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20 years and still talking

After more than 20 years talking about sexuality and leadership, the conversation looks set to continue. Journey presents a short history of a divisive issue.

WHEN THE NEWS of Resolution 84 first hit newspaper headlines on 14 July 2003 many people inside and outside the Uniting Church were surprised and even shocked.

They would have been more surprised to discover that this conversation has been going on in the Uniting Church in Australia for more than 20 years.

Even prior to the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977 one of the former denominations, the Presbyterian Church, had made a statement in favour of homosexual law reform at its 1970 General Assembly.

Then in 1981, four years after church union, a candidate for ordination in Victoria told the Students’ Committee that she was living in a lesbian relationship. The Students’ Committee asked the national Assembly Standing Committee for guidance.

In 1985 the report Homosexuality and the Church was released. This report stated that homosexuality should not, in and of itself, make a person ineligible for membership of the Uniting Church but was ambivalent on the question of ordination.

In the same year a proposal to establish that “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage” be the standard of the Uniting Church in Australia in sexual ethics was presented to the 4th Assembly and, after debate, the Assembly agreed not to vote on the question.

The 5th Assembly in 1988 and the 6th Assembly in 1991 also determined not to vote on proposals calling for “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage”.

In response to protests from members of the church the 6th Assembly decided to create a Task Group on Sexuality to explore the whole area of Christian sexual ethics and bring a report to the 8th Assembly in 1997.

Conflict in the Uniting Church over the issue of homosexuality and leadership intensified in July 1997 when debate on the final report called Uniting Sexuality and Faith began at the 8th Assembly in Perth.

The messy middle

The then Assembly’s Director of Mission Rev Dorothy McRae-McMahon and several other Assembly members “came out”, but after much discussion the Assembly decided not to make a decision on the question of the ordination of people in same-sex relationships.

On another matter, the Assembly affirmed that the Uniting Church “can celebrate the uniqueness of every individual and be encouraged to respect our differences; we allow opportunities for each individual to use their gifts within the community of faith”.

President during the 1997 Assembly, Rev John Mavor described the decisions as a choice to live in the “messy middle”.

Mr Mavor who served as Uniting Church President for the next three years after the 1997 meeting said he gave “three years of his life and got a half-blocked artery trying to hold the church together”.

“My message was keep your eye on Jesus then we can live with difference, keep your eye on the difference and we’ll tear ourselves apart.”

In 2000 the 9th Assembly was again heading to a heated debate on the issue of sexuality and leadership but was headed off by a procedural motion not to consider any proposals relating to sexuality.

Assembly member Ms Carolyn Kitto who moved the proposal said that she believed most of the people at the 9th Assembly did not want to make a decision in either direction.

“It’s still that way as far as I can see in the Uniting Church. Most people are happy to do what John Mavor said three years before and that is to live in the ‘messy middle’,” she said.

Unity and Diversity

While it determined not to consider any proposals on sexuality the 9th Assembly did approve a “Statement on Unity and Diversity.”

This statement asked all councils of the church to deal effectively and consistently with instances of harassment and vilification.

The reappearance of the debate on the issue of sexuality and leadership at the 10th Assembly in Melbourne in 2003 caught many by surprise.

Supporters of what is now known as Resolution 84 claim the decisions made reaffirmed the status quo that presbyteries, as always, make decisions on the suitability of candidates for ordination, do so on a case by case basis and can include consideration of the applicant’s sexuality.

Mr Mavor, who moved Resolution 84 at the 10th Assembly on behalf of the Assembly Standing Committee hopes that the 11th Assembly will reaffirm the current policy.

“That’s where I thought we needed to be at the last Assembly and that’s where we need to be still. And love each other in the process.

Still no agreement

Those opposed to the resolution claim that it represents a significant change in the Church’s faith and practice because while previously a person’s sexual orientation was irrelevant to ordination it was now possible for a practising homosexual living in a committed relationship to be accepted as a candidate for the ministry.

National Chair and Spokesperson for the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) feels that this message has not been heard by those who will make the decisions on sexuality and leadership at the next Assembly.

“I am convinced that we face a situation in which we are not strong enough or clever enough to solve on our own. In human terms we are already defeated. We need God’s help because we face an impossible situation,” he said.

The resolution did acknowledged that within the Church there is a range of views on questions of biblical interpretation on various matters of Christian faith and practice, and called on members of the church to continue “to live together as people of faith” with these difference.

The debate to will be held at the 11th Assembly in Brisbane this month will test the Uniting Church’s ability to do just that.