21 Mayfield Street,
15 July 1997.
There were many positive (and memorable) elements in Assembly. It was a privilege to represent Mary-Burnett Presbytery and to participate in the whole decision-making process of the Uniting Church. I was especially impressed by the courtesy, patience and helpfulness of the facilitation group, though I felt for those who were Assembly members and had to be absent for significant amounts of business.
Having returned home, I have discovered that the media coverage of the sexuality issue has had a major negative effect on members of our congregations. And, when pressed, I have to admit that the media presence was strong and that, by and large, the reporting was accurate as far as it went. I have therefore felt it necessary to make some observations and would greatly appreciate your early response to them.
Towards the end of Assembly I believe I heard you declare your support of the gays and lesbians in the debate and your disquiet that it had not been possible for Assembly to be more affirming of them. Unless I misunderstood you (and I am open to correction), this was a serious departure from the impartiality that we expect of you in your role as General Secretary.
Also unwarranted was your affirmation of the ministry of Dorothy who, like the rest of us, stands under the discipline of her Presbytery. Assembly at several points has made it clear that none of us exercises our ordained ministry as a right - including administration of baptism and holy communion. We have an appreciation for the gifts of Dorothy as a person and warmly extend our Christian love toward her. None of us could be other than deeply moved by her story and that of others. That was not, and should not be, the issue. And any ensuing matter of discipline is for Presbytery, not Assembly, to determine.
The matter of pain over the decisions (and lack of decision) in the sexuality debate is not simply with the gays and lesbians. Many of their families do not accept the immutability of their sexual inclination and grieve over their lifestyle. And having shared the pain of a woman whose husband was living bisexually has helped me understand many issues which are other than the Task Group reported.
As one who called for access to Peter Bentley's report, I was appalled to learn from Alistair Macrae that it was meant to be shredded. Add to that the view strongly pressed by some that the responses from the members and councils of the Church were irrelevant to the decisions to be made, and there was genuine cause for concern from the members of the Church that their voice was not being heard. (It is significant that the Business Committee's proposal 121 was concerned that further conversations be with "gay and lesbian members of the church family", the UAICC and "groups nominated by the Committee on Multicultural Ministry". No reference was made to the EMU statement D3-17 nor to 80 to 90% of the middle ground of the Church whose views EMU and NFFR have consistently sought to represent in this ongoing debate.)
The debate at this Assembly has changed forever the definition of "sexual orientation" in the UCA. When I responded to your request regarding same-sex relationships back in 1992, it was possible to separate the issues of "orientation" and "behaviour". At this Assembly the Uniting Network supporters have made it clear to us that they do not support this separation - that orientation must be seen to include the right to practise. I therefore believe that the ASC minutes which refer to "orientation" have to be viewed in their historical and cultural setting when such a distinction was possible. Many have assumed, for example, that this distinction is implicit in ASC minute 82.12. (It is interesting that the ASTG has in fact omitted any definition of "sexual orientation" on pp. 9-10 of US& F.)
Your liberal interpretation of current policy (I2-1&2) is confusing and unhelpful. In point 7 regarding homosexuality and the ordained ministry, it is unhelpful to differentiate between "expectation" and "specific requirement". Your may be wanted a statement more comfortable for homosexual practice, but have ended opening up a whole range of unacceptable heterosexual behaviours as well! Is a married minister expected to be faithful to his/her spouse? What does all this say about ministerial codes of ethics and discipline for sexual misconduct? Resolution 124 acknowledged that we left Assembly with a number of matters unresolved. I trust that it is understood that the 80 to 90% of respondents who were against the general direction of IRS come into the category of point 2. Many of these also fit point 3 (your statement to Assembly seemed to imply that the pain was only on the homosexual side of the debate).
Gregor, my apology for being so blunt after an Assembly which had many high moments! We have to be open with one another. We cannot advance with hidden agendas.
Aside from this one (rather major!) issue, I appreciated greatly your leadership as General Secretary knowing the material well, always keeping your finger on where we had been and where we had to go next. Thanks a lot for that! It was a demanding week and we all need a break.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
Peter J Blackburn
18 July 1997
Rev Peter Blackburn
21 Mayfleld St
Warm greetings to you! I write in response to your fax of 15 July. I much appreciate the overall spirit of your fax, and thank you both for being affirming of my role and critical in a healthy upfront way of aspects of what I said and did at the Assembly. I am very pleased to say that 1 think one of the lasting benefits of such an extraordinary Assembly will be the better levels of communication, respect (and I hope trust) between people of differing theological emphases at the Assembly. I would love for that to transfer to operating between people not at the Assembly as well!
I respond in more detail as follows,
1. I think the reference in your first point was when the Business Committee was presenting their proposal 121 re sexuality on the Friday morning (subsequently replaced by the much better proposal from the Moderators), As part of that debate, and with the agreement of the Business Committee, I made a statement re the eligibility for church membership of gay and lesbian people. In introducing that statement I think I did say something to the effect that if 121 was approved, gays and lesbians would feel they had lost out at this Assembly, so I was therefore reminding them of the current policies which would remain in place, I can see that my approach could be construed as lack of impartiality, and I readily acknowledge that there were other groups of people present at the Assembly who perhaps have more reason for feeling that they "lost out" at the Assembly. At that point I was well aware of some of the feelings among the gay and lesbian people present, for they had gone out of their way to make me aware of them!
2. Let me add a word about impartiality. As General Secretary of the church it is incumbent upon me to ensure that my relationship with all sectors of the church is such that no-one is discouraged from approaching me and no-one loses access to the Assembly's decision-making processes. There are many circumstances when I have to set aside my own opinions and feelings in order to follow Assembly policy and to ensure healthy and proper relationships with the whole church (eg. there are a few Assembly policies with which I personally disagree, but I've made my input in the past, the Assembly has decided, and as General Secretary I support those decisions and implement them - if my difference of opinion was too strong to enable me to support and implement them, then I would have to resign). But alongside this "impartiality" there is also a role for offering leadership as General Secretary and some (perhaps limited) right to participate in debates as an individual ex-officio member of various bodies. I'm aware of the tension of this, and seek under God to act always in the best interests of the church (and acknowledge that I do not always succeed in that intention).
3. I agree wholeheartedly that Dorothy McRae McMahon is accountable to her presbytery, as every minister is. I think I made that clear in my brief supplementary statement on the Saturday morning. And you are quite correct that it is a matter for her presbytery, not the Assembly (except that synod bodies may also become involved - Committees for Counselling and for Discipline). However, I should add that given that Dorothy is in an Assembly settlement, I believe the Assembly through its Standing Committee could initiate a complaint against Dorothy and/or could decide to contemplate disciplinary action by reviewing her settlement (as with any minister in Assembly settlement). I'm not saying that either of these courses of action will be discussed at the Standing Committee, but I think it would be legitimate for the Committee to do so.
4. My affirmation of Dorothy - as 1 said to the EMU people at our 7.15 meeting on Saturday morning at St Columba's (I don't think you were present?), in retrospect 1 believe I should not have made my statement at the moment I did. In two ways it was poorly timed - the media were present and made a big deal of it, and we had just concluded a time of remarkable grace and unified commitment among Assembly members (and my statement inevitably did cause disagreement among us again). 1 believe it was also wrong that Dorothy was allowed opportunity to respond, and again in retrospect we should have ensured that any such statement from me was heard without response of any kind. However, (do still feel that given the public calls for her resignation by Uniting Church ministers in the media, it was not unreasonable for me to make a clear statement of where I stand on the matter. I just wish I'd made the statement on the Friday afternoon or the Saturday, when the media were not so prominent.
5. I agree with your third point. I well realise that there is pain in much more than just one direction over the Assembly's decisions and lack of decisions. I strongly affirm the Assembly's final resolution on sexuality for its acknowledgement of the pain felt by many people, both at Assembly and in the church in general.
6. Alistair Macrae's statement about the shredding of Peter Bentley's report was accurate only to a point. Let me be quite clear that the Standing Committee in March asked all participants to return both the provisional report of the Task Group on Sexuality and the Bentley report, for shredding, in order to prevent the possibility of damaging leaks to the media before the revised reports were finalised and released. It was never our intention to hide Peter's report - it was referred to in the introductory letter to the "Report on the Responses", and some were keen enough then immediately to ask for a copy of it. We then clarified in the second mailing to Assembly members that copies were freely available,
7. I think there is merit in your (implied?) suggestion that the Assembly, in due course, needs to clarify what it means by sexual orientation vis-a-vis sexual conduct. I take the view that the 1982 Standing Committee decision usage of "orientation" refers only to orientation and that the last part of that 1982 decision (supported by the further guidance of 1994) refers to conduct ("the manner in which his or her sexuality is expressed"). 1 also think you are right in your assessment of the attitude of gay and lesbian members to the meaning of "orientation", but I'm not sure I agree with them.
8. The statements of "current policy" on Assembly papers I2-1&2 were checked by me with several others before they were issued (President, two ex-Presidents, the two Legal Reference Committee people present, and with some synod secretaries - other synod secretaries were too late getting their comments back to me), I believe they are an accurate portrayal of current policies, and I accept the responsibility for them. The distinction between "expectation" and "specific requirement" is based on part 5 of minute 94.78.3 - on page 60 of Uniting Sexuality and Faith. The point is that in accord with the polity of our church every minister and every applicant is to be assessed on an individual basis as to their suitability for ministry - I don't see how this opens the door to acceptance of all sorts of unacceptable heterosexual behaviour. Heterosexual conduct is to be taken into account. Married ministers are definitely expected to be faithful to their spouse (in my mind, for sure).
9. I think a large number of those within the 80% plus of respondents to the Interim Report who were opposed to practising homosexuals being within the ordained ministry will be disappointed with the lack of decisiveness of the Assembly on this matter - and yes, I agree that they are covered by the second point of resolution 124. And, as I've said above, I agree that many of them are within the third point of resolution 124 as well.
Peter, that better do for now, except two things:
I won't necessarily always have the time to respond as quickly or as fully to you as I have this week, and I hope you understand that (the workload is pretty heavy and I am absent from the office quite a bit) - but I am keen to keep up very good clear communication with you;
I will be participating in some of the national youth workers gathering at Alexandra Headland on Sunday 17 and Monday 18 August; if you had time and were interested, I could certainly find an hour or two for a face to face conversation with you (and with any others you wished to be involved); I would appreciate the opportunity for personal discussion. Sunday afternoon or virtually any time on the Monday during the day would suit me. Peter, thanks again for your fax, and thanks for the way in which you participated in the Assembly in Perth. I realise that a lot now depends on people like you maintaining patience and participation with the church's rather drawn-out processes (not least in encouraging disappointed members to stick with us together in the church), and I look forward to working with you over the next period of time.
May God continue to bless you and your ministry.
Grace and peace,