To celebrate the 41st birthday of the Uniting Church in Australia, here is a response from the Working Group on Doctrine, of which I am a member, to a response by Rev. Prof. James Haire to the Working Group’s report to the Fifteenth Assembly on same-gender marriage. Happy birthday, Uniting Church in Australia! I give thanks to God for a church in which these discussions can take place.
The Assembly Working Group on Doctrine would like to comment on a ‘Response to the Assembly Standing Committee’s Report and Proposals on Marriage and Same-Gender Relationships’ by Prof James Haire. Prof Haire’s response has been widely circulated and also copied into the rationale of a proposal coming to the forthcoming Assembly meeting.
We reject the serious charge of Prof Haire’s paper that our ‘Report on Marriage and Same-gender Relationships’ contravenes the Basis of Union. Prof Haire’s response to the Report reveals a superficial and selective reading and, at times, a misreading or misrepresentation of its content. Indeed, Prof Haire’s comments suggest minimal engagement with the details of the Report or its arguments. We respond to his criticisms as follows. His comments are included in italics.
Prof Haire notes that formal ecumenical dialogue on the issue of same-gender marriage did not form part of the Report and claims that the proposals before the Assembly are likely to cause further fracturing of relations between the UCA and other Churches in Australia. The Report was, however, prepared with respect and sensitivity for the ecumenical context in which we place ourselves as a Uniting Church. The following points are important in this regard:
- Other Australian churches made their positions on same-gender marriage very clear through public statements made during the marriage survey campaigns. With the exception of the Society of Friends (Quakers) the churches in Australia oppose same-gender marriage.
- It is part of the nature of ecumenism that churches come to understand the differences between them. For example, we continue to have relationships of varying degrees of closeness with churches that do not ordain women (i.e. the Lutheran Church of Australia, the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox Churches).
- If the Assembly discerns in favour of the proposals it is unlikely to affect our relationship with these churches any more than they have already been affected by the ordaining of women.
- In any dialogue it is crucial that both parties know their own mind and heart. Following the discernment of the Assembly we will be better placed to enter into dialogue and speak confidently on behalf of the Uniting Church.
- On other occasions the churches have seen us stand alone when we have discerned a call to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ‘fresh words and deeds’. We believe that one of the charisms (gifts) the Uniting Church brings to the wider family of churches is to challenge received understandings in the light of new biblical and theological insights, and deepening human knowledge.
- The churches which already allow Ministers to celebrate same-gender marriages include the churches of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden; the Episcopal Church in the USA; many churches within the Evangelical Church of Germany; the Presbyterian Church USA; the Quakers; the Scottish Episcopal Church; the United Church of Canada; the Methodist Church of Aotearoa New Zealand; and the United Reformed Church (UK). The Church of Scotland is currently giving intentional and explicit consideration towards allowing their ministers to celebrate same-gender marriages.
- It is important to note that the Uniting Church came into existence consciously holding certain positions on ministry, sacraments, and church government which were already contentious positions for its ecumenical partners.
Scripture, theology and the Basis of Union
Professor Haire claims that “whatever guided [by the Basis] may mean, the word certainly means that the UCA is not to go against the words in the paragraphs of its Basis.” This implies a flattening of the text of the Basis, a flattening which suspends the need to interpret words (be it of this or any other text). It does this in two ways. Firstly, to discern ‘whatever guided may mean’ is precisely the issue. It is not over-ridden, and should not be avoided, by an appeal to the ‘words in the paragraphs’ of the Basis. Secondly, and even more to the point, it ignores the interpretative filter through which those who wrote the Basis of Union insisted that its individual paragraphs be read. Any claim to the authority of any particular ‘words’ of the Basis must place those words in relation to the seminal Paragraph 3 which sets out the Uniting Church’s fundamental claims about Jesus Christ and his lordship. Michael Owen speaks of Paragraph 3 having a “controlling position and function in the whole.” As recently as 2012, Norman Young wrote that Paragraph 3 “contains the over-riding theological conviction giving shape to the Basis” and that it “is normative for all that follows”. To make a blunt appeal to the ‘words of the paragraphs’ of the Basis is to bypass such considerations and, ultimately, to fail in the deepest sense to be guided by it.
To resolve the relationship between Paragraphs 5 and 11 of the Basis with the claim that the UCA is in humility bound by Scripture is misleading. It is neither the language of paragraph 5 ‘The Biblical Witnesses’ nor its meaning. The Report on Marriage was very careful to interpret Paragraph 5 on its own terms and in relation to the normative Christology of Paragraph 3. Paragraph 5 sets the reading of scripture in a more dynamic ‘listening for the Word of God,’ an activity which is, in turn, located in the context of the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church: ‘The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture, appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church.’ According to the Basis, we are not so much ‘bound’ to scripture, but to the living God who leads us into the ongoing history of the church’s listening to, reading, and praying with the biblical witnesses.
The Working Group is concerned that Prof Haire’s response misrepresents the Report’s biblical studies and theological method. The Report is clear that the biblical witnesses are lacking in positive endorsements of same gender relationships. It does argue, however, that the negative assessments of such relationships are not self-interpreting, and insists on interpreting them in wider theological, historical and cultural contexts. Indeed, given Professor Haire’s acknowledgement of the strong counter-cultural dimension, questions must be asked about what it was in the other cultures that was being countered, and what it was that was being affirmed in the Christian community by such counter-cultural statements. This requires attention to the hermeneutical questions otherwise resisted in his response. It would be theologically irresponsible and a failure of scholarship to transfer any ‘counter-cultural’ framing of this issue directly from the first century and the context of the first Christians to our own century or our context.
Prof Haire’s use of quotation marks around the phrases ‘genuine Jesus’ and ‘genuine teachings of Jesus’ seems disingenuous, implying that these are phrases used in the Report. In fact, neither phrase ever appears anywhere in the Report. Nor does either phrase bear any relation to the Report’s engagement with the biblical material. The methodology employed in the sections on Jesus’ teachings is clearly focused on the distinctiveness and the details of Jesus’ engagement with received and prevailing wisdom about the body, purity, marriage and celibacy. Further, the Report categorically does not always…use the Old Testament as a foil against which to understand Jesus’ teaching. Indeed, the Report straightforwardly reflects the New Testament’s own explicit witness to Jesus’ own tension-filled relationship to the laws of the Old Testament.
Prof Haire claims that a major theme in the report is that of diversity, related as it is to the Trinity in the report. Distinction (in Trinitarian doctrine) and diversity (the reality of created existence) appear only briefly in the Report. The major theological theme is rather the imago dei. Whilst not unrelated to the Trinitarian understanding of God, it is more fully worked out in this Report through considerations of the theological significance of the human body in the light of both Jesus’ own teachings and the declarations in the New Testament epistles that Jesus is the image of God.
The Working Group on Doctrine welcomes responses to our Report. However we believe that respectful dialogue about these contentious matters includes both the tone of one’s response and also fairly representing the views of those who hold a position different to one’s own. Our Report and our consultations attempted to do this. To the extent that anyone feels their position has been inadequately represented we apologise. We ask that the same care be extended by those who respond to aspects of our work.
This response was prepared on behalf of the Working Group on Doctrine by Alistair Macrae (Convener), Avril Hannah-Jones, Rachel Kronberger and Geoff Thompson.
 We have done this in ordaining women, ordaining people in same-gender relationships, allowing deacons to celebrate the sacraments, and writing a Preamble to our Constitution that recognises the First Peoples of this country.
 When presenting a report on the matter to the 2017 Assembly the Very Reverend Professor Iain Torrance said that ‘the Church’s journey on the issue had parallels with the one it has taken on the ordination of women in the 1960s’
 For instance against the argument within the Methodist Church in the 1960s that the ordination of women would hinder ecumenical work Dr A. Harold Wood successfully argued that it would not hinder ecumenical relations and damage the delicate negotiations concerning Church Union Quoted in Betty Feith, Women in Ministry: The Order of Deaconesses and the Campaign for the Ordination of Women within the Methodist Church 1942-1977 (Glen Iris: Kyarra Press, 1990), p. 31.
 Michael Owen, Back to Basics: Studies on the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1996), 55.
 Norman Young, “The Theological Convictions of the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church,” Pacifica 25 (2012): 292.
 Sections 3.2.1, 3.2.2 and 3.2.3 of the Report
 Section 1.3
 Sections 3.2.2, 3.2.4 and 5.3