In December 2017 the Parliament of Australia amended the Marriage Act (Cth) 1961 to describe marriage as a relationship between two people, rather than between one man and one woman. In July 2018, a mere six months’ later, the Uniting Church in Australia agreed to allow its ministers to marry same-sex couples in accordance with that amended Act.
This is extraordinary. When the government conducted the optional postal poll on attitudes to marriage in 2017, the question was described by many people as a controversy between religion and secularism. Certainly the very loud but unrepresentative Australian Christian Lobby put it that way. And yet here is a mainstream Christian church, the third-largest church in Australia after the Catholic and Anglican churches, agreeing to allow same-gender marriages to be conducted in its churches by its ministers. How did this happen?
It happened because the Uniting Church in Australia has been discussing questions of sexuality for a very long time. So long, in fact, that I was able to write my history PhD thesis on The Sexuality Debate in the Uniting Church, 1977-2000. (My thesis only concluded in 2000 because I had to hand it in; the debate continued.) Every single time the Uniting Church has discussed sexuality it has come to the same decision. There are a variety of positions on sexuality held with integrity by members and ministers of the Uniting Church, and the Uniting Church accepts that.
The decision made by the 2018 Assembly to allow ministers to marry or not marry same-sex couples on the basis of our conscience follows on from all the other decisions that the Uniting Church has made over its history to allow members and ministers to hold different positions according to our consciences. The Uniting Church has done this in matters of sexuality because, as the Assembly Standing Committee recognised in 1982, “Homosexuality is not a new phenomenon within the Church and community and current statistics would lead to the assumption that it also includes a percentage of members and ministers of the Christian Church.” (82.101) The Uniting Church has never discussed sexuality as a topic affecting some amorphous group of people ‘out there’. It has always discussed issues of sexuality as internal questions affecting members of the Church’s family.
So the Uniting Church has said, among many other things:
- that the (Assembly) Standing Committee: affirms that all baptised Christians belong in Christ’s church and are to be welcomed at his table, regardless of their sexual orientation. (87.46(ii));
- that the (Assembly) Standing Committee: recognise the pain of those in the church whose sense of identity and experiences of healing through a faithful commitment to a person of the same sex has not been recognised and blessed by the church. (93.21(4));
- that the Assembly resolved: to reject judgemental attitudes in sexual ethics and witness to the renewing grace of God in this as in all attitudes of human behaviour. (97.31.06);
- that the Assembly resolved: to recognise the importance of responsible sexual behaviour and that all practices of sexuality which are exploitative and demeaning are unacceptable and contradict God’s purposes for us. (97.31.07);
- that the Assembly noted that: membership of the Uniting Church is open to all persons subject only to the guidance of the Basis of Union, the Constitution, the Regulations and policies of the Assembly (03.69.03.02);
- that the Assembly reminded Presbyteries of the decisions of previous Assemblies that: in considering issues related to candidature, ordination, or commissioning for specified ministries, and the placement of persons is specified ministries, decisions should only be taken on a case by case basis (03.69.03.03 (a));
- that the Assembly resolved: to express its regret that faithful Christian gay and lesbian people, on whose lives the Assembly deliberations have impacted, have continued to experience pain in our church (06.41.3);
- that the Assembly resolved: to encourage Congregations (a) to be aware that within many Congregations there is a diversity of belief on matters of sexuality and leadership and that some members do not feel free to express their beliefs; (b) to become safe communities where people may hold diverse beliefs on these matters and work together as the Body of Christ; and (c) to recognise that the possibility of living with difference is a gift which Christ offers to the world. (06.47.7).
To summarise: there are a variety of positions on the question of same-sex sexuality in the Uniting Church. It is up to Presbyteries to make decisions about ordaining and placing ministers, and it is up to congregations to accept or reject ministers. That includes making decisions about LGBTIQ people, who are to be accepted or rejected as individuals. All LGBTIQ people are welcome as members of the Uniting Church and are welcome to Christ’s table; the acceptance of diverse views on sexuality does not include rejecting LGBTIQ people as members. The decision of the fifteenth Assembly on marriage is in continuity with all these other decisions the Uniting Church has made.
That is the academic viewpoint. Let me take off that hat and put on another and talk not as Dr Hannah-Jones, but as Avril.
I have been participating in the sexuality debate in the Uniting Church since 1995, when I was 22 years’ old. That was the year that the Uniting Church held a ‘Year of Listening’ and coincidentally it was also the year in which I realised that I was ‘not entirely heterosexual’. So I attended the 1997 Assembly in Perth as a bisexual woman, praying that my Church would accept me. As you can see from the photos, I was very young, and very emotional.
I was more hurt at that Assembly than I have ever been in the Church before or since. During the debate the Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra, spoke to the Assembly meeting and said of the Church’s possible acceptance of homosexuality: “It is another hurt to our spirituality. It is another invasion of our life as original people of this land. It is not our practice. It is not our tradition.”
Nothing has hurt me as much in my Uniting Church life as the rejection by the UAICC at the 1997 Assembly. I was twenty-four years’ old; I was extremely naive; and I thought that because I stood in solidarity with the members of the UAICC, they would stand in solidarity with me. I wrote my PhD thesis because I wanted to work out exactly what had happened. (And if you want to know, too, read my thesis.) I came very close to leaving the Church, but I am glad that I didn’t. It took 21 years, but at this Assembly my heart was healed when the UAICC finally acknowledged that there is a diversity of indigenous voices on the question and a deeply respected member of the Congress, Aunty Denise Champion, finally made the statement of solidarity that I had been waiting for since I was twenty-four. (You can see her saying it in the episode on priests in the third series of the ABC TV program You Can’t Ask That.)
I went to the Assembly as a member of the Doctrine Working Group who had prepared this description of marriage:
Marriage is a gift God has given to humankind for the well-being of the whole human family. For Christians, marriage is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of two people to live together for life. It is intended to be the mutually faithful life-long union of two people expressed in every part of their life together. In marriage two people seek to encourage and enrich each other through love and companionship, experience the fruitfulness of family, contribute to the well-being of society and strengthen the mission of the church.
I came out of the Assembly happy with the Church having two descriptions of marriage, the existing 1997 definition and a new one identical with it except that it refers to ‘two people’ rather than ‘a man and a woman’.
Marriage for Christians is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of two people to live together for life. It is intended to be the faithful lifelong union of two people expressed in every part of their life together. In marriage, the two people seek to encourage and enrich each other through love and companionship.
In the marriage service:
• The two people make a public covenant with each other and with God, in the company of family and friends;
• The couple affirm their trust in each other and in God;
• The Church affirms the sanctity of marriage and nurtures those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage and calls upon all people to support, uphold and nurture those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage.
Where sexual union takes place the partners seek to express mutual delight, pleasure and tenderness, thus strengthening the union of their lives together.
In marriage, children may be born and are to be brought up in love and security thus providing a firm foundation for society.
Ministers have the freedom to decided whether or not to marry same-sex couples; Church Councils have the freedom to decide whether or not their buildings are used.
When writing about the 1997 Assembly I said that “it appeared that in Perth it was the Assembly that was doing all the moving and the UAICC that was standing still”. I didn’t feel that about the 2018 Assembly. It is a pity that so much of the discussion happened in closed sessions, because there were speeches of astonishing graciousness from people who did not agree with same-sex marriage but who agreed that those of us who do should be given the freedom to conduct those marriages. I felt that two different parts of the Church were moving towards each other in compassionate compromise.
The exception is, as usual, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC, previously Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church or EMU). The pastoral letter from a member of the 2018 Assembly says “On behalf of the National Council of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, we therefore say in the strongest terms possible, that we reject not only this decision, but the authority of the National Assembly and therefore stand aside from this Council of the Church.” But the ACC is a radical fringe group that does not represent a large number of Uniting Church members. It certainly doesn’t represent culturally and linguistically-diverse members of the Uniting Church, despite its claims.
I said many times during the Assembly that I am committed to celibacy. As I had to remind my family during the 2017 postal poll, marriage equality does not mean that I am more likely to be married. It is a theoretical question for me. So I was surprised by the feeling of joy and acceptance this decision has given me. I spent much of the Saturday morning Eucharist service weeping (although I know from my thesis research that some EMU/ACC members see tears as emotional manipulation) because the words of welcome and acceptance in the service felt real to me in a new way. The Uniting Church has been clear that ‘homosexual’ people have been welcome in the Church since 1982, but having same-sex marriages celebrated gives that welcome a new strength. I rejoice that I will now be able to tell LGBTIQ people that in my Church their relationships can be blessed.
No condemnation now I dread:
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
Charles Wesley, 1707-88
Do I wish there was a single, inclusive, definition of marriage? Did I want every Uniting Church minister to be instructed to marry same-sex couples? Pondering that over the course of the Assembly I came to the realisation that I don’t. I do honestly want my Church to be a place that welcomes everyone, including those who disagree with me. I do NOT want to be like the members of the ACC who are proud that “we did not compromise our stance in anyway”!
I am proud of the Uniting Church and of every member of the Assembly who discerned a way forward with grace and humility.