Recently, in the course of a conversation on Facebook, someone suggested that the Uniting Church hadn’t done any biblical and theological reflection before accepting that presbyteries can ordain people in same-sex relationships. My experience as an historian is that the Uniting Church is absolutely hopeless at remembering our history, and constantly seeks to reinvent the wheel, so it’s no wonder that people don’t remember the biblical and theological reflection that the Church has done on sexuality.
For those interested, here is a list of the Uniting Church reports that I read while researching my PhD.
My PhD only covered the years 1977 to 2000, so I don’t have any of the reports of the previous denominations, which started investigating homosexuality after the Wolfenden Report was released in the UK in 1957. As I wrote in my thesis:
As the English law influenced the Australian law, so the responses of English churches to the 1957 Wolfenden Report influenced their Australian counterparts. The Church of England’s support of the Wolfenden committee was widely reported in Australian newspapers, to the consternation of some members of the Church of England in Australia, who argued that it ‘reflected the “excessive humanitarianism prevalent in Britain to-day, including the revoking of the death penalty”’.
In the late sixties and early seventies a variety of reports on homosexuality, all recommending decriminalisation, were released by the churches that would later make up the Uniting Church. In 1969 the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales released a report entitled The Responsibility of the Church, which argued that the church had no right to impose morality on the legal system; the national General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church then made a statement in 1970 that supported law reform, a decision reported on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘Church declares stand on deviates’. Among the reasons given for this stand were the fact that the ‘law discriminate[d] unfairly against the homosexual as compared with the adulterer, fornicator and lesbian’ and that the law might encourage the seduction of children by men who would prefer adult contacts but who imagined that child seduction was less risky. Finally, the argument was made that sending a convicted homosexual to jail was ‘as therapeutically useless as incarcerating a sex maniac in a harem’. The church did not want its support for decriminalisation to be confused with an acceptance of homosexuality as ‘normal’. Even so, some church members opposed the Church’s statement, including one who declared ‘that man was an animal of violent passions which had to be restrained by law’.
In 1974 the Presbyterian Church of Victoria recommended decriminalisation in Victoria. In 1975 the Methodist Department of Christian Citizenship followed. The Rev. John Westerman said that Methodist policy saw homosexuality as a natural condition, and not one that should be subject to the law. Thus by the time the Uniting Church was created in 1977 it had a history of supporting homosexual law reform that the Church could call upon in the debates about decriminalisation in Victoria and New South Wales in the 1980s.
The statements by the Presbyterian and Methodist churches originated in their justice units, and were adopted by the whole church after much debate and discussion. The statements came from churches that believed that they had a right and a duty to comment on secular matters and from churches that could be moved by calls to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. The Uniting Church in Australia would inherit these characteristics along with the statements from the previous denominations, and continue the campaign that its predecessors had begun.
The decision to allow presbyteries to ordain people in same-sex relationships was not made without a great deal of reflection. The trouble is that many people have forgotten this history, and many people who have joined the Uniting Church in recent years never knew it.
Chris Budden, Human Sexuality: a gift from God, Assembly Commission on Social Responsibility, Sydney, 1982.
Warren Talbot (ed.), Affirming Faith and Sexuality: A collection of articles about Christianity and Homosexuality, Homosexuality Task Group, Division of Social Justice, Melbourne, 1984.
Looking beyond the fig leaves: An invitation to explore aspects of our sexuality as Christ’s community, South Australian Synod Publishing and Sales, Adelaide, 1984.
Gordon S. Dicker (ed.), Homosexuality and the Church: A Report of the Assembly Committee on Homosexuality and the Church, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 1985.
Stuart Reid and Warren Talbot, Who Is My Neighbour? A Study Guide for Homosexuality and the Church, Division of Social Justice, Melbourne, 1985.
Gordon S. Dicker (ed.), Homosexuality and the Church: Responses, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 1988.
Assembly Standing Committee, Sexuality: Making decisions as Christians, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 1991.
Assembly Task Group on Sexuality, Interim Report on Sexuality, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 1996.
Assembly Task Group on Sexuality, Sexuality: exploring the issues, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 1996.
Assembly Task Group on Sexuality, Uniting Sexuality and Faith, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 1997.
Report on the Responses to the Interim Report on Sexuality, National Assembly, Sydney, 1997.
2000 – where my thesis ended
Hugh McGinlay (ed.), Joy Pain: Belonging in the Uniting Church, Uniting Church Press, Melbourne, 2000.
Robert Stringer, Can the church listen? National Social Responsibility and Justice Agency, Sydney, 2000.