in their own way. Peter Shanks left for Bhutan to work with VSA. The award dinner was repeated, with Lebanese food. Several relationships were blessed during the year.
From M.H. 1987 – Kim Benton left and his contribution to the life of the community church as pastor, guide and friend was sorely missed. Russell Cook and Sister Noel also moved on, as did Frank Checketts to Wellington, but Sue Adams and John Salmon returned from the USA. There was a steady attendance at the weekly celebration of Holy Communion. The music in worship was enriched with special services organised by Tim McWhannell.
From M.H. Ron Prosser died during the year after a long illness. In place of an awards dinner, John Mullane was presented with a carved bone pendant.
From M.H. 1988 – Peter Shanks returned from Bhutan.
A diverse community
Auckland Community Church has never identified itself as an exclusively “gay church.” ACC was quite a diverse group of people: men, women, gay, straight, transgender, people with disabilities, and people recovering from addictions. It was a church for the marginalised and for their supporters. Despite its inclusiveness, ACC was often characterised by others, and the media, as a gay church. During law reform, opponents from the religious Right wrote or spoke about “the homosexual church,” usually with the implication that these gay Christians were not part of the “real Church.” Supporters too would identify ACC as a gay church – pointing to it as evidence of the marginalisation caused by the law and the attitudes of churches.
Law reform helped to reinforce a particularly gay identity for Auckland Community Church. It also prompted other gay Christians to come out and become involved with groups such as ACC.
In September 1990, ACC celebrated its tenth anniversary. John Mullane addressed the community – remarking on the controversy of the past, the equivocal support of the mainstream churches, and the continued importance of the church as a haven for people facing prejudice. John said that:
… if ACC can remain as a community which shares its leadership, loves God and proclaims the good news of the gospel of Jesus’ gift of life to all, and ministers and cares for all who come to join it, then the future of that community can only be good.
John died of cancer in December 1990.
Debate over ordination
The early 1990s marked the beginning of a new phase in New Zealand gay Christian history. With the publicity surrounding the application of an openly gay minister, David Bromell, for full connexion with the Methodist Church, mainstream denominations were forced to acknowledge and deal with gay Christians within their congregations.
The debate over ordination and church membership has proved long and difficult. It became caught up with a wider debate for equality – the push to include sexual orientation as a grounds for non-discrimination in New Zealand’s human rights legislation. The success of this reform (1993) provided the Methodist Church with a means of resolving its debate: the church decided it should follow the spirit of the law. The Presbyterian Church continues to struggle over the issue, while the Anglican and Catholic Churches have yet to fully address it.
My biological family of sisters, brothers-in-law, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles and cousins have rejected me because I am gay. My social family, centred on our Community, are my true family in a very real way. I share with them the joys and sorrows of life and receive from them the guidance, nurture and love we all need – John
From M.H. 1990 – On a few occasions we have been visited by friends from the past such as Don Mence and Bob Scott. The tradition of services for special occasions was continued with a Passiontide liturgy and a sung Evensong. Peter Hovey and Derek Bridle were both thanked for the valued and long contribution they have made, a pendant similar to that presented to John Mullane was given. A clergy and board meeting has discussed our determination to be inclusive in worship and to use the Maori language in the service. It also adopted the NZ Prayerbook reading themes in line with Saint Matthew’s. This year has also been a sad time; John Mullane has had cancer diagnosed and Sue Adams was bereaved of her son, Stephen. The present attendance at Sunday Eucharist is around 30.
As with the 1985/86 law reform, the ordination and Human Rights debates have encouraged gay Christians to come out and to seek the company and support of other gay Christians. Two national gay Christian conferences (1991 and 1992) provided a focus for this process, bringing together gay Christians from around New Zealand and beyond. Auckland Community Church was involved in the organisation of the first conference, and represented at both. Ashley Sedon has written that the first conference
… gave birth to the Lesbian/Gay Christian movement in New Zealand along with substantial motivation to many people to work for change in their churches, believing that homosexual Christians have a rightful place in all aspects of Church life. (Claiming Our Place, Wellington, 1992, p.3)
While groups of gay Christians had existed well before 1991, there was certainly a sense of something new happening. Many gay Christians were politicised by the ordination debate. With David Bromell as keynote speaker, the 1991 Conference focused on being gay within church denominations. Although many conference participants were associated with independent church communities (such as ACC or MCC), by the end of the weekend they were being regrouped according to denominational background or affiliation. A number of new groups were established, such as MFLAG (Methodists for Lesbian and Gay Concerns) PFLAG, or AFLAG (the Presbyterian and Anglican equivalents).
A safe place
I sometimes find ACC frustrating because for me it is not radical enough theologically, liturgically or in the radical ‘queer’ sense. But this personal frustration reflects one of ACC’s great strengths – that of accommodating people from a wide spectrum of Christian and gay experience. Whenever I feel frustrated, I pause and remember the procession of “at last I have found a place where I am safe and accepted and loved” expressions on the faces of those who have mustered up the courage to step through the doors of St Matthew’s into ACC worship for the first time during my nearly eight years with ACC. ACC has been and continues to be the place where many begin to experience the integration of faith and orientation, spirituality and sexuality, their humanity and their divinity. I am glad that I found ACC, and that ACC has helped me in the finding of my true self. – David
Far from being made redundant by the new emphasis on being gay and Christian within mainstream churches, Auckland Community Church has remained a significant community for many gay Christians and for others. It has continued to grow and develop and to speak out on issues such as the Human Rights Amendment and the inclusion of gay Christians within other churches. If it has become a little more political in recent years, ACC has remained first and foremost a worshipping and nurturing community. Centred around its evening Eucharist, the community has remained faithful to its traditions of team ministry and strong lay participation; of innovative liturgy and stimulating theological reflection.
Offering a safe environment for those wanting to address or celebrate their sexuality or spirituality, a supportive community for those struggling within denominational churches, and a prophetic challenge to Church and gay communities alike, there will still be an important place for Auckland Community Church in years to come.
We are Whanau