What happened at Assembly 2003 leading to the Reforming Alliance

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The National Assembly 2003 decision known as Resolution 84 has the effect of allowing the ordination of people who are living in homosexual relationships. Although from the point of view of the officers of the Assembly it did not make new policy, as they had interpreted the Constitution of the Church and previous resolutions as placing no limits in this regard on the exercise by presbyteries (regional councils with oversight of ministers and congregations) of their normal powers in making decisions on who could become ministers, it is understood nevertheless by most people to make it possible for presbyteries to do what none felt able to do before, that is, to accept candidates for specified ministries and to ordain people without regard to whether their sexual partnerships are with people of the same gender. In effect, by making a new resolution, using some old words of an Assembly Standing Committee resolution, in a new context, the status quo was redefined in such a way as to facilitate a radical change without actually saying that the Church was doing what representatives of homosexual groups had been asking for. It was the kind of revolution you have when you are not having a revolution.

The critical words in the resolution of the Assembly are in the form of instructions to presbyteries:-

(a) in considering issues related to candidature, ordination or commissioning for specified ministries, and the placement of persons in specified ministries, decisions should only be taken on a case by case basis; and
(b) a decision on the suitability of an applicant or candidate depends upon a wide range of criteria and may include consideration of the manner in which the applicant's or candidate's sexuality is expressed.

The effect of the case by case requirement is to preclude the application in any region of a general policy the regional council might have of not accepting candidates who are living in homosexual relationships. It remains technically possible that the manner in which the applicant's or candidate's sexuality is expressed could be interpreted to allow a decision that a homosexual relationship is unacceptable in a particular case, but the implication is that other councils could decide to understand it in terms of the quality rather than the type of relationship. Officers of the Assembly have made it clear that they expect different presbyteries to act differently. The President said in a pastoral letter in August 2003:-

The Assembly did not pass a proposal that the Uniting Church ordains homosexual people. It did acknowledge that it is and has been possible for a Presbytery, on a case by case basis, to accept that a homosexual person could be called by God to ministry, noting that it is appropriate for a Presbytery to take into account the way in which all applicants express their sexuality, and noting that Presbyteries may choose to take into account the expectation that its ministers will adhere to the standards of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage. This is the tension that is acknowledged by Proposal 84. The responsibility for discernment remains with the Presbytery.

In the past many of us had believed that presbyteries were not free to act as the President now says they may. We believed that all councils of the church should act in accord with accepted doctrine and that, as only the Assembly had power to determine doctrinal issues, the regional councils were not free to take a position with doctrinal implications which the Assembly had not decided. Indeed the Assembly Standing Committee did resolve in 1994 that: Standing Committee acknowledges that doctrinal matters are among the issues which underlie the question of the suitability and acceptance of homosexual persons as candidates. I had argued in 1995 in a paper for the Standing Committee of the Victorian Synod and elsewhere that our ecumenical commitments, our understanding of the nature of the the church and the authority of scripture, and specifically, accepted teachings on marriage and the discipline of ministers, should be applied and that no council other than the Assembly could vary the doctrines we had received at the time of union. I have argued this way in a number of papers and I put these concerns before the Assembly Standing Committee in a letter to Gregor Henderson the General Secretary in 1997 objecting to his interpretation of the Church's position after the Assembly of that year had failed to adopt the recommendations of the Sexuality Task Group on the acceptability of homosexual candidates. Given that the current President takes a permissive view of the power of presbyteries and that Gregor Henderson is President Elect, the Constitution and resolutions of the Assembly are likely to be interpreted officially for the next six years at least as allowing the ordinations which presbyteries in the past were reluctant to carry out.

The media reported the Assembly action in fairly straightforward terms as allowing the ordination of homosexual candidates although naturally they played up the conflict and gave it some headlines that church leaders thought unduly sensational, and the result was much dismay among church members. There had been no warning that anything like this was contemplated, except in the media just before the Assembly met. That was in contrast to the extensive consultation and debate at all levels of the church organisation which preceded consideration of basically the same question in 1997. The majority of church members had been found in surveys to be opposed to what the Assembly now did without further consultation. People felt that a coup had taken place more or less in secret, and that they had been betrayed and overpowered. Some left the church immediately, although it should be recognised that there had been a long period of attrition partly as a result of this issue being considered over the past decade or so. Those who remained in active membership up to this time were likely to be fairly committed to the Uniting Church. There was much discussion in local churches of what their response would be, and some councils of the church, local and regional, took action to oppose the Assembly resolution. Over 20,000 signatures on a petition expressing strong opposition were collected from congregations in the two following weeks following the Assembly meeting in July by Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) which itself has about 2,000 members. This petition was presented to the President and the Assembly Standing Committee in August, with the result that some "interpretative" amendments were made to the resolution, and an apology was issued for the lack of advance warning of what was contemplated, but the effect remains formally what it was before.

Opposition did not come only from people who might be regarded as conservative evangelicals (such as members of EMU although when compared to American conservatives they too are not extreme), notably also from a minority of church leaders and some theologians whose emphasis is more catholic and reformed, but originally the only organised group was EMU. A "summit" was held in Sydney in late September and steps were taken to form The Reforming Alliance within the Uniting Church in Australia. They issued an Urgent Call to the Uniting Church. EMU members comprised a little less than half those present at the Sydney summit. Others were theologians and pastoral leaders with a reformed or catholic emphasis. They appointed committees to draft documents and initiate the structure and finance of a new organisation. The acting president of the interim executive until 31 December 2003 is Rosemary Broadstock, a minister in the Melbourne suburb of Greensborough. Her statement to me of why she decided to act is indicative of the motivation of people I know in the Alliance. It refers in particular to ecumenical consequences and the alienation of aboriginal and other ethnic minorities. See the text of an advertisement which is to appear in church newspapers in all states for the aims of the Alliance and the Alliance site for other information and a membership form.

What has happened took me by surprise and put me in an almost impossible position, for I really think that we should do more to further acceptance of homosexual members in the church, but we cannot do it in a way which denies basic principles of what the church has always taught and which the Uniting Church is supposed in its Basis of Union to maintain. The argument for acceptance of people cannot be used to enforce agreement with whatever they believe about themselves. It is also difficult for me for personal reasons as it affects people I know and care for in conflicting ways, and it puts me as one who has always loved and defended the church in a position of having to consider distancing myself from it after more than 50 years since I answered the call to ministry. After counselling others to hold on with hope, I have largely lost hope myself of recovery for Uniting Church, which may well accelerate the processes of decay and disintegration which have been noticeable since the Assembly of 1991, and yet I feel that I must support those who are attempting reform even if there is little prospect of success. There is much more to be said about it, and the awful thing is that no matter what one says it is sure to be misunderstood for the key issue is not homosexuality with its associated emotional confusion but more basic reasons for the kind of mistake that the Assembly has made and the long term affects of those reasons on the life and being of the church. I am greatly worried too about the moral and intellectual integrity of the Church from both a theological and a scientific point of view as it conflicts with my academic research values as well as the common sense I share with many mainstream members of congregations. At the same time I have been struck by the observation that in some congregations members do not even see that there is a crisis. All this when I was intent upon taking my retirement seriously, and I am still not sure what I will do. I would still hold to what I said in my piece on tolerance and many of the documents linked to that paper directly and indirectly but obviously it is not sufficient in the present context and revisions should be made. Whether I have the capacity and will the to do anything more about it remains to be seen. [DB 17 October 2003]

I have decided to join the Reforming Alliance. Out of regard for the unity of the church in the past I have avoided joining any special interest or pressure groups, and I do not expect those who have gained power to give it up, but I must support this perhaps final effort to offer an alternate to the policies of the dominant group. I agree with the aims of the Alliance, and see it as a possible way of recovering unity and catholicity which might otherwise be lost. Much of what the Alliance is trying to do is similar to what I have attempted without much success for the past decade or so. I will not however take a leading part in the Alliance or participate in public debate. It is better for others, especially those younger than me, to do that. My hope is that people who care about the church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic will be prepared to do some deep searching and go back to the roots of the current problem which I believe are far deeper than what happened at Assembly 2003 or in the past decade. Whether too much damage has already been done to prevent decay and disintegration of the Uniting Church remains to be seen. I have feared that it could already have been cut from the vine, but we do not know the mind of God in matters of judgement. The future cannot be completely without hope. Today is All Saints Day. If we must be progressive let us go forward with the saints (on which I will preach tomorrow), even if it means casting down a few golden crowns around a glassy sea! [DB 1 November 2003]

For additional information and new development see the web site for the Reforming Alliance.

November 2003 meeting of Assembly Standing Committee

I am not planning to keep up a running commentary on developments in what is likely to be a long saga. The Uniting Church is a large and complex organisation and it will take many years for it to either recover or fall apart completely. The Reforming Alliance web site should be able to provide what is needed in addition to official sources. But the apparent change by the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) should be acknowledged. The early influence of the Alliance appears to be bearing some fruit, although strong submissions from several Synods and many other councils of the church would have been most the significant and official influence.

After the November 2003 meeting of the ASC the President has written a pastoral letter in more conciliatory terms than in the immediate aftermath of the Assembly meeting, reporting that the ASC has decided after all to refer Resolution 84 to presbyteries and congregations and to set up a process of review in preparation for the next Assembly. Significantly the doctrinal question has been stated in specific terms that combine two separate questions which are not made distinct by deciding: to establish a process to clarify the doctrine of the Church regarding people in committed same-gender relationships being in leadership roles, including ordained ministries, with a view to decision-making at the 11th Assembly. [What was hidden in the way the question was put is the distinction between approval of a homosexual life style as acceptable for pastoral leaders in the church and the question of whether it makes any difference whether they are in committed relationships. In the event the 11th Assembly decided against making a determining resolution but eased the way somewhat for ministers in homosexual relationships. DB Dec 06]

I do not want to be ungenerous, but just what is being done it not clear. Whether the referral to congregations and presbyteries in any way matches the Basis of Union mandate and the constitutional provision to refer matters of vital importance to other councils is uncertain. It could be no more than a managed process of consultation like the so-called "year of listening" of the Sexuality Task Group in which the feedback was so well controlled that the message was not heard until after the interim report of the Task Group was published and then the predominant opinion in the Church was suppressed and ignored. The President still speaks the language of progress, regarding "the way forward" which has been the form of expression all along in the process that led up to Assembly 2003. At this stage there is little to suggest that the leadership has seen even the possibility that they could be going in the wrong direction: there is no sign of repentance; but there is recognition that the church is in much deeper trouble than they had anticipated. Whether what is now to be done will amount to anything more than a public relations exercise remains to be seen. It could even be used as a springboard for the dominant group to gain more than they have so far in ambiguous resolutions. Formally, the official position of the Church remains unchanged, and the same people remain in control. [DB 22 November 2003]

[For later developments from October 2006 see the web site of the Assemby of Confessing Congregations as well as the Reforming Alliance site. My own position has changed somewhat since 2003 in regard to the pastoral aspects in which I would take a more accepting approach than I was inclined to do, but not in regard to the orthodox teaching of the church which I believe must be maintained. There are genuinely difficult and complex problems to be resolved both practically and in theological terms to hold love and truth together in the face of ideological extremes and political demands. I have clarified in my own mind the question of leaving or staying, being satisfied that one can remain a faithful member of a church that is close to heresy even apostacy at times but is nevertheless still in its basic commitments part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church and in which the common life of congregations is faithful to God in Christ. I continue involvement at the local level but take no part in public debate nor any leadership role. In retirement that is appropriate in any case, but it is also necessary for some of us in the present circumstances. DB 11 December 2006.]