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THE UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA AND HOMOSEXUALITY

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Overview:

The Uniting Church in Australia is the third largest Christian denomination in Australia, being surpassed in membership by Roman Catholics and Anglicans. It was formed in 1977 as a result of a merger of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches. The church has an unusual organizational structure. It is "governed by a series of inter-related councils" within which the national Assembly has "determining responsibility for matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline."

They follow a form of local option concerning the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates who are in loving, committed relationships. Individual presbytery can automatically reject all such candidates. Other presbyteries can consider the nature of a candidate's relationship as one aspect of their candidacy.

The Uniting Church is not the only mainstream denomination in Australia to have ordained homosexual men and women. But, it may be the first to admit that it is possible. While some homosexual ministers have come out in the past, the decision of "clarification" at the 2003 Assembly, and the negative reaction to what for many was an unpleasant revelation, will not make it easier for openly homosexual candidates for ordination to find welcoming congregations and presbyteries.

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1982 Ruling

The Standing Committee advised presbyteries that: "the sexual orientation of a candidate is not and has not been in itself a bar to ordination. A decision on the suitability of a candidate may of course depend among other things on the manner in which his or her sexuality is expressed" They continued: "because all applicants and candidates for ministry of the Word, ministry of Deacon and Specified Ministry of Youth Worker are to be assessed on an individual basis in accordance with the Regulations, it is invalid for any presbytery or synod to establish or maintain policies which prevent certain categories of people from having their suitability for ministry considered in the specified way." However, this policy is not necessarily reflected in practice. Lesgay candidates for ordination who are open about their sexual orientation were always rejected by their presbyteries. Homosexual clergy often feel that they have to remain in the closet and not reveal their orientation to their congregation. Openly gay clergy find that many congregations refuse to accept them as their minister.

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1987 Ruling

The Standing Committee decided that "all baptized Christians belong in Christ's Church and are welcome at his table, regardless of their sexual orientation." This implies that sexual orientation is irrelevant to eligibility for confirmation, membership and participation in the life and mission of the church.

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1992 Task Group

An Assembly Task Group on Sexuality was formed to examine a wide range of concerns related to human sexuality.

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1996 Survey

In 1996-MAY, the Task Group issued an interim report, the discussion paper "A Journey Into Sexuality". The report concluded:

bullet"The historical distance between our times and biblical times means [that] we can not simply translate the writers' conclusions about sexuality into our own time.....Our task is to bridge the gap between the ancient world from which the scriptures come and our contemporary situation."
bulletThere are many verses in the Bible which condemn specific homosexual behaviors, like homosexual rape, homosexual prostitution, etc. The authors concluded that "there is no legitimate reason for rejecting homosexuality or homosexual relationships."
bulletthey support those homosexual relationships which are " characterized by agape, the love, caring and compassion embodied in Jesus Christ".
bulletthere is "no evidence that a person who is a homosexual is less fit for ministry, or that a homosexual minister damages the credibility of the ministry, any more than anyone else...To reject a person from the ministry because that person is a homosexual is a rejection of their personhood."
bullet"The phase 'living in sin' is an alienating concept" which does not reflect "the ethnic and theological diversity of people's relationships."

The response from church members, elders and ministers was overwhelmingly negative.

Also in 1996, a National Church Life Survey (NCLS) was conducted to determine church members' opinions about gays and lesbians in the church. 1 Some findings were:

bullet56% favor accepting celibate gays and lesbians as members
bullet43% favor accepting gays and lesbians as members
bullet12% favor accepting gays and lesbians in leadership positions
bullet27% agreed that "Gays and lesbians are as healthy and moral as anybody else"; 58% disagreed and 15% were unsure.

Surprisingly, there was little variation in opinion among different age groups.

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1997 Report

In 1997, the Task Group issued its "Uniting Sexuality and Faith" report for presentation to Assembly members in advance of the 8th annual Assembly in 1997-JUL. 2,3 They affirmed that:

"We were not asked to conduct a survey of opinions of members of our church nor to undertake market research to discover how the UCA might present the most palatable approach to sexuality for the secular world. Instead we were asked to assist church members make faithful decisions relating to sexuality and to help people allow the light of the gospel to shine into our created nature as spiritual/sexual beings called to glorify God in every dimension of our lives."

The Task Group concluded that:

bullet(Unanimously) heterosexual and homosexual people were brothers and sisters in Christ.
bulletHaving a homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual was not, of itself, morally good or bad. "It is not our orientation but what we do with our sexual nature that constitutes right or wrong."
bulletThe Bible is silent about homosexual orientation.
bulletIt could not affirm the practice of referring to Bible passages that have traditionally been considered anti-homosexual. Agreement about the interpretation of those passages was not the central challenge for the church.
bulletSome of its members believe that homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God and "remain as part of a disordered world that is in rebellion against God and therefore should not be endorsed by the church."
bulletSome members believe the same standards should be applied to people of all sexual orientations, and that loving, faithful, long-term homosexual relationships could be blessed by the church.
bulletThey had "no reason to believe that a person with a homosexual orientation is less fit for ministry than a heterosexual person," or was more likely engage in inappropriate behavior.
bulletThey had concerns about the statement "'celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage'...it underestimates the complexities of human sexuality." It also might be used unjustly against certain people (presumably those who are not permitted to marry).

The Task Group recommended that:

bulletThe Assembly affirm the principles of the 1982 and 1987 Standing Committee. This would preserve the status quo regarding homosexual ordination.
bulletThat Standing Committee appoint a group which would make recommendations to the next Assembly "on how the church may respond to lesbian and gay people who wish to have their commitment to a life-long faithful relationship affirmed by the church."
bulletThe church affirm "the joys and responsibilities of God's good gift of sexuality" and recognize that sexual behavior which is exploitative and demeaning is unacceptable and contradicts God's purpose.
bulletThe Assembly approve a policy statement on marriage which would define marriage as: "the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life." In case of irretrievable marital breakdown, the church would recognize that "divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take."
bulletThe church develop a method of liturgically recognizing the end of a marriage and assist in the ex-spouses' process of "grief, repentance and moving on in God's grace."

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1997 Assembly

At their Eighth National Assembly in Perth, in 1997-JUL, the delegates debated a new policy concerning gays and lesbian in the church. They were scheduled to vote on homosexual ordination. 4,5 However, migrant, ethnic and Aboriginal members felt that they were not ready to discuss the issue:

bulletReverend Djiniyini Gondorra, chairman of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress said that if the denomination voted to ordain gays and lesbians that "...the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress will review its stand with the church we love, the church we trust."
bulletJames Latu, spokesman for the migrant community said that they had no wish to split the denomination, but that his group was not ready either. He said "I want to say to you, we are not ready; you are flying, we are not even walking."

The Assembly concluded that they were unable to reach agreement. The issue was delayed until a future Assembly. The Assembly also offered "deep regret to those whose personal pain remains unalleviated by its inability to reach decisions at this time". They made a commitment to continue to attempt to reach an agreement in the future. Some gay and lesbian members wept in disappointment.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon, the Church's second most senior office-holder, revealed at the Assembly that she lived in a committed relationship with another woman. Calls were made for her resignation. Three other gay or lesbian clergy also came out of the closet.

Reverend McRae-McMahon resigned later. She said: ""What was happening was there was a huge carry-on around my person which was sapping our energy and really taking away the focus from where it should be, on much more important issues than sexuality." 6

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2003: UCA Tenth Assembly:

Church delegates, meeting in Melbourne on 2003-JUL-17, reiterated previous decisions relating to the consideration of gays and lesbians for ordination.

The Assembly Standing Committee introduced their Proposal 84 "Membership, Ministry and Sexuality." It called on members of the church to seek to live together in peace as people of faith, and accept the diversity of belief concerning of same sex relationships. The committee recognized that it could not make an authoritative recommendation which, if passed by the Assembly, would define the place of persons in same sex relationships in ministry to be effective throughout the denomination. In the preamble to the Proposal, they recognized that a serious lack of consensus existed within the church. Many members have adopted mutually exclusive positions. The Committee realized that: "The Church needs to find a way of living together with different but genuine and faithful views on the issue of same sex relationships in the Church." 13 Quoting from the Assembly's unconfirmed minutes, the preamble to Proposal 84 originally stated:

bullet
"There are members of the Church who have reached the conclusion that 'celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage' is a faithful Christian standard for Christian sexual ethics;
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"There are members of the Church who have reached the conclusion that 'right relationships' as outlined in Uniting Sexuality and Faith is a faithful Christian standard for Christian sexual ethics..." 13
The minutes, if accurate, may be lacking in precision. The "celibacy" viewpoint is not seen as "a faithful Christian standard" by most of the conservatives within the denomination. It is the only "faithful Christian standard" that they find acceptable.

The Proposal also reminded the church’s Presbyteries and Synods that when considering candidates, ordination or commissioning for ministry decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. Such decisions would depend on a wide range of criteria that might include consideration of the manner in which the applicant’s or candidate’s sexuality was expressed. 11

Proposal 84 was approved. It allows a type of local option. Presbyteries and Synods may accept sexually active gays and lesbians for ordination. However, those Presbyteries and Synods  which refuse to consider them for ordination will not be disciplined. Church President, Dean Drayton, said: "The Assembly has decided that we are a diverse church, we have great and genuinely held differences, but instead of allowing these differences to divide us, we will hold together in something greater—our love of God and our love of the Uniting Church itself."

Comments by some of the delegates indicated the depth of the division within the denomination:

bulletIan Weeks, minister at Coffs Harbour and chair of the New South Wales Evangelical Members,  said that: "Presbyteries, the regional bodies of the Uniting church still have the responsibility of determining who is ordained. That has been the case within the Uniting church since its inception....But unfortunately I guess yes, the sexuality issue has the potential to cause great devastation in the daily life of the Uniting church in Australia....We see the issue of sexuality as being an issue of the nature of the Gospel, the way God calls us to live as Christian people. The issue of sexuality is fairly clear cut. I think there are certainly moves within the Uniting church and other denominations to somewhat blur that basis, that teaching that we understand the Bible has to say to us on the issue of sexuality."
bulletReverend Harry Herbert executive director of Uniting Care's NSW said that little will change as a result of the resolution. "In the structure of the Uniting Church, the assembly cannot tell any presbytery who [it can] or who it can't ordain. I would predict that in most of the regional councils or presbyteries it would still be extremely difficult for a person who was openly gay to be accepted as a minister of the church."
bulletMary Hawkes, a spokesperson for the conservative Evangelical Members within the Uniting Church group, predicted a massive loss of members because the resolution was passed. She said: "It looks to me ... that there is a real risk that some elements of the church will just say, 'Well, that's it', and pack their bags and go. And I'm not sure that the church is ready for that." Concerning a loss in church membership, she said that: "It's hard to tell at this point in time, and it would vary from state to state, but it would be significant." She estimates that about 3,000 evangelicals out of the total membership of about 1.2 million were planning to leave. She said, "If there's going to be an exodus, my hope is it will be a mass exodus—I don't want people going in dribs and drabs."
bulletReverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon, a retired priest and lesbian in a committed relationship predicted that the change would unify the congregation. "This decision...[will allow us] to walk together and see how we go, and to learn to know each other better and therefore find the truth." She does not anticipate a split in the church. "If people choose to leave, that is their decision and I would be very sad about that....But there are many times in the history of the church where decisions are made and people cannot live with them. When the church fought against slavery, people left the church. When the church fought for the ordination of women, people left the church." She rejected the suggestion that the resolution would lead to moral decay in the church. She said: "As a lesbian I am not in moral decay. I am in a loving and faithful relationship that brings me life and hope and that my family supports and that has enriched my life as a Christian. People die over this -- that is moral decay" She also said: "This is not primarily about sex. I'll be 70 in a few months, I'm not on sexual adventures. This is about love, it's about the freedom for people like me to love another person body, mind, heart and soul - as you [heterosexuals] are permitted to." She asked members who had threatened to leave the denomination to reconsider. "I say: please stay, we love you, we respect you and I want to talk to you ... let's just get to know each other."  She feels that the ruling might actually encourage individuals who are looking "for a place where people are asking the hard questions" to join the church.
bulletThe Reverend Sealin Garnett, chairperson of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress said that for cultural reasons "...it is difficult for many of us [Aborigines]  even to discuss such matters in public, but we don't believe homosexual practices are right or godly."
bulletThe Reverend Liva Tukutama, a migrant church leader, speaking only for himself, said he saw parallels between the struggles of the gay community and migrants. He said "I don't like talk of the will of God. No one has a monopoly on the will of God."

The Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church expressed "grave concern" at the resolution. They warned that allowing homosexual ministers might threaten the future merger of the two denominations. Peter Tasker, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, said: "Homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture." 7,8,9,10

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Reactions to the 2003 Assembly decision:

On 2003-AUG-22, representatives of the Evangelical Members within the Uniting Church in Australia (EMU) delivered petitions containing 20,423 signatures to the Assembly President, Rev. Dr. Dean Drayton, and to the Assembly Standing Committee who were holding their first meeting after the 2003 Assembly. The signatures represent about 1.7% of the total membership of the denomination. According to EMU: "The petition expressed the deep spiritual and emotional dismay and concern of Uniting Church members and adherents following the Assembly's decision on sexuality ("Resolution" 84). They believe that the concept of 'right relationships' has never been adopted by the Assembly and that its recognition places the Uniting Church outside the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in contravention of paragraph 2 of the 'Basis of Union.' They also are appalled that the proposal was not referred back to other Councils of the Church as the Assembly is obliged to do where a matter is of vital importance to the life of the Church."

EMU has called a special National Summit for 2003-SEP-22-24 of evangelical/orthodox people from within the membership of the Uniting Church of Australia. The theme of the summit is "The Way Ahead?" They are seeking as broad a representation of conservative membership as possible. 12 EMU leadership has suggested, as one possible resolution to the homosexual issue, that conservatives may have to leave the Uniting Church and found a "Reformed Uniting Church." However, they recommend that fellow conservatives take no action at this time.

Responding to negative reaction to the Assembly decision, including the EMU petition, the Assembly Standing Committee issued an apology that more was not done to make the membership aware in advance of the issue would be considered at the Melbourne meeting. The Standing Committee also amended the proposal by deleting the two paragraphs in the preamble to Proposal 84 which referred to the two sexual ethics ("Celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" and "Right relationships"). They said that these were only used to illustrate differing views held by church members. Neither viewpoint has ever been endorsed by the Assembly.

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Related essay:

bulletRev. Dr. Robert Bos has written a carefully reasoned essay concerning homosexuality and the denomination.

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References

  1. Stephen Webb, "Homosexuals not welcome in leadership" [Report on the National Church Life Survey] is at: http://assembly.uca.org.au/assembly97/ncls.htm
  2. "No change for church in sexuality recommendations" at" http://assembly.uca.org.au/assembly97/recommendations.htm
  3. A copy of the "Uniting Sexuality and Faith" report can be ordered from: http://www.jbce.com.au/~jbce/sexuality.htm
  4. Keryn Ashworth, "Tears as Church Defers Gay Ruling", The West Australian, 1997-JUL-12
  5. Unknown author, "Church Gay Decision Faces Delay", The Herald Sun, Melborne, 1997-JUL-11
  6. Australian Broadcasting Commission, radio news article, 1997-SEP-1.
  7. Church set to ordain gay priests," Townsville Bulletin, 2003-JUL-16, at: http://townsvillebulletin.news.com.au/
  8. Barney Zwartz, "Uniting Church set to approve gay ordinations," The Age, 2003-JUL-17, at: http://www.theage.com.au
  9. Heather Gallagher, "Church split on gays decision," News.com.au, 2003-JUL-17, at: http://www.news.com.au/
  10. "Gay ministers 'unlikely' to be ordained," Australian Broadcasting Corporation News Online, 2003-JUL-18, at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/
  11. "The Uniting Church's sexuality debate and 10th Assembly conclusions," at: http://nsw.uca.org.au/news/
  12. "UCA 10th National Assembly: Ministry and Membership (Sexuality)," at: http://www.emu.asn.au/assembly2003/the_way_ahead.html
  13. "Extract from unconfirmed Minutes of the UCA Tenth Assembly, Melbourne, 17th July, 2003," at:  http://www.assembly2003.uca.org.au/

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Essay originally published: 1998-MAY-5
Last updated: 2003-SEP-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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