To Take a Stand in the Midst of Tragedy

David Beswick, January 1999

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We have been watching a tragedy unfold in the Uniting Church in Australia. The union of churches which promised so much when it was formed in 1977 is now in danger of disintegration, not into its previous denominations, but into sectarian factions and secular interest groups. The deep desire to move forward after union in a process of renewal and reform, to realize a new vision with an emphasis on change, made it possible for a secular humanist ideology of progress to displace the solid theological foundations of hope on which it had been planned to build a new expression of the universal church, not a new church cut off from its roots, but a church that would be truer to its apostolic and catholic origins. Our hope, vision and commitment agreed upon in the Basis of Union is in danger of being replaced by something else.

It is now clear that the high Christian hopes of the sixties and seventies have been fused with the values of the cultural revolution of those decades which has had a formative influence throughout the Western world. What has happened to the Uniting Church in Australia is by no means unique. Similar things have happened to churches in other Western countries, even without the special circumstances of church union, and to other aspects of Western culture, in education, the arts and literature particularly, while affects have been discernable also in government and society more generally, and even to a degree in science. The Uniting Church with its central commitment to change, its open structures and deliberately weak leadership, and even its economic vulnerability in being asset rich and income poor, was a typical take-over target. It was particularly susceptible to being traduced and perhaps captured in this manner. It became an ideal vehicle for the prosecution of special interests arising elsewhere in society, where those interests depend for their success upon the modification of traditional beliefs.

There has been an inevitable reaction against that stealing away of the essential Christian character of the new commitments to substitute the decaying fragments of a dehumanized liberal belief system which combined trust in the inevitable progress of humanity with a deep sense of alienation. That combination of belief in progress with alienation is inherent in a system of belief which put its ultimate trust in humanity rather than in God. The elite in church and society could not see it, but it has not been missed altogether by less fortunate sections of a fractured community. People know there is something wrong deep down. The result is that just as the propagators of the new religion of individual freedom look back to nineteenth century liberalism, but ignore, indeed dismiss, those elements of it, like rationality, objectivity, moderation and responsibility, which made individual freedom socially viable, so a growing number of doubters in the contemporary religion of progress have attempted to recover some principles of truth and good order which might be thought by Christians to be found in Biblical authority, but which turn out to be by no means simple. In the post-World-War-II period of high hopes for ecumenical endeavor, renewed biblical scholarship and depth of theological understanding, I and many of my friends imagined in our youth that the days of liberals versus fundamentalists were well and truly past, just as were the supposed conflicts of science and religion. How wrong we were!

It would be hypocritical of me as one who has always worked for change, often radical change, to say that all the advocates of change in the church or of modern ways of expressing the faith are "liberals", either in the old sense or in that deprecating sense in which their critics make them out to be libertarians; and neither would I call "fundamentalist" all who insist, as the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church requires, that we test what we teach by reference to the scriptures and allow the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments to nourish and regulate our faith. But factions have formed around those centres; and they do polarize and tend to characterize each other in extreme terms. I am reminded of an introductory throw-away line or two in the preface to Nancy Murphy's book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism:

An example of the first point appeared a few months ago on the Uniting Church Insights List, a means for exchange of opinions on the Internet. One "evangelical" wrote, "I am not a literalist", in regard to the scriptural injunction against homosexual intercourse, and the reply came back from a noted advocate, "Then what is the problem?", as if he must accept the liberal position if he is not a fundamentalist.

Nor do I wish to pretend neutrality, or try to hold a middle course between so-called "liberals" and "fundamentalists". As would be expected from my introductory remarks, I see what I would call the pro-modern faction as very much in command and responsible for doing great damage to the church. They must be challenged even if it means making common cause on some issues with groups who have been stigmatised as "right wing", "fundamentalist" or hopelessly "conservative". At the same time, in taking a stand with those who might be called the anti-moderns against the corruption of the church by secular ideology we must be careful not to provide an excuse for others to pursue a competing social and political agenda through the church or a section of it.

How and when should we take a stand? All Christians know that times come, sooner or later, when it is necessary to take a stand for Christ: to be ready to stand for what we believe no matter what the consequences, to dare to be different as a person of faith. We know, at the same time, that we often fail when we are tested as witnesses in a hostile environment, and that knowledge of our weakness makes us anxious when we perceive a testing time. It is not for nothing in that Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Save us from the time of trial".

Yet, it is normal in a Christian life to expect to deal with threats that come, as it were, from the outside, from a world that is hostile to the message and sometimes to those who bear it. There is a sense in which we who have lived a while trying in sincerity to live the Christian life, trying to witness faithfully, have come to terms with that threat, and we learn to rely upon God to save us from those tests which we are likely to fail. But there is a different kind of test for which we are less well prepared in the normal course of events, unless we have been conditioned by a factional or sectarian heritage. The threat that mainstream Christians find particularly difficult is the threat that comes not from the "outside" but from the "inside", even if the distinction between inside and outside in not always clear cut.

It is unusually stressful to feel pressure to take a stand in the face of a threat which comes from within the fellowship of believers. Indeed, we may well be driven to doubt whether those who so challenge us are in fact believers at all; and so the seeds of division are sown in the body of Christ. We are all too well aware that to take a stand in the way which distinguishes us from others within the fellowship can be a denial of the very gospel to which we would witness in good faith. Such challenges create a very high level of anxiety and seem to demand unusual courage if we are to act, to take a stand; so it is not surprising that a call to take a stand against false teaching and corrupt examples will often find the majority of church members unresponsive. Such is our situation today.

It should not surprise us, for there is Biblical as well as historical precedence. St Paul had to struggle mightily with divisions in the church at Corinth (e.g., the epistle for Epiphany 3 this year: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 "I appeal to you that there be no divisions among you"). The apostles would surely have had many other occasions on which to recall and to teach our Lord's prayer "That they all may be one" (John 17). Towards the end of the New Testament period, when the church was settling down into a pattern of life which would serve to nurture the faithful and witness to the world for generations to come, there is a disturbing example of a call to take a stand against corruption within the church in the little book of Jude. It ought to be disturbing for us today because it fits our circumstances all too well.

Now is one of those times when the call is going out to members of the church to take a stand against corruption within. Many faithful people fear that the signs of death are on some of our brothers and sisters, because they have departed from the truth of the gospel, welcoming destructive influences from a decadent Western culture, while they set up conditions within the church in which the seeds of decay are likely to produce much more corruption. I have been asked to respond to a particular example.

With such things in mind, and the reference to Sodom in particular, some congregations in the Uniting Church in Victoria are being invited by those associated with EMU (Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church) to take a stand by identifying themselves as congregations adhering to the Basis of Union. It is in a sense part of a wider confessing movement of which there are examples in other churches of related traditions in other countries, and there are many aspects to it. Different initiatives are being taken in different parts of the Uniting Church in Australia. But, first, is it important? Is the apparent departure from the Basis of Union, both generally, and specifically in regard to policy on the acceptance of homosexual relationships in the leadership of the church, of sufficient seriousness to justify congregations in taking a stand?

There is a general tendency of the dominant faction in much of the church beyond the parish congregations, in the leadership of the National Assembly , and the Assembly itself since 1991 (See The Constitution and the Basis of Union, 1993), to avoid strict adherence to the Basis of Union. It is probably in the long run more serious than the mistake that is currently being made in allowing and encouraging the homosexual agenda to be advanced, but let me make a few points first about the seriousness of making provision in the discipline of the ordained ministries for sexual and domestic partnerships of people of the same gender.

It is an emotional matter, and requires us to exercise restraint and try to keep things in perspective. Homosexuality has been used as a stick with which to beat the church, both by its advocates and by their opponents. The Uniting Church was accused by schismatics, who were seeking an excuse to arouse passions against the church, of ordaining and harbouring homosexuals long before any of the actions now being criticised had been taken, and in particular circumstances where I know the accusations were false. It is an easy way to gain a following and to justify your own departure if you are bent on building up a separate fellowship. It aims to promote an attitude of distrust, and it has been successful to the extent that I now frequently hear talk of church officials telling lies and acting improperly in particular instances where I know the accusations are false. That is not to say that it is not now a serious matter and that I do not know of other cases where improper things have been done, but I would give a warning to keep it in perspective and to watch out for self serving provocateurs.

It is important, but not all important. Jesus did not, as far as we know from the gospel record, give any direct teaching on homosexual relationships, but clearly, he did not regard sodomy as the worst of sins, though you might say he used it as an example of something generally recognised as justifying severe punishment. Indeed he used it, together with all those things of which the people of Sodom were guilty, as an example of bad behaviour with which something even worse could be compared:

Many of us might not like the idea that failure to recognize the Messiah and the signs of the Kingdom are more serious failings than the sins of Sodom, and we must allow that Jesus typically used the technique of dramatic contrast, even hyperbole, to emphasise a point, but nevertheless, there it is. At the same time, this little example, which is found in various forms at several points in the Synoptic Gospels, cannot be taken to justify libertarian attitudes with the put-down: "Why are you so hung up about it when you should be concerned with real problems". Its evil was real enough for Jesus to use it as a point of comparison, even if there were more serious failings. Much the same could be said of adultery, which is more explicitly dealt with in the recorded teaching of Jesus.

The following may be listed briefly as among the reasons why it is wrong to promote the acceptance of homosexual intercourse, while I cannot take the time here to argue these points in detail:

1If sodomy in particular and probably all forms of "unnatural intercourse" are to be accepted as normal approved aspects of human social and domestic life, and marriage is to be redefined without regard to gender, then the authority of scripture is necessarily undermined. It does not make sense to ask people to reject the consistent witness of scripture on homosexual intercourse and at the same time not to accept any other behaviour which is consistently condemned in scripture. Why should sodomy be different from all the rest, and uniquely privileged to be permitted while all other acts witnessed in scripture consistently to be against the law of God, like adultery and incest, or theft and murder, remain proscribed? Lacking specific examples, the interpretation of scripture can then only proceed with highly abstract generalisations which are easily assimilated to ideologically driven social theories.

2. Theological defence of homosexual claims in the church usually takes one form or another of a generalised doctrine of gentile inclusion. Gentile converts were not required in New Testament times to conform to Jewish expectations completely regarding the law of the Old Covenant. However, that did not mean that converts from other cultures could maintain all their old ways. On the contrary, they were expected to change, and it was no excuse to claim a different identity or membership, when the only identity and membership that mattered was in belonging to Christ. To accept the permissive consequences of a generalized doctrine of gentile inclusion could justify all sorts of evil in the name of a distinctive identity.

3. Departure from the teaching of Jesus about the nature of marriage, as based in creation on the difference between the sexes, is a serious matter in itself, but its consequences are particularly serious when we see the sacramental nature of marriage and its modelling and encouragement of the relationship of devotion to God in Christ into which people are called through the same Spirit as blesses that relationship in nature. Just as God makes ordinary bread and wine into the spiritual food of our pilgrimage, so he takes the ordinary stuff of human relationships and makes them a means of grace. It is a serious interference with God's plan and purpose for us as sexual beings to corrupt that basis in creation that is a means of grace which he has provided for us.

4. More important than any specific prohibition, is the fact that the promotion of homosexual life styles is part of the spread of an anti-Christian religion of human freedom. Because it is a system of beliefs and practices which is often called an ideology, many Christians do not realize that we are competing with an alternative religion, not merely a false version of Christian beliefs. When it takes hold in the church, with strong groups highly committed to it, then, where such groups are dominant, those who keep to orthodox biblical teaching are treated as outsiders, as heretics, or as infidels, people who do not hold the true faith. Pressures to conform include the well known group dynamics in dealing with non-conformity: first there are attempts to accommodate the deviant, then labelling, isolation, condemnation and ultimately expulsion. It is unavoidably divisive, and the grounds for rational debate disappear in a kind of religious prejudice in which those who dare to differ become objects of fear and hatred. These extreme forms of religious prejudice in support of an ideology appear only in dedicated minorities, but they have been experienced within the Uniting Church

5. The influence of groups and networks operating more or less covertly tends to corrupt the normal processes of decision making in the church, particularly in the appointment of people to positions of importance and the allocation of resources. Advocates of the homosexual cause are linked in a network with others who have special interests in sexuality or gender politics. You can expect that they will be represented on selection committees for Synod positions, and while it is not generally true in my experience that they are able to appoint their own candidates, as some have claimed, they do have a virtual power of veto, so that no one whom they disapprove has much prospect of being selected. Similar influences have been observed in some presbyteries and in the selection of ministers for some parishes. People are afraid to oppose them. They have been willing to allow reputations to be destroyed by slander.

6. The claims of some, but not all, homosexual advocates to a fixed genetically determined identity are unscientific. There is no complex human behaviour which is fixed genetically or determined absolutely. Behavioural patterns are typically developed from a mixture of heredity and environment, and the research evidence indicates that this is the case with the development of homosexual preference with some evidence for a genetic component among other influences at least in men, but it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the behaviour to occur. Human sexuality is in fact distinguished from the sexual nature of other mammals by its not being dependent upon fixed patterns of responses to given sets of stimuli. We have to learn to function sexually. That is, human sexuality is distinguished by its freedom from instinctual determination. There is no such thing as a given homosexual identity. To claim that there is either sets up propositions which are unscientific because they are untestable, or it puts forward hypothesis which fail empirical tests and their necessary replication. Indeed the promotion of homosexuality is part of a general corruption of scientific thought, and that is important because science is liberating and based on Christian principles in our understanding of creation.

So a great deal is at stake in the promotion of the homosexual cause in the church, but there are additional threats which come from the way in which it has been advanced in the administration of the Church. This is the point at which the role of the Basis of Union has come into question. (See also The Doctrinal Standards of the Uniting Church.) There are three broad principles with relevant specific wording in the Basis which are called into question by the way the matter has been dealt with by the leadership of the Uniting Church. These are:

1. Commitment to catholic unity and the ecumenical movement.

2. Testing what we teach by reference to scripture.

3. Government of the Church by councils rather than by individuals.

The second of these has been referred to above, but I would make the additional point that it is one thing to see the threat to the authority of scripture which we might share with other Christians; it is a direct violation of our church order and the undertakings given at the time of union to deny the specific commitment in the Basis. That is probably done with the same loose interpretation of the Basis that the same people apply to scripture, and which was favoured when the Assembly in 1997 rejected the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Church Polity to include in the Constitution a commitment of the Church to membership in the one holy catholic and apostolic church "as that way is described in its Basis of Union" and substituted instead the words "guided by its Basis of Union". The Assembly also added a "progressive" gloss about us being people "on the way", implying that commitment to the Basis is to be modified by a progressive ideology which had no part in the original use of that phase about being pilgrim people. (See also Victorian Synod View of the Report on the Basis of Union .)

I spelled out some my concern on the first point above in my submission to the Sexuality Task Group as follows:-

And in an explanatory note to a notice of motion by David Beswick and Allan Thompson for a recommendation of the Victorian Synod, 1996, to the 1997 Assembly to decide to refer what they decided on the sexuality report to other councils of the church :

The third principle of the Basis which has been violated by the officers of the Assembly and other leaders is the important principle of government by councils. This was the burden of the letter of complaint I wrote to the Assembly General Secretary about his interpretation of the actions of the last Assembly. It has been published and at least twice before the Assembly Standing Committee. I have been disturbed in recent months to see the President refer to an implicit permission for presbyteries to make their own decisions on the ordination of candidates living in homosexual relationships. The Assembly has made no such decision, but the executive is proceeding to implement a policy of allowing presbyteries act differently as they choose, although that is the "way forward" of the Sexuality Task Group which was put to the Assembly and failed to gain approval. Furthermore, it is unconstitutional for presbyteries to make doctrinal decisions which only the Assembly has power to make, and doctrinal issues are inevitably involved in administrative and pastoral decisions in this matter. For officers of the church to act as if we have no relevant doctrines and to fail to administer the discipline of the Church is a very serious matter which a congregation would be fully entitled to challenge.

The officers of the Assembly have apparently acted with the tacit approval of the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) which has however avoided making any recent statements on the issue. Some reliance has been placed on past ASC resolutions, which the Assembly noted in 1997 'remain in effect'. The danger in referring to previous ASC resolutions 'which remain in effect' is the ambiguity of that phrase. It could be merely a statement of the legal situation or it could be taken, and has been taken, I believe incorrectly, to mean that the Assembly specifically endorsed thereby those ASC resolutions. The ambiguity may even have been intended to be like that which many people have seen in the ASC resolution in 1994 that 'presbyteries are free to assess applicants on an individual basis', which could have been no more than a statement of the existing legal power of the presbyteries, or it could be taken to mean that a change of policy had been approved permitting presbyteries to depart from traditional teaching on the acceptability of candidates living in homosexual relationships. If it does mean that, then ASC acted improperly. The question remains of whether or not a change of policy has been approved. Presbyteries are being encouraged to act now either as if they are have been given authority to do what they were not previously able to do and did not in fact do, or to act on the assumption that they always had power to act contrary to previous policy and doctrine. These are distortions of our doctrine and Constitution.

There is one very damaging consequence of the Sexuality Task Group's "way forward" through "diversity" of practice which has been taken up by executive action after it failed to be adopted by the Assembly, and that is to open the possibility of action in the civil courts to force those parts of the Church which do not ordain or appoint ministers living in homosexual relationships to do what the permissive presbyteries have done. Under some current state equal opportunity laws and a proposed new law of the Commonwealth a person or institution would be protected from prosecution on grounds of discrimination only if the grounds on which a person is excluded from a position were part of the teaching of the church concerned, and, as explicitly stated in the draft Commonwealth law now with the Attorney General, provided that it "is consistently applied". If some presbyteries are allowed to proceed to ordain, others could be forced by law to do the same. I have no doubt that it is part of the strategy of some interested parties to use the law in this way, and I am amazed that although I and others have drawn it to their attention the leaders of the Church have not taken any public action to avert such a divisive and damaging outcome. I wrote of this in a briefing paper for the Standing Committee of the Victorian Synod in July 1995, and since to Sexuality Task Group, and the Assembly General Secretary, and hence it came to other officers and committees. They cannot say they do not know about the threat of potential civil action.

So I would conclude that it is an important matter, and that congregations can properly consider taking a stand against what has been happening in the Uniting Church. They can certainly, without violating any principles of church order, affirm their adherence to the Basis of Union and call other councils of the Church to account for their lack of faithfulness in this regard. Sadly, I doubt that any such action would be well received in many of the presbyteries. There is one point, however, at which I plead for caution, and that is that, just as it is contrary to basic principles of our church order for presbyteries to make their own doctrinal decisions, so it is not appropriate for congregations to make confessions of faith which mark themselves out doctrinally from other congregations in a manner which deliberately divides through creation of a separate identity based in different beliefs. Rather than promoting an unconstitutional free-for-all in what we believe, I would prefer to see congregations insisting upon the Assembly, and their own Synods and Presbyteries observing due process and guarding the unity of the Church.

I have wondered whether I should conclude by returning to the Letter of Jude:

There could scarcely be better advice, but true and relevant though it is, it could be unnecessarily provocative if left to stand alone. I know many good people, capable theologians and pastoral leaders in the Church who, in my opinion, have been conned, taken in, overwhelmed by the dominant culture mediated through personal influence and massive international propaganda. We must be careful not to demonize our opponents. It is, after all, part of the corruption we are fighting against to attribute wrong opinions to the personal inadequacy, motivations or character of people with whom one disagrees. In a climate of extremism it soon comes down to saying that they are wrong because they are defective human beings. Down that road you come to the gulag and the gas chamber. We must be careful not to respond in kind. I would return then to where I began, with the sense of tragedy. Are tragedies easily perceived, let alone appreciated for what they are, by those who are in the midst of them?

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