Members, Ministers and Friends of the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia,
Next Wednesday evening, 9 May, members of the Presbytery and of its congregations and ministries are invited to meet for information and discussion of the Uniting Church’s response to the changes to the Marriage Act. The coming 15th Assembly meeting of the UCA in Melbourne this July will debate a proposal to change the UC understanding of marriage in light of changing contemporary understandings. The Moderator of the Synod of NSW and ACT, Rev. Simon Hansford has offered his services to the Presbyteries to prepare for that debate and whatever changes come about from the Assembly, and SCC Presbytery has willingly accepted his offer.
Between now and next Wednesday, I want to help us to think through the purpose of this meeting and its potential outcomes, and prepare well for it. Because matters of sexuality and deep traditions such as marriage mean so much to us, it can be especially hard to accept radical change. Many Christians hold fast as a matter of faith to traditional views of marriage, while many others believe, also in faith, that the Spirit is now calling us to embrace a new opening of this social and religious bond to those who have always been excluded. Our views may be so deeply held that it is hard to suppress our anger or impatience. And yet we are at a point, across all denominations and to some extent across all religions, when it is no longer possible to avoid dealing openly with the questions our society has long been raising. Can we talk together in respect, love and fellowship, we who claim to be ‘uniting’ through the Holy Spirit’s power?
What is this meeting for?
It has already been said that we are not meeting on Wednesday evening to discuss detailed theological positions on humanity, sexuality, relationships or marriage, or to try to persuade others to our point of view. There may be forums for that conversation to continue, but our meeting with the Moderator is not one of them.
However there are some very important reasons to meet together.
- Information: The Church has only recently received from Assembly Standing Committee the proposals and the lengthy paper discussing changes to Marriage, and it is vital that members of Presbytery, not least those who will attend the Assembly meeting, know what is being proposed and understand the rationale. Assemblies are often short-circuited by inaccurate media reporting of issues, or worse, social media posts from within the meeting, when snips of (mis-)information (‘fake news’?) are tweeted by Assembly members who should have read their ethical responsibilities more closely. Church members back home can be misled and deeply upset by misinformation on their phone or TV which does not do justice to the accuracy or nuance of the debate, to the changing understandings or mood within the room, or to the pastoral sensitivities which always arise with tears of pain and compassion.
We need to meet together to be well informed.
- Mutual Understanding: We claim to belong to the Uniting Church, which hopes for “that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” and sees itself called by God “to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself” (Basis of Union 3). We have come to many points of reconciliation and mutual understanding over the years, across the barriers of gender equality and ministry giftedness; coming to understand people of many cultures; covenanting with our First Peoples across painful centuries and astonishing millennia; making sense of our different church traditions, politics, theologies, spiritualities and ways of serving God. None of these reconciliations mean we all now look, think, act the same. We seek our Christian identity in being able to live together without absolute agreement on everything because it is not our agreement, but Christ who makes us one.
Can we then receive and treasure the human differences that dwell in the deepest parts of our bodies and souls? Even when we don’t understand them? What shall we do with that precious gift? Are we still able to be a fellowship of reconciliation across the fundamental boundary of I and Thou?
By definition, we need to meet together to be Uniting.
- Hope for our Church and Society: Whatever decisions are made at the Assembly meeting in July, it is clear that the world has already changed, and the church of 2018 is not going to be the same as the church of 2017. Whatever happens, some members of our church will feel justified and others let down. And whatever happens, we will still be members of the same body of Christ, still joined in worship of the same God, still at mission in the same complex community. In Wednesday’s meeting the Moderator is keen to discern with us what the Uniting Church will look like in this new time. How are we able to be the church and live as Jesus’ disciples in the world around us? What will be our message and deeds of grace offered to the community? How will we accept neighbour members and congregations in their distinctiveness and difference, for the sake of Jesus Christ?
We need to meet to reassure each other that we continue to be in this mission of Jesus together, for God’s sake.
- Mutual Support: We know that within the Uniting Church, pretty much everybody is grieving over something – and it’s not always about sex! Maybe that is just a condition of life, not simply theology or faith. Difficult decisions will generate joy or grief, consternation or inspiration in relatively equal measure. As a Presbytery, as the Uniting Church, how then will we respond to each other? Will we commit to pray for each other, be sensitive to needs, respect boundaries while offering hope and grace?
We need to meet to hear who is hopeful, who is fearful, to recognise each one as our sister and brother in Christ, and to pledge ourselves to continue to build up the whole church.
Please come next Wednesday night for these reasons, not to argue, grandstand or complain, to win or score points. Above all, come prepared. There are several important ways to prepare.
- RSVP: please let Michelle know you are coming on firstname.lastname@example.org for catering purposes.
- Read the proposal and the theological paper, as closely as you are able. It may be a bit heavy for some readers, but there is a good summary at the beginning. If you are getting bogged down, move on to the next bit and go back later. Make notes, ask questions.
- Be prayerful – ‘Prayer, fasting and acts of charity’ is how Methodists are asked to prepare for a difficult decision. Try it out. Pray for the Moderator, Presbytery and Assembly leaders and members, for members in your own congregations, for the life of the churches in Australia, as this is not just a UCA issue.
- Reflect a little.
- What insights do you have in this area? What concerns you?
- What do you anticipate would be different in your own congregation if the Assembly decides either to change our theology of Marriage,
or not to change it?
- Either way, what fresh face might your congregation turn to a community which now has different expectations and assumptions?
- Pray with all our people, A Prayer for the Holy Catholic Church. (Note ‘catholic’ means the whole church, ecumenical, universal.)
we humbly beseech thee for thy holy catholic Church.
Fill it with all truth,
and in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it;
where it is in error, direct it;
where it is superstitious, rectify it;
where anything is amiss, reform it;
Where it is right, strengthen and confirm it;
where it is in want, furnish it;
where it is divided and rent asunder,
make up the breaches of it, O thou Holy One of Israel;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
Archbishop William Laud, 1573-1645
from Uniting in Worship People’s Book, 1988, p. 221