Dear members, ministers and friends of the SCCP,
It’s actually a welcome moment to be back at my desk after the somewhat surreal experience of a meeting of the Uniting Church Assembly. Like any national conference, Assemblies have their joys; catching up with interstate friends after years, hearing top quality speakers and sharing with international guests, relaxing over meals getting to know people with whom I don’t normally spend enough time. On the other hand, please never fall for the idea that Assembly is some kind of junket. FAKE NEWS! Assembly is hard work. Long hours at tables or in Community Working Groups, concentration span sorely tested, impatient to get through the process to the guts of a matter, only to find that process has been our friend. Emotional labour as well: patience, empathy, listening to people you don’t agree with, holding your tongue; feeling others’ pain, presbyteryministering instead of arguing, holding the contradictory hopes and concerns of a diverse and disparate part of the church inside my own heart and head; trying to remember that in a Council of the Church I don’t ‘represent’ you, but feeling likewise that I don’t represent only myself.
NOTE 1: Your minister or congregational member just back from Assembly may need some down time, or a sensitive debriefing, before launching back into local ministry. They will have deserved it.
Our Presbytery Chairperson Ann has called a special meeting of Presbytery for July 31 to hear from Assembly members and discuss the Assembly’s resolutions. Make sure you attend if possible – (venue to be confirmed). Nevertheless I want to make some observations and reflection on the most significant resolution of Assembly 15 on the Uniting Church’s definition of Marriage. Pastoral Letters have been written by the Assembly President, Dr Deidre Palmer, and the Moderator of NSW and ACT, Rev. Simon Hansford. My thoughts address matters only from my own point of view, and don’t have any ‘official’ status other than that I was there.
The Proposal from Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) which we considered at Turramurra in June was discussed in small Community Working Groups and many suggestions made. The CWGs, in which every member participates, had clearly indicated that the most profitable way forward was to offer two different definitions of marriage, essentially one between ‘a man and a woman’ and the other between ‘two people.’ The Facilitation Team laboured through the night to bring a revision as ‘Proposal 61’. This Proposal was later tightened by amendment to uphold the wording and theology of our 1997 definition of marriage, so that the wording of both views was identical except for the above phrases. This amended Proposal became Proposal 64 and was eventually carried. The wording can be found in this unconfirmed Minute.
There were some legitimate protests about the overall process. Firstly, the resourcing paper from the Working Group on Doctrine was released much too late for widespread and detailed consideration. Secondly, this paper was not discussed in detail by Assembly. The ASC’s answer was that the paper was provided by the WGD to the Standing Committee, who received it; it was a background resource only to the full Assembly and did not need to be received or debated. Many felt this reply to be a little tendentious. Nonetheless, ample time was given to express points of view from the floor, and few members chose to speak to the original paper.
The President recommended, and the Assembly strongly agreed, to hold the discussions in private session, without visitors; to waive the right to use indicator cards for or against speakers to reduce the pressure on vulnerable members; and ultimately, to a written (secret) ballot on the substantive issues. When it came to the decision under formal procedures, Assembly agreed to seek a two-thirds majority to pass. In declaring Proposal 64 carried, the President remarked that the count was ‘significantly more than the two-thirds required.’
As the Australian public last year approved the changes to the Marriage Act by 61.6% of eligible voters, the Uniting Church’s figure ‘significantly’ greater than 66.6% demonstrates a clear indication of the Assembly in Council that the UCA is willing to embrace marriage equality. The process, ponderous as it seemed at times, slowly worked its way through revisions of the proposal (which left the ‘progressive’ side more unhappy than the ‘conservatives’), through often unfounded points of order, through an unexpectedly helpful hour of two-minute speeches from the floor (which I thought would be disastrous, O me of little faith), through several counted procedural votes, to a strong affirmation that a decision must be made now, and a determined rejection of a subsequent proposal to seek concurrence of other Councils of the Church in line with Clause 39 of the Constitution. The Assembly worked hard and diligently to make a radical decision and achieved a high level of agreement on the way forward. The church may feel, even if the outcome is not welcome in some parts, that the Assembly has done the work demanded of it through careful and prayerful discernment and deliberation.
Two mutually exclusive views on marriage? Are we really such a paradox?
The simple answer, propounded by Ex-President Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney, is essentially YES. Andrew demonstrated from the Basis of Union and in other ways that the UCA, in placing Unity in Christ above any other tests of unity or purity, that we have from the beginning chosen to hold together contradictory theological positions ‘that we may be one.’ Those who have not experienced genuine Calvinism or Wesleyanism may not realise just how mutually exclusive much of the Westminster Confession and Wesley’s Forty-four Sermons are, but Calvinism vs. Arminianism* was a debate I had to have with my Presbyterian friends at Uni in the 80s. Uniting Church views on the Lord’s Supper range from Zwinglian to neo-Ecumenical and everything in between. Likewise, though we affirmed Baptism as a ‘once only’ event, many church members ask only a blessing for their children in hope that they will seek baptism as believers in later life. These issues, touching on the sacraments and the nature of salvation, are right at the heart of Christian faith, and the blood of saints has been spilt for both. Yet the Uniting Church has long been willing to diverge on these measures of ‘Orthodoxy’ for the sake of a deeper unity which human reason cannot formulate.
* Look it up.
Marriage is, in terms of the Doctrine of the Church, a very minor matter. Reformed protestants chose to exclude it from the sacraments; many protestant churches around the world conduct, in effect, only blessings, as marriage is a secular contract governed by the State. In Australia, the State has already married many same-gender couples; these relationships exist, in law, within and outside our churches.
CARE AND CONCERN
Doctrine aside, however, marriage is a major pastoral concern of the church, and the two-options decision was made for pastoral reasons. Radical members of Assembly hoped for a radical affirmation of marriage equality. Conservative members argued that offering two definitions, with two forms of liturgy and no compulsion against conscience, was the most radical outcome they could accept and that it would go a long way to bridging the gap for conservative rural, Indigenous or migrant-ethnic groups, as well as for more ‘Evangelical’ groups in the U.C.
Many members took a positive pastoral approach to the discussion. There was genuine concern among members, including some who were for marriage equality, about the pastoral impact this would have on their conservative congregations. Indigenous and migrant speakers warned of the impact in their communities, although others from the same communities affirmed that the cultural pastoral situation is much more complex than this. One Pacific Island woman declared “My heart is strangely warmed!”
Many members were deeply moved by the witness of a number of the gay and lesbian members present, who took the opportunity at some personal risk of declaring their own sexuality and the costliness of living in church and society on such a deeply personal margin. Their honesty and vulnerability certainly helped others put a human face to what they may previously have felt was an abstract ‘issue.’
Overall, the President, though occasionally sorely tested, showed grace and patience and helped ensure that no legitimate view was excluded and that all who wished to contribute might be heard.
In terms of Australian Christianity, our UCA has done a remarkable new thing. Many people in our Church (and some who are as yet outside it) are this week rejoicing and planning marriage services. Others are lamenting what they see as yet another departure from the Christian tradition and some may be intending to leave. Many others are in between, dealing with their curiosity, misgivings, or the simple process of coping with change in a changing world.
Our church communities are precious to us. They sustain us in faith, hope and love, and give us a framework, spiritual and intellectual, in which to hold our world and shape our lives. If we leave, we rarely find the grass to be greener in another paddock. The decision the Assembly has made will not force any sudden changes upon your own local church community (many of us are lucky to celebrate a wedding from one year to the next anyway). A conservative congregation is unlikely to experience any pressure to change their practice or belief. As the church lives with difference of opinion and freedom of conscience on so many other things, the question is more likely to be, Can you live with what other Christians believe, with what other congregations faithfully offer of God’s grace? And when such changes start to ripple across the surface of your own pond, how will you respond and grow as a follower of Christ? There is more than one answer to that question.
So, Uniting Church friends, my loving advice at this time is to take a breath and consider what we have done, quietly, prayerfully, with familiar faces in your mind’s eye. You may find yourself thankful. There will be more information coming. There will be opportunities to reflect and have questions answered. In the meantime, do what you do best: be the most loving, caring and united Uniting Church you can be, by the grace of God, in the love of Christ, through the fellowship of the Spirit.