Concerning a statement of church policy on homosexuality: objection to action by the General Secretary of the Assembly

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16 July 1997

The Rev Gregor Henderson
General Secretary of the Assembly
Uniting Church in Australia
PO Box A2266
Sydney South NSW 1235

Dear Gregor

Statement of Current Policy on Homosexuality

What is the source of the statement of "current policy on homosexuality" which appeared over your name on the insights-l email dated 15 July 1997 [and later distributed throughout the church through Synod offices and the Assembly web site]? What status does it have? It seems to me to contain some statements of principle which have never been adopted by the Assembly or its Standing Committee. In addition it appears to assume that previous statements by the ASC which have not been overturned by the Assembly, and legally remain in effect, have some kind of endorsement which they do not have. It seems to me quite clear that your statement now issued would not gain endorsement in several respects if it were sought in the Assembly or in a majority of the presbyteries.

Specifically the following parts of your statement have not, as far I know, ever been formally adopted as policy and appear to be a means of establishing as the status quo by administrative fiat several principles which were put to the Assembly by the Task Group and failed to gain approval:-

Section 1, re Membership

There is no bar to their eligibility for church membership and for elected or appointed positions within the life of the congregation.

Whether people actively engaged in a homosexual lifestyle should hold any position of pastoral leadership is a highly contentious question, whether within or beyond the congregation, and the very point of challenge to much of what the Task Group proposed and which failed to gain approval at the Assembly. Survey results show that such a proposal is not in agreement with the opinions of a majority of church members. You have no authority to propagate such a policy.

Section 3. Re Same Sex Relationships

The Assembly has not taken any decision which would prevent ministers and councils of elders acknowledging a same-sex relationship in some form of worship service, as long as such a service does not resemble the marriage service.

Whether the church should give any recognition to same sex partnerships was a matter for debate and a point at which a proposal was made which was not adopted. Much debate could ensue as to the intention and effect of any such service of recognition. Ministers and congregations are not free to make new policy for the church on such matters. It is a doctrinal question on which the Assembly has not made any decision to change the traditional teaching of the church.

The question of defining the status quo when an attempt to change it has failed

In the absence of further definitive guidance from the Assembly, synods and/or presbyteries are free to adopt policies concerning same-sex relationships which do not conflict with the above policy, and these policies could be declared to be binding on all ministers and all congregations within their bounds.

Who says so? I submit that you are presuming to give the power of determining doctrine to councils of the church which have no such powers. What do you expect to happen in the discipline of the church if particular ministers or congregations were to refuse to act in accordance with a synod or presbytery policy requiring recognition of same sex partnerships, especially if it were to arise in the making of settlements?

There is a similar problem implicit in the following statement from section 2:

5. Although the Regulations require individual assessment of applicants and candidates, the Assembly has not taken any decision which would prevent a presbytery from deciding that a particular pattern of sexual conduct would be a determining factor for a negative decision on applications for candidature or ordination.

It appears to be implied that just as some presbyteries could decide that a particular pattern of sexual conduct would be a determining factor for a negative decision others could make a decision not to do so and in effect to have a policy of accepting as candidates and proceeding to ordain people living in homosexual relationships. That is the so-called "way forward" of the Interim Report. It is a policy which has failed to gain acceptance.

I would submit further, for your serious consideration, that the Assembly and synods will need to come to an understanding of the legal consequences for the church of ministers who are ordained in one presbytery but denied a settlement in another taking action for damages in a civil court under anti-discrimination legislation. According the former anti-discrimination commissioner in Victoria, a church is protected from such action only if the grounds of discrimination are an acknowledged part of the teaching of the church concerned. If the Assembly takes the view that there are no doctrinal barriers to actions being taken on this matter which are approved in one part of the church but disapproved in another, then the church council which refused a settlement could be liable.

On the general question of what the doctrines of the church are in the absence of a determination by the Assembly I would ask that consideration be given to following view of the constitutional position from a paper I prepared for the Victorian Synod Standing Committee and included in my submission to the Sexuality Task Group:

Have you considered what the church's current doctrine is? [from the 1995 paper for the Victorian Synod Standing Committee].

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.

I trust that you and the President, and the Standing Committee in due course, will give these matters the most serious and urgent consideration as I believe that the damage which has already been done to the church by the determination of a dominant faction to press on with the homosexual agenda will be significantly increased if you do not.

Gregor, I know that I am on the way out and as I am no longer a member of the Assembly you could choose to ignore my plea and that if a ruling were sought the President would have no obligation to consider whether there is a constitutional question involved in determining what are the current doctrines and policies of the church, but nevertheless I feel an obligation to make this, probably my last, attempt to encourage the Assembly leadership to guard the unity of the church and the integrity of the church's teaching.

Yours sincerely

David Beswick.

Note: a detailed reply was received from Gregor Henderson. While acknowledging that I had raised some matters of importance he asserted that in the absence of a determination to the contrary by the Assembly other councils of the church were free to make their own policies. I wrote again arguing against this principle on the grounds that we have received many doctrines which the Assembly has never made the subject of formal resolution and that minsters and all councils of the church are obliged to uphold our doctrines whether or not directed in the particular matter by the Assembly. The matter was discussed by the Assembly Standing Committee in September 1997 and the basic question I had raised concerning the link between received doctrine and policies made of other councils which do not have power to decide doctrinal questions was referred to the Commission on Doctrine. I understand that a report from the Commission (now changed in its constitution) was received by the ASC in November 1998, and that while disagreeing in some respects on minor issues the Commission was generally supportive of the main points I had made, but the ASC has made no further resolution on the matter. DB.

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