Homosexuality and Ministry in the Uniting Church

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[Note: For an update please see What happened at Assembly 2003.]

I have been disappointed in the way the issue of whether to accept homosexual partnerships of people in the ordained ministries of the Church has been handled in the Uniting Church. Some of the key questions are addressed in a paper on the stand a congregation might take on questions related to homosexuality entitled To Take a Stand in the Midst of Tragedy, a version of which was published in the February 1999 issue of The Auburn Report. Homosexuality itself is not the key issue, and we should have a way of dealing with it in the church which keeps it in perspective. The key problem is cultural conformity to a competing anti-Christian ideology.

I general, I have favoured a reasonable degree of tolerance without endorsement. That is, we could adopt a degree of tolerance and lack of condemnation much as Jesus appears to have done in regard to divorce and adultery, making allowances for human weakness while setting a higher standard of holiness than that commonly accepted. That is far from the endorsement of "gay pride", but I admit to the need for more work in this area for the parallel with divorce and adultery, while it has some biblical precedence, leaves unexamined the genuine belief many homosexual people have that what they do is morally right for them. I have attempted to look further into this difference in the paper on tolerance which is still being developed. We should be able to maintain orthodox Christian teaching while dealing pastorally with the personal difficulties which arise in the present circumstances. While we must continue to live with some unavoidable tension in the church and investigate the ethical and theological questions in greater depth, I think the best approach is a positive one in which the great blessings and sacramental character of the marriage of a man and woman are emphasised. So I have suggested that the following proposal or something like it would be a good position for the Church to take:

The Church continues to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ that the creation of people as male and female is the God given basis for a sexual partnership, and that such partnerships are intended to be permanent in the form of the marriage of a man and a woman as a covenant blessed by God.

That still leaves open the question of what we do about people under discipline who live in a manner that is inconsistent with what the church teaches, and that is where some consideration of tolerance may enter into the pastoral practice of the Church without corrupting what is taught.

My consideration of tolerance was overtaken by events in 1999 so that it became necessary to write with particular reference to the threat of interested parties using state power in the church by setting up conditions in which action could be taken under anti-discrimination legislation to impose a new set of doctrines and discipline against the wishes of a majority of members: see Tolerance, diversity and using the power of the state to impose change on the church. An edited version of this paper was published in the August 1999 issue of The Auburn Report. I have appended to the above a few comments on a statement from the Victorian Synod which was issued after the paper was edited for publication. That statement might appear to have addressed the issues raised in the paper, but it actually pointed to the situation being then more serious than was made public. Further similar action was taken at the time of the 2000 Assembly to convince people that there was no threat, but there is no doubt that any opportunity would be taken under the laws of the State or the Commonwealth to impose a policy on the church if it could be done; and that those who wish to see it will continue to work towards that end, attempting to use secular legislation and the courts to compel the church to conform to their ways.

The tension caused by this controversy, and the lack of effective discipline in regard to it, has led many good members to leave the Uniting Church and many more to consider leaving. To Stay or to Leave is a question many people have been asking. My answer, given briefly in the linked page, is to stay: "There's got to be a morning after, if only we can hold on through the night". The 2000 National Assembly of the Church found a way of avoiding a split, and left the big questions unresolved. More needs to be done to preserve the true teaching of the church catholic within the Uniting Church, but the tide of special interests could be turning.

Uniting Education has published a collection of personal "stories" of people's experience of the Uniting Church, in the context of the debates on sexuality, entitled Joy Pain: Belonging in the Uniting Church it is edited by Hugh McGinlay. My offering is entitled A Story of Hope and Grief. It covers in about 1000 words the fifty years from my first encounter with the ecumenical movement, through the hope and excitement of the union, to the disappointments of the reality and the recent time of grief.

Not the least of my grief has been the fact that I do not agree the people and institutional authorities I have in the past supported, but I am not at home with their principal opponents either although I must say that I have come to appreciate the contributions of the 'evangelical' wing to the maintenance of orthodoxy in the Church and that is something I would never have anticipated in my early years. It is not, I really believe, that I had become conservative in my old age, but that I repented of some errors which I saw some of my colleagues continuing to make as they led the church in the wrong direction. It is the direction of change, not the extent or the rate of change that is the problem, but they cannot see that point while they imagine that their opponents are simply resisting change. There are different visions of the future, not a conflict between the future and the past.

As part of the broader background, I found a brief paper I wrote ten years ago entitled Searching for Alternatives to Liberalism which foreshadowed the underlying cultural trends affinity with which accounts for much of the damage done to the Uniting Church in this decade, not only in the debate on the recognition of homosexual partnerships but in regard to the more general conflicts of ideology and faith within which it has occurred.

More recent background may be seen in an article critical of the leadership of the Uniting Church for their conformity to the dominant culture which was written in December 1997 and published in the June 1998 issue of The Auburn Report and in a letter published in Crosslight, the official journal of the Victorian Synod, in April 1998. More of the background is given in an introductory note, and in an earlier article on imported cultural orthodoxy and disunity which had been published in the Auburn Report in December 1996.

See also a briefing paper for the Standing Committee of the Victorian Synod in 1995 when an attempt was made to change policy illegally, and Truth and mercy in the sexuality debate, with which several related sermons, including Speaking the truth in love, are linked, and an earlier paper Unity, Diversity and Catholicity which shows how the same basic questions of church order were being raised in a different context apart from homosexuality several years ago, and gives links to documents on what has happened since.

The nature of my concern regarding a possible abuse of office in the National Assembly to propagate the dominant ideology may be seen in my letter to the Assembly General Secretary concerning his statement of church policy on homosexuality after the 1997 Assembly. (There is a note at the end of that document on what has happened later. I hope people will not be distracted by the emotive content of the subject of homosexuality in the church. That is important, but how the officials and councils of the church may act to propagate policies and doctrines which the church has not approved is the real point in dispute.) To some degree, since the Assembly of 2000 and the installation of James Haire as President, and the appointment of Terrence Corkin as General Secretary, the Assembly office has been less of an advocate for the special interests of the homosexual lobby, although some material on the Assembly web site still [2002] gives a false impression of the official position of the Church by among other things still including the former General Secretary's misleading interpretation to which I objected.

These are some of the more recent outcomes of what I have seen as a betrayal of the church by a leadership which risked abandoning the basic commitment to catholicity and the apostolic witness in the Basis of Union in favour an ideology that dominates among Australian and other Western cultural elites. It is a serious charge which I came to most reluctantly, but which I realised must be made in public and sustained with evidence and argument: hence these papers. It is not however, an enterprise which has given me any pleasure, quite the contrary, and it is my hope not to have to pursue the matter any further. A sufficient level of resistance has probably developed now for the more sustained and detailed work that is necessary to carried forward by others who are continuing in active ministry. DB May 2000, revised February 2001 and February 2002.

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