Firstly, Thanks to everyone who has sent in helpful comments and encouragement after the last blog on the Assembly issues, including privately by email. Your thoughts were helpful and much appreciated.
It’s not my aim to spend the rest of my ministry career blogging about marriage, but as we are still working through the Assembly’s decision on marriage equality, I hope these thoughts may be a helpful resource.
A good number of members from Sydney Central Coast congregations gathered on Tuesday at St John’s Wahroonga for Presbytery’s promised Assembly feedback session. A key part of our meeting was for the members of Assembly to share their overall experience of the gathering and to highlight some of the other important issues the Assembly discussed. Maybe a future ‘Part 3’ of this Assembly blog might focus on those things, which all help the Uniting Church to say clearly what else we are about in this contemporary world.
However it was clear that most people were there to hear and understand more about the Same Gender Marriage decision, and almost all the questions related to that topic. During the meeting, Chairperson Ann Hogan gave Ian Weeks some time to respond directly to the marriage decisions from the perspective of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), a network within the UCA representing some of the members and congregations who identify as Evangelicals and who strongly oppose same-gender marriage. I don’t belong to the ACC, and personally don’t agree with their position on marriage, but I’ve known Ian since theological college days and appreciate his reasonable and peace-making approach. I don’t always disagree with him, either!
As one of those tasked with listening and responding on the night, I want to take a few moments here to reflect on what I heard; to respond to some questions or comments that may have been left hanging; and to continue my attempt to offer some practical guidance to congregations, ministers and members who are still asking the question: What next? My comments and opinions here remain my own, but I hope our Presbytery and others in the church will find them useful.
Two positions on marriage – impossible?
Assembly determined to adopt two positions on marriage, identically worded but for the clauses “between a man and a woman” or “between two people.”
Ian described this position as ‘bizarre,’ unacceptable to the ACC, and commented that they can’t both be valid. As I mentioned in my previous blog, and noted on Tuesday night, I too took some persuading during the Assembly that this was a plausible way forward. In fact, however, it was evangelical/conservative members of the Assembly who insisted that the only way forward was to offer two options with which individuals or congregations may identify. In my working group, for example, a member of the ACC from a rural Presbytery asserted that this was “the only way we could accept any change – if we can still choose to continue in the traditional belief on marriage.” Many who were keen to adopt marriage equality were deeply disappointed with this outcome, feeling the church was backing down from taking a bold, radical stance. To be very clear: the two statement option was strongly defended by Evangelical members.
Likewise, the original proposal from Assembly Standing Committee had two quite differently worded statements on marriage. Again, Evangelical members insisted that the 1997 marriage definition should not be lost. The two statements were eventually made consistent with each other and the 1997 definition, again leaving some more radical members dissatisfied, though overall a strong majority of the Assembly supported this level of uniformity.
Can both statements be valid? Obviously, the Assembly did not intend to say that all members of the church must believe both statements, but offered members and ministers the freedom of conscience to choose one or the other (or, I suppose, to remain undecided.) In other words, Assembly determined that the UCA has room within its faith and practice to allow both these views to coexist.
What does it mean for the Uniting Church when a decision is made without Consensus?
Consensus Decision Making is a genuine contribution of the UCA to churches and other bodies around the world. The method of our Manual for Meetings seeks not to win a politicised debate by a slender majority, but attempts to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit through listening to all the members of the council. It deliberately arranges the debate to ensure that people can be heard. It seeks a common mind and rejoices when differences of opinion gradually resolve or melt away and a consensus emerges. Councils of the UC seek this outcome whenever possible.
However not every important decision can find a consensus, or even a strong, general sense of agreement. The Manual for Meetings allows the Church to make a decision by ‘formal majority’ when consensus has been tried and failed, as long as the council agrees (by a clear majority!) that a decision should be made now and not deferred.
Arguably, the 15th Assembly could have predicted that no consensus would emerge on this issue. However, we still use Consensus process to hear each other and seek wisdom on the way. That’s how the proposal came to be amended, as described above. The process is painstaking and laborious (read ‘deadly’). When it came to the crunch, the whole Assembly debated the process; then agreed on several protective measures for the emotional safety of members; then set the proposal a reasonably high bar, needing a two-thirds majority to pass. In other words, we agreed that if only 33.4% of the members voted against changing our definition of marriage, then no change would be made.
In the event, while the numbers are not revealed, the President declared that “significantly more” than the required 66.7% of members voted in favour. Marriage equality was not carried by Consensus, but by a (“significant”) formal majority, and that therefore represents a valid expression of the will of the Uniting Church.
Shouldn’t we seek the concurrence of the councils of the Church?
Clause 39 of the Constitution allows for the church to ask the Assembly to review a decision deemed ‘vital to the life of the church’ by seeking the ‘concurrence’ of other councils, including any or all of Congregations, Presbyteries and Synods. SCC Presbytery considered this option at our meeting before Assembly. Proposals seeking the concurrence of the wider church were put to the Assembly but defeated. Why? Wouldn’t it be reasonable?
Many arguments were put for and against seeking concurrence, and it is not possible to say which were the most persuasive. Some of the arguments I noted included the following:
- Assembly Standing Committee believed an adequate process of consultation had taken place, including several national workshops and Synod meeting information and consideration, not to mention the high publicity of the Postal Survey.
- Assembly members are elected by Presbyteries and Synods, and are genuinely quite representative of the church’s demographic; they are usually chosen from those who give above average service and leadership, and they have a deep commitment to the wellbeing of the whole church. They submit to an exhaustive program of reading, preparation, consulting in their local context, and then the lengthy process of deliberation, working groups and debate before deciding on an issue. What would make other councils or members better equipped to decide on the issues?
- Many members spoke of the dreadful risk of an unrestrained process in terms of the fears of prejudice and abuse raised in the national ‘plebiscite’. Sadly, there were occasions where some members of Assembly demonstrated exactly that lack of sensitivity or care. A church-wide ‘plebiscite’ would not be a safe process.
- Members were persuaded theologically that marriage, while important pastorally, is not an issue at the heart of faith.
- Ultimately, the Assembly believed it had faithfully done the work required of it and achieved a strongly supported outcome (above). Seeking concurrence also requires a two-thirds majority to pass, but received very scanty support in the vote (I served as a scrutineer, so in this case, I counted votes). Clearly, Assembly members felt confident that their decision had been made in good order and did not require review.
Are there limits to our diversity?
A theoretical question, of course, and I would assume that the answer is logically ‘Yes’. Sometimes people leave when the UCA makes a radical decision; and perhaps other people feel now welcome and motivated to join. The limits to diversity are, by definition, set by those who leave. My personal view is that the Uniting Church’s very nature, its ‘charism’ among churches, is to seek to bring all kinds of human diversity into the divine unity won by the death and resurrection of Christ (Ephesians is in the Lectionary at the moment–gotta love it.) I admit I can be a bit of a pessimist, a Jeremiah even, about the future of the church. However I continue to belong to the Uniting Church because I believe it is a more faithful expression of my own discipleship to seek further unity among the marginalised and excluded, than to worry about where the limits might lie. Like others, I do this within the guidance of the Spirit and the scripture, as I have learned to read it. Does the Holy Spirit say different things to other people? No doubt Yes, in the Spirit’s wisdom. On some issues, the Spirit has said different things to me at different times – which is completely consistent with the living nature of the biblical witness (contrast, for example, Paul’s differing advice to the Corinthians and Galatians on sticking to the Law.)
Short answer: there are churches that are strong on Law, very particular about a certain type of purity or holiness, exclusivist in theology or even race or gender. I choose not to belong to those churches. In the Uniting Church I am glad to remain open to people as people and allow the grace and mercy of God to sort me out in due course.
Can we hold to freedom of conscience – live and let live?
Ok, that is the question I wanted to ask, but couldn’t as I was a responder, not a questioner. The Reforming and Evangelical traditions behind the UCA came to hold freedom of conscience as a prime virtue, in opposition to the often lethal controls of medieval Christendom. Our 15th Assembly was at pains to uphold that freedom of conscience. No-one is compelled by this decision to do anything new. Permission is given for those who wish to celebrate loving commitment for all, to act in conscience as faithful Christians, ‘according to their lights.’ Permission is given to those who wish to conserve the long Jewish-Christian tradition of monogamous, bi-gendered marriage to do so.
So my question is, why can’t we live together with that? Why leave your Christian community, walk out on your family of faith, over an issue that will probably not touch you or your conservative congregation? And given all the many other areas in which Uniting Churches differ, why would this one (which is unlikely to have much discernable impact in the vast majority of churches) be the touchstone? I can understand people holding a conservative view on marriage. I have trouble understanding the need to govern in detail how other people and congregations understand, experience and express the love of God, or to feel that because they experience God differently, it is impossible to even countenance remaining in the same denomination of the church. So that’s my question: why is it impossible to live with a recognition that in the church, Christ holds together people of many different shapes and sizes?
What do we do now?
My first answer, and it is not meant to be even remotely flippant, would be:
If this whole sexuality issue still seems like a distant thing to your congregation, if you have no same-gendered couples in your membership or waiting to be married, this Assembly decision is not going to change anything for you soon. Maybe never.
Let me go back one step: if this is something your congregation has never discussed, you should seek resources from your minister or the Presbytery to start thinking and discussing and learning. So do something: become more informed about the issues.
Church Councils have permission to make decisions, but as any counsellor or financial planner will tell you, the worst time to make any decision is when you are upset, angry, grieving, or uncertain about the details or facts. Unless you have same-gendered couples queueing up at the Church door, you are under no urgency to act, and have no need to decide anything in a hurry. If there are a few people in your congregation very excited or anxious about this decision, resist the impulse for the majority to be pushed to a decision by a minority. That is NOT how the Uniting Church decides. Presbytery is setting up some training in the Manual for Meetings this year, so learn how to work through the issues first. There is no hurry to act.
If your minister has expressed a strong view one way or another, you may want to have an open discussion of the issues at your next Church Council meeting. Ministers and congregations need to work together – you belong to the one community of faith.
If your church is already open and affirming, welcoming to queer/non-straight people, progressive or ‘modern’ in outlook, then you are more likely to be known in the community for those views. Look for the resources to come from Assembly and be aware that what is a joy for you may take others some getting used to.
Lastly: Talk to the Presbytery! It is not my role to push congregations to conform to others’ beliefs, or to label ministers one way or another. Within the Presbytery, I and other staff and committees have as our primary focus the wellbeing of congregations and their effective mission and ministry in the community. You will find us wanting to help, not dominate.
Again, I hope this is helpful. There is much more that could be written, and I am happy to talk about these and other issues, but at this point I am hoping to turn to other topics!
Blessings to all,