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Sex and splits: it’s what the media talks about

IF THERE is one thing that the media loves it’s a good fight, and the continuing debate over sexuality and leadership in the Uniting Church in Australia has been an established favourite.

Journey has researched the recent interest of major daily newspapers in this issue and predicts that media interest in the discussions at the 11th Assembly in Brisbane this month will be significant.

Journey tracked The Courier Mail, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald over ten years logging every article which featured the words “Uniting Church” and “homosexual” or “gay” in the headline or first paragraph.

While there was some interest in the release of the Interim Report on Sexuality in 1996 it was during the 8th Assembly in 1997 that newspaper reports escalated dramatically and quoted significant dissenting voices such as that of Rev Fred Nile, a renowned conservative minister from NSW, EMU spokesperson Rev Robert Iles and head of Sydney’s Wesley Mission Rev Dr Gordon Moyes.

Newspapers also quoted Rev Dorothy McRae-McMahon and others who had “come out” during the Assembly.

Apart from a small flurry of excitement over the participation of a group of Uniting Church members marching in Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras under the banner “Celebrating Diversity”, media generally lost interest in the discussion for almost six years.

Some newspapers tried to resurrect the issue during the 9th Assembly in July 2000, but when the Assembly determined not to consider any proposals on sexuality, little media attention resulted.

While Unitng Church members continued to march in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras each year and the Uniting Network continued to hold their “Daring Gatherings” the three newspapers basically lost interest until the matter came up again at the 10th Assembly in Melbourne in 2003.

The debate on the issue caught both the media and much of the wider church by surprise, with no articles on homosexuality and the Uniting Church in the three papers studied in the first half of 2003 and then thirty in the second half, after the start of the Assembly.

The Australian led the way flagg-ing the issue on 9 July, three days before the Assembly commenced.
The other two newspapers followed on 14 July, the day the proposal now known as Resolution 84 was presented to the Assembly.

Again the papers went to McRae-McMahon and Moyes, as well as the President as official church spokesperson.

The media activity around 10th Assembly debate is well documented by Dr John Harrison in a research analysis called ‘Splits’ and ‘quits’ which concluded that the majority of news stories were framed using conflictual language and largely ignored the complexity of the issues being discussed.

There was a small flicker of interest in late 2003 when Sydney Anglican Archbishop Peter Jensen offered “refuge” to dissenting Uniting Church members and some attention to press releases from EMU and the Reforming Alliance during 2005.

When looked at in graph form Journey concludes that the media are most attentive to the issue of Sexuality and Leadership in the Uniting Church at the times it is being discussed at the National Assembly, and that this is fuelled by the willingness of proponents at both extremes in the debate to talk directly to the secular media.

With the 11th Assembly timetabled to deal with the issue over a four day period it is reasonable to assume media attention will be intense in the weeks ahead.