It was Saturday 5 July 1997. Representatives of the Eighth Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, together with visitors, packed the Perth Concert Hall for a colourful opening celebration.
Flanked by the combined Uniting Church Schools Choir, other choristers and musicians, and joined by overseas and national ecumenical guests and representatives of other faiths, Rev John Mavor was installed as the church's president. He warmed to the Assembly theme, "Forward Together: Moving with God's Spirit".
In the course of his inaugural address, the President said that the church is called to live in the midst of paradoxes and tension. In what was probably the most notable regrettable statement of that Assembly, he said, "We have many differences about many things in the Uniting Church. Christ is calling us to face those differences, to listen to each other, to respect each other, to care for each other - and to find Jesus there in the messy middle".
The "Welcome" issue of the Assembly's daily paper (provocatively titled The Interim Report) featured a number of photographs from previous Assemblies. The collection included a protest rally outside the inauguration in Sydney in June 1977. One of the protesters was holding up a placard which read, "Unity at the expense of truth is treason".
Such mean-mindedness hurt deeply back in '77. It was not the basis on which we were uniting. After all, our new church was committed to teaching and preaching that was "controlled by the biblical witnesses". This was stated clearly in the Basis to which we committed ourselves to "adhere" in ministry and mission together.
But by the Eighth Assembly we seemed to be caught in the "messy middle" - listening to many people's stories, controlled by societal agendas which have no place for the redeeming, transforming Jesus. Far from being in any sort of "middle", we were drifting seriously "off-centre" - unable to discern the mind of Christ, celebrating the diversity of our human brokenness and sin rather than the Redeemer who gives diverse gifts for ministry and mission. "Unity at the expense of truth is treason", the unnamed protester had said. Many of us now feel that he or she was expressing a large measure of truth.
Following Perth, I wrote, as a member of that Assembly, to the General Secretary, Rev Gregor Henderson, expressing my concern that, while earlier Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) resolutions had clearly intended a distinction between homosexual orientation and practice, Uniting Network (the homosexual lobby) was using them as if orientation implied the legitimacy of practice. The General Secretary replied, "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'). I 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".
The Uniting Church is now in crisis because of Resolution/Proposal 84 (R84) passed by the Tenth Assembly in Melbourne on 17 July 2003.
People are concerned about the manner in which it was introduced - without widespread discussion, as if it was a minor issue. There is a deep sense of shock that Assembly did not regard this "a matter vital to the life of the Church" for which it is obligatory to consult the other councils of the Church.
The pastoral letters from the President and Moderators have failed to quieten our unease - they have increased it. We are a diverse church, we are told. Nothing has changed, really. We have only re-affirmed or clarified our present practice. Is that really true?
R84 has now been amended by the ASC - principally deleting the second and third paragraphs of point 2, thus removing all references to both "celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" and "right relationships". There are other less significant changes.
This now makes nonsense of the President's statement that "the decision affirms the integrity of what you hold…" It also "defuses" protests which have objected to what R84 said about "right relationships".
The secular media dubbed as "a smart political move" the rejection of the proposal that R84 be deemed "a matter vital to the life of the Church" needing referral to the other councils of the Church. The present action of the ASC is a second "smart political move" which avoids the need to recall Assembly.
There has been complaint that the secular media has portrayed R84 as "Church votes to ordain gay priests". Of course, the resolution doesn't say that in so many words. It is almost innocent, innocuous. In the lead-up to Assembly, however, the Assembly website quoted John Mavor as saying that Assembly would consider the ordination of practising homosexuals. This was also listed among the issues to be resolved by Assembly - second only to the installation of the President!
Our concern focuses on what R84 says - and doesn't say - both in the form passed by Assembly and in its present form as amended by the ASC. Except where I indicate otherwise, my references will be to the revised wording.
#1 On the face of it, the opening statement affirms our unity of faith in the triune God and our diversity of biblical interpretation. In practice, we need to be aware of the areas where the UCA has become theologically weak.
(a) It is always troubling when we celebrate our theology of God instead of celebrating the God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In too many liturgies of the church, God, the man Jesus and a nebulous guiding Spirit are included to give a pseudo-trinitarian lip-service to God.
(b) "The authority of the Scriptures as defined in the Basis of Union" is said to "nourish and regulate" our faith and obedience and to "control" our preaching of Jesus Christ (Basis 5). The seeds of the present crisis began before Union with widespread questioning (and denial) of the authority of Scripture, and selective listening to the "scholarly interpreters" (Basis 11). We have to question whether "biblical interpreters" are humbly under the control of the "biblical witnesses" or whether they have brought their own pre-determined agendas to the text.
(c) Having affirmed core theology and differences in biblical interpretation "on various matters of faith and practice", R84 expects Christ to bind us together as we "continue to work together in our diversity…"
The notion of "unity in diversity" is always a false statement of our relationship to one another in Christ. It is the trap of beginning with celebrating ourselves. Diversity isn't good in itself. Much of it is the result of human sin and brokenness - including unredeemed perversity and stubbornness. The Church is the Body of Christ constituted and working together because of Christ's diverse gifts to its members - a "diversity in unity".
#2 The second section calls on us "to seek to live together in peace as people of faith, notwithstanding differing views in the matter of same sex relationships". The issue here is "Christian sexual ethics". Clearly, the Church cannot permit practising homosexual persons in leadership unless it can find some ethical justification for doing so. It just so happens that the "differing views" are "mutually exclusive positions".
(i) We don't need to question whether people have a diversity of sincerely-held views. However, the fact that people are in the Church is no guarantee that they are "people of faith" nor that they will express the "integrity" of being "nourished, regulated and controlled" by the biblical witnesses. John Wesley, founder of one of the uniting churches, was an ordained minister and missionary before he came to a saving faith in Christ.
Following a meeting with the President in Townsville on 12 August, I said to him, "I have been thinking back to the Third National Evangelism Conference at the MLC in Melbourne. The first two days was unhelpful sterile input. Then on Wednesday, you began to share with us the importance of 'conversion growth'. For many of us that was the refreshing turning-point of the Conference. In recent times the Pope has called for the evangelisation of the faithful. In the Uniting Church we have many people who have never come to a 'conversion faith'. A number of these believe they have much to contribute in leadership, but they have never been converted. More than we realise, that is a core part of the issue we face at the present time."
For 2000 years "people of faith" have accepted with integrity the biblical prohibition of homosexual acts. Now a minority in the Church wants their pro-homosexual view accepted as expressing equal faith, integrity and validity.
The deleted clauses: We affirm that "celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage" (CISAFIM) is the "faithful Christian standard for Christian sexual ethics". Homosexual acts and leadership are irreconcilable with Christian faith and practice. The Uniting Network folk, of course, don't mind if CISAFIM is one view among many. The clause was worded so as to be acceptable to the Network.
"Right relationships" is no more than a re-vamped version of the "new morality" of forty or fifty years ago. While Jesus made it clear that "love is the fulfilment of the Law", he also stated the continuing importance of the moral absolutes. He didn't condemn the woman caught in adultery, but he did say to her, "Go and sin no more".
Consider this: Following responses to Homosexuality and the Church (1985) ASC recognised that "There is an expectation in the church that its ministers will adhere to the standard of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage", though successive Assemblies have refused to endorse it. The Tenth Assembly "recognised" two "mutually exclusive positions". The President assured us our position was "affirmed". Now we are told that Assembly didn't "endorse or approve" either of the two views. They simply "illustrate some differing views held by church members". One wonders what other views might have been equally acceptable! We are truly in a messy middle!
#3 The third section deals with specified ministries and placements. This is a restatement of policies from ASC decisions and reaffirmed by previous Assemblies. The "case by case" basis means that no prior policy on same gender relationships is to prevent individual consideration in candidature and placement.
Candidature procedures require Presbyteries to be satisfied "that the applicant is suitable in character, personality and spiritual maturity" (Regulations 2.2.2 (a) (ii), 2.2.3 (a) (ii)) - that is why the issue isn't "orientation" (many of us would prefer the term "inclination" or "attraction"), but the manner in which it is expressed.
The person who has same gender inclinations or attractions and engages in genital sexual acts with a same gender partner is automatically disqualified from leadership and ministry from God's viewpoint - they should not be "suitable in character, personality and spiritual maturity" from the Church's viewpoint. God's call on their life is a call to repentance - a necessity for all sinners and not for practising homosexuals alone!
"The manner in which the applicant's or candidate's sexuality is expressed". Having removed from the second section the two paragraphs referring to both CISAFIM and right relationships, the consideration is relational behaviour rather than morality - leaning towards right relationships rather than CISAFIM.
#4 The fourth section seeks to smooth the road forward.
(a) Vilification and harassment. The stated UCA policy is not intended to stifle "freedom of expression". The issue again is whether the Church's teaching and preaching is to be "controlled by the biblical witnesses". Paul describes the preaching of Christ crucified as "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1.23b-24). The biblical diagnosis of human sin may be offensive, but it isn't "harassment and vilification". We should avoid "naming people" or making covert references. Folk will never become open to the grace of God if they don't experience genuine love. They will miss the good news that Christ is "the power of God and the wisdom of God".
(b) Legal implications. Assurances have been given that congregations will not be obliged to have a practising homosexual minister. Since Assembly was consciously endorsing ordination of practising homosexual persons ("on a case by case basis"), it is difficult to see how dissenting congregations will not be taken before the courts of the land for refusing such a minister unless there are other clear grounds for doing so. This clause clearly signals that something has indeed changed. Some people voted for R84 on the basis of unsubstantiated assurances.
Staying with Christ
The UCA is caught in the messy middle. Christ has called us to put our faith in him. That ultimate trust cannot properly be placed anywhere else - not even in the most "perfect" Church (if we could find it!). He has commissioned us to "go and make disciples" and has promised to be with us always.
We aren't here to "fulfil ourselves", but to fulfil our calling in Christ. Christ hasn't called us into the messy middle. He wants us to be his witnesses - in a messy world. Perhaps this mess has encroached into the life of the Church because we have failed to make the gospel clear "out there".
Stay with Christ - and hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches!