Reflection: Notes from 20 years of the Uniting Church’s sexuality debate

2018
When a Korean-speaking minister implies that people like me should be exorcised, I console myself that something is being lost in translation. Not that ‘exorcise’ is said; the English translation instead uses the modern euphemism ‘deliverance’. ‘[S]ame gender relationships are the subject … not of blessings, but ultimately of deliverance’ says the translator and the Assembly listens respectfully as it is implied that there is something demonic about LGBTIQ people.

2000
While researching my PhD on ‘the sexuality debate in the Uniting Church, 1977-2000’ I am given access to all 8000 responses of the Assembly Task Group on Sexuality’s 1996 Interim Report on Sexuality. A few are so homophobic that after reading them I vomit. In order to read the responses without making myself sick I lug the boxes over to the History Department’s postgraduate room, so that as I read I’m surrounded by the sort of supportive community the Church is failing to be.

1997
On the 10th of July, 1997, my heart breaks. A few days before I had stood up in the Assembly and described myself as ‘not completely heterosexual’. Now I listen to the leaders of the UAICC tell the Assembly that the discussion of sexuality is an act of cultural imperialism. Rev. Djinyini Gondarra, the UAICC Chairperson, says of the discussion: ‘It is another hurt to our spirituality. It is another invasion of our life as original people of this land’.[1] It will take three and half years of PhD research before I fully understand what is happening at this moment.

IMG_3945

2004
I am the only candidate to attend the Presbytery meeting at which the progress of candidates is to be reported, so it seems like a nice idea to have me speak a little and then answer questions about my formation. It turns out not to be a nice idea at all. A minister from a cultural and linguistically diverse congregation, never seen at Presbytery before or since, asks whether I am a lesbian. I stand at the front of the meeting for what feels like hours, but is probably less than thirty minutes, before it is decided that that is not a question I need to answer. The Chairperson tells me later that she is glad the Presbytery decided the way it did, because if it had demanded that I answer she would have resigned on the spot. She adds that, since I identify as bisexual, I could have honestly answered ‘no’. We laugh – gallows humour.

2000
For three years I interview the 1997 Assembly’s key players, with the exception of the leadership of the UAICC. I’m an openly-queer young woman, there’s no way I can raise issues of sexuality with the male UAICC leadership. But I can interview the leaders of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU), who oppose the Church’s acceptance of people like me. I get on surprisingly well with many of them. When I attend the 2000 Assembly as an observer and tell one of them that I am doing a ‘Period of Discernment,’ the first stage in the very long process of becoming a Uniting Church minister, he hugs me with excitement. I’m pleased, but confused.

2002
The psychiatric assessment I have to undertake as part of the process of applying to become a candidate says in part: ‘Her personal development and issues she has been tackling during the process of her self-discovery have formed a rich basis from which she can competently relate to a certain demographic group. Her greatest challenge, however, is likely to [be to] constructively relate and engage with a wider church community, particularly those who choose to openly show disapproval towards her. Her natural tendency of intolerance towards such people, of which she is quite aware, will need to be continually kept in check.’ The translation: Avril has worked out that she’s queer; she will be good at supporting LGBTIQ people; but she has difficulty coping with homophobes. It is a fair assessment.

2018
One evening at the Assembly I show a young woman a news item reporting on the 2003 Assembly. She watches in disbelief as Rev. Walter Abetz argues that Church members who disagree with the decision on ordination may be ‘persecuted’ through legal actions, and Mary Hawkes of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church says: ‘If there’s going to be an exodus I hope that it’s a mass exodus.’[2] ‘They’re exactly the same arguments,’ she marvels, and I nod. In the case of the sexuality debate in the Uniting Church history most definitely repeats.

IMG_4123

2002
When the evening comes for the Presbytery to decide whether or not to forward my name to the Synod Selection Conference with the recommendation that I become a candidate, I bring a friend. She brings her cross-stitch. We assume that given my openness about my sexuality it will be a long night. We leave the meeting for a private room and the support person who accompanies us puts on the kettle. Before the kettle has time to boil we are called back. The Presbytery has endorsed me unanimously.

From then on, as I participate in the sexuality debate within the Uniting Church, I remember that moment and the Presbytery’s unanimous, unquestioning, endorsement. The Uniting Church has left me vulnerable to homophobic vitriol from other members and ministers – but it also ordained me. Nothing can change that.

[1] ‘Sexuality and the Uniting Church,’ Compass, 17 August 1997, ABC TV.

[2] ‘Gay vote’, ABC News (Melbourne), 19 July 2003.

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2 Responses to Reflection: Notes from 20 years of the Uniting Church’s sexuality debate

  1. Leonie says:

    What memories this brings back !
    Lots of them painful, but I remind myself that I am accepted and respected and valued by my local church and my friends and family for all of who I am, and that the ongoing racism and discrimination that others in our community continue to battle against needs our strength and courage and resolve to overcome, as we have with homophobia and sexism, although we are still not there yet !

    • avrilhj says:

      You’re much more gracious than I am! I think my patience ended with the proposal from the Korean Presbytery to this most recent Assembly and the way in which the Assembly seemed to think it was important to listen to it without challenging because it came from a CALD Presbytery and was brought to us in Korean. That was the moment when I lost all patience with homophobia as an acceptable part of cultural diversity. If the Church wouldn’t accept it from Anglo-Celts it shouldn’t accept it from CALD members and ministers.

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