The Uniting Church in Australia
Synod of Victoria

Standing Committee -- July 1995

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Re: Homosexual and Non-marital Relationships of Candidates for Ministries

That in view of the polity of the Church reserving to the Assembly the determination of questions of doctrine and the specification of criteria for the acceptance of candidates for specified ministries, and in view of the urgency of providing correct advice to the Selection Panel which will be called upon to make decisions on current applications before the Synod meets, and noting the following resolution of the Commission on Education for Ministry, viz.

Standing Committee resolves:-

[That motion was passed. Other motions were proposed, but it was decided in addition to the above only to draw attention to advice received from the Assembly Standing Committee. The Commission considered the matter several meetings subsequently, and some objection was made to the way the Standing Committee had acted; eventually, a request was made for further guidance from the ASC. For the meeting of Synod Standing Committee of 26 July 1995 I was requested to prepare a background statement for the notice of motion which had been presented at the previous meeting. That statement follows. -- DB.]


The principal point of objection to the advice given by the Commission to the Committee on Selection is that it is contrary to the doctrines of the Church. Although the teaching and discipline of the church in this respect are currently the subject of extensive discussion in the Church, we do have relevant doctrines which remain in place unless and until they are changed by due process.

The Commission has no power to vary the relevant doctrines and is required to uphold the teaching of the church, specifically on marriage and the discipline of ministers. By attempting to introduce a very significant change in those doctrines and the discipline of ministers in one part of the Church without action by the Assembly for the Church as a whole, Commission was exceeding its powers and acting in a manner that is divisive and likely to have other serious consequences which the Synod needs to guard against.

There were also some procedural faults in the way the Commission reached its resolutions which I will leave aside for the present.

The Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) resolved, in part, at its meeting in September 1994 as follows:

Standing Committee acknowledges that doctrinal matters are among the issues which underlie the question of the suitability and acceptance of homosexual persons as candidates.

The ASC went on the say that it believed that `the church is not ready to make declarations through the Assembly on the doctrinal matters'. It ought also to be acknowledged that we have received doctrines which continue to support the discipline and practice of ministry and have guided relevant councils of the church up to the present time.

It is nonsense to claim in regard to any doctrinal question that in the absence of a specific determination by the Assembly we have no doctrine. If that were the case we would have practically no doctrines at all as very few doctrinal determinations have been made by the Assembly since formation of the Uniting Church. Our doctrines are broadly speaking the doctrines of a church that is willing to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church as that way is described in the Basis of Union. Some doctrinal standards relating to Scripture, tradition and the creeds are specified in the Basis and others are implied in the ordination vows of ministers and in other parts of approved liturgies, reports and resolutions of the Assembly. Furthermore we live in relationship to other Christians who share the substance of the faith and in continuity with the churches which formed the union. The members and ministers of the Uniting Church were not cut off from their roots nor isolated from ecumenical partners when this Church was formed; on the contrary, the catholicity of the church was reaffirmed and strengthened by the act of union. We have received doctrines which are common to our traditions and other churches. Such doctrines include common Christian teaching on such matters as marriage and the discipline of ministers.

The Church's Understanding of Marriage

The received understanding of marriage is represented in the Declaration of Purpose in the Marriage Service published in Uniting in Worship, which is approved and recommended as a model by the Assembly:-

Marriage is appointed by God. The church believes that marriage is a gift of God in creation and a means of grace in which a man and a woman become one in heart, mind and body.

Marriage is the sacred and life-long union of a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in love and trust. It signifies the mystery of the union between Christ and the church. ....

All Christian communions share a similar understanding, which is seen to be based in scripture and confirmed in Christian experience. Of particular relevance to the present concern is the reference Jesus made to the origins of marriage in the creation of humankind as male and female:-

From the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' {7} 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, {8} and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. {9} Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. [Mark 10:6-9 from Genesis 1:27 (cf 5:2) and 2:24.]

It has been the universal teaching of the church that there is a given character to marriage: we are not free to do with it whatever we please, and it is based upon the fact of gender differences. It is part of God's plan and purpose in creation. In teaching this and in relying upon scripture, relating its nature and purpose to its basis in creation for the union of a man and a woman, the received understanding of the Uniting Church is in harmony with that of other churches, and the doctrine of the Uniting Church is continuous with that of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches which entered the union. Continuity is specifically represented by the resolution (77.49) of the First Assembly to authorize as approved rites of the Church the marriage rites which were in use in any of the Uniting Churches at the time of union.

Because marriage is part of the natural order, it is relevant to observe that no human society anywhere at any time, whether ancient or modern, a preliterate tribe or an advanced industrial society, and no matter what cultural variations there may be in marriage and sex roles, as far as we know from historical and anthropological research, has ever recognized homosexual marriage. No matter how tolerant they might have been of people whose behaviour differs from the norm no nation has defined marriage without regard to gender. In Australia the Marriage Act (para 46 (1)) and the Family Law Act define marriage as follows:-

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

The Uniting Church [ASC] has specifically forbidden the blessing of homosexual unions as if they were marriages, and the Australian Government has recently announced that the Marriage Act will not be amended to define marriage without regard to gender. By advising the Committee on Selection and hence the Panel of the Selection Conference to consider the quality of sexual relationships without regard to the gender of the partners the Commission has contradicted the teaching of the church and must be corrected, or if the advice given is capable of such an interpretation the Commission has been misleading and its advice must be disallowed and correct advice given.

By advising the Committee and the Panel to disregard the fact that a sexual and domestic partnership is a non-marriage relationship and thus to treat other sexual relationships in the same way as marriages the Commission also acted contrary to Christian teaching and its advice must be disallowed.

The Discipline of Ministers

It is a matter of doctrine that ordained ministers are subject to a particular discipline. That is part of what it means to be ordained. Such discipline has always included some expectations regarding sexual behaviour both as an example to the flock and because of the direct impact sexual relationships can have on a person's relationship to God.

From the beginning, that is, from as early a point as we are able to discern the particular ministries of presbyter/bishop and deacon in the scriptures and the historical record, the sexual behaviour of pastoral leaders who are set apart for specified functions like those to which we ordain ministers has been subject to particular requirements. As seen, for example in the Pastoral Epistles, such requirements have been specified for pastoral leaders explicitly without relying upon what is expected of members of the church in general. For large parts of the church and for much of its history presbyters have been required to be celibate. At other times and also in large parts of the church presbyters may be married. That has been regarded as a pastoral matter on which discipline may vary according to the mission and cultural circumstances of the church, but it has always been a matter of discipline; and no provision has ever been made for that discipline to allow any other condition than marriage or celibacy.

Ministers of the Word in the Uniting Church stand in succession to the ancient ministry of presbyter. When the reformers undertook ordination of presbyters by presbyters in council (including the council of the congregation) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they intended to ordain to the same ministry as they had received. Wesley explicitly justified his ordinations with the same intention. The Uniting Church in the Basis of Union has defined this ministry in the same way and has maintained continuity through the reception of ministers from the uniting churches with that understanding. Indeed continuity of the world communion traditions in our understanding of ministry is clearly indicated by the decision (77.41) of the first Assembly to recognize `as churches from which ministers of the Word may be received on transfer subject to their acceptance of the polity and discipline of the Church' Congregational and Presbyterian Churches which are members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Methodist Churches which are members of the World Methodist Council. The renewed ministry of deacon can be assumed to share in a renewal of the same ministry in other churches and to be related to the ancient form of that ministry in the expectation of being subject to a similar discipline.

Just as with the understanding of marriage, we have a received position on the discipline of ministers. In the ordination vows, regarding catholic continuity, besides adherence to the Basis of Union, submission to the church's discipline and a commitment to study the confessional documents of the church, ordinands are required to answer that they will seek to live a holy and disciplined life. Such a holy and disciplined life is generally understood, now as in the past, not to include promiscuous relationships or de facto marriages. And, of course, `a holy and disciplined life' has never been redefined so as to permit the practice of homosexual intercourse. Claims are made that such changes should be made, but they have not in fact been made. To act as if changes have been made when they have not is simply to violate the discipline without which ordained ministry cannot continue.

The Unity of the Church

If the arguments presented above are accepted, the Synod has a duty to correct the errors made by the Commission. If it is believed that nevertheless the Synod has some discretion in the matter, then it should exercise its pastoral and administrative oversight with regard to the peace and unity of the Church. There are two aspects of this: the possibility of internal disintegration and the likelihood of further separation from our ecumenical partners internationally and denominationally.

In regard to the first, internal disunity, opinions will differ as to its likely extent. I know many individual members who will leave the Uniting Church if it ordains people living in homosexual relationships and there are some whole congregations, and perhaps presbyteries, which will seek formal separation. There will be an increase of the fear and suspicion of the wider church which is very evident in some areas and which has debilitating effects on church finances and on the enthusiasm of members to work in a body in which they feel that they are treated with contempt by people who are using the church for their own political and social ends. One of the most hurtful expression of this perceived contempt is the attitude that people who disagree with politically correct policies have something wrong with them, that they are suffering from a kind of psychiatric illness: in its extreme from this attitude makes all arguments ad hominem, never looking at the substance of the case and seeking only psychological and political explanations of opinions which they disapprove, so that those who fail to conform must be defective human beings. In spite of the relative public quiet in the church at present, it is a highly charged matter. It is almost impossible to judge how serious it could be, but the Uniting Church would do well to learn from the destructive consequences of precipitate changes regarding homosexual relationships in the United Church of Canada, and the extreme difficulty our sister churches in other countries have had in finding a position that can preserve the unity of the church.

There are many who would not leave the Uniting Church if people living in homosexual relationships were ordained but who would disagree with such a policy. Their position would be very difficult. The experience we have had with the ordination of women has rightly placed all ministers under a discipline to teach what the church teaches and to accept all colleagues without discrimination, to the extent of accepting as valid the basis in which the church has decided to ordain women. Applicants for candidature have to pass a special test at this point. Much the same applies to acceptance of the position of the church on infant baptism: there is only the smallest possible room for private conscientious reservations. A small number of ministers who disagree remain loyal, accepting the discipline while continuing to hold conscientious reservations on those matters; I doubt that the much larger number who disapprove of the ordination of people living in homosexual relationships would tolerate similar restrictions.

On the other hand if there is no requirement to accept what the church does in this respect, then different parts of the church will adopt different practices and many conflicts will develop. We could have the situation in which ordinations in one presbytery could expose members of another presbytery to the possibility of legal action under the state Antidiscrimination Act, from which the Church is excused only if the grounds of discrimination are part of the church's teaching, and it could be argued that if a church has allowed such ordinations they cannot be contrary to the teaching of that church. The divisive effects of such liability should be obvious. It should also be noted that advocates of the recognition of homosexual partnerships by the church have demonstrated a willingness to use the law of the state to impose their policies on the church.

In regard to ecumenical relations, a few key points might be noted. Firstly, when we ordain people we set them apart to a specific ministry in the universal church, not merely to an office or function within a particular institution known as the Uniting Church in Australia. When we say we value our place in the one holy catholic and apostolic church we are obligated to consider the wider consequences of what we do about ministry and at the very least to consult other churches on any radical change affecting our ministry.

In the Australian context it would appear unlikely that any other church would agree to ordain people living in homosexual relationships, and that is probably one reason why we are placed under such pressure to provide the kind of endorsement that would be politically advantageous to the interested pressure groups. If that is so we need to be particularly careful of attitudes and actions which would cut the Uniting Church off at its roots and isolate it from other churches. We are especially vulnerable. Our union which had been intended as a step towards wider unity could be made a peculiar sect trapped in a twentieth century cul de sac. It is not possible to maintain unity in diversity without catholicity.

These are matters which ought be considered by the Assembly in plenary session, and otherwise widely in the Church, perhaps under paragraph 39 of the Constitution regarding matters of vital interest to the life of the Church. To act in a precipitant manner in one part of the Church would be a serious violation of our church order.


None of this is to say that change is not possible, but that any change in the discipline of ministers and candidates concerning the acceptability of their living in sexual and domestic partnerships with partners of the same sex or in non-marital relationships is a matter for due process through the Assembly, and that the Synod has a duty to act in accord with our received doctrines and discipline. The advice of the Commission should be disallowed and correct advice given.

David Beswick, 18 July 1995

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