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A response to the Journey article “Sensitive Multicultural Conversation”

I guess subtle thinking is not much in vogue at present. Quick grabs and slogans are the order of the day. At worst, we resort to stereotyping or labelling those we disagree with, or those we presume may be in a different faction. Sometimes, we even misuse Scripture as a weapon. I think Christ’s church deserves better. I hope that my comments will generate some sensible, respectful and informed debate. I am very open to people correcting me, but I ask that it be done fairly.

Let me therefore offer some reflections on the report of the Queensland Synod as found in the Journey article by Bruce Mullan found on line at http://www.journeyonline.com.au/showArticle.php?categoryId=3&articleId=125.

In the following points, I do not argue for one side or the other in the debate about homosexuality, or homosexual leadership. I simply wish to offer some comments on the way we are conducting the debate, and frame the discussion in the hope that our seeking the will of God may be advanced. I do so with the prayer that the church will continue to listen to the Spirit prayerfully, and enter into ongoing discussion thoughtfully and with profound respect for each other.

Before we do that, however, I think we would do well to be aware that the issue of homosexuality is a deeply emotional issue. I suspect that this is one of the reasons why the volumes of reports and reams of information over more than twenty years have helped us only to a limited extent. For some of us, homosexuality arouses feelings of revulsion. Others rage about injustice. I think we would do well to remember that for some people it is an issue of life and death – as anyone who has conducted the funeral of a gay person who has suicided will tell you. Even if people have come to terms with their sexual orientation, it is still an issue which affects their identity, their worth in the sight of God and their happiness. Maybe we need a moratorium on thinking about homosexuality, and begin by working on our own feelings about it.

Having said that, I do want to offer some thoughts on the article in question.

  1. I celebrate, rejoice in and fully support the Uniting Church’s self-identification as a multicultural church. I was born overseas myself and, from time to time, attend and lead worship in a non-English speaking congregation of the Uniting Church. Most of my ministry has been in cross-cultural situations. I have been a member of the Assembly’s multi-cultural ministry working group. More importantly, I see the multiculturalism of the Uniting Church as a witness to the Reign of God in our midst (Acts 2:1-4; Rev. 7:9ff).
  2. It follows from this that we need to listen to each other and learn from each other. We can enrich each other’s understanding of the Gospel as we learn to appreciate each others’ perspectives. This, of course, means genuine dialogue and not one side, whether (usually) the dominant Anglo-Celtic majority or (more rarely) people from more recently arrived migrant-ethnic communities, wanting to control the outcomes. When there is genuine disagreement, it does not necessarily mean that one side is insensitive, “mono-cultural” and “imperialist”. Disagreement of views does not necessarily mean rejection of the people who hold them, or even a failure to take their views seriously. It may be so, but it does not necessarily mean that it is so. Furthermore, while we need to listen to each other, we ultimately listen for the guidance of God, who may not always want what we want, or see things in the way we think God ought to see them!
  3. I think we would all agree, whatever side we are on in this debate, that we need to heed carefully the words of 2 Tim. 4:1-10. That is not the prerogative of one side. I also think that we would also all affirm that we belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and the Uniting Church cannot go it alone. Part of this is that we do need to listen to our ecumenical partners, including those in the Pacific – but not only those in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the one holy, catholic and apostolic church around the world is just as divided as the Uniting Church on the issue of homosexuality and leadership by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The churches in my country of origin are. Yet ultimately, the Uniting Church, after careful study of scripture and tradition, and listening to our ecumenical partners, has the responsibility of coming to its own mind on this and many other issues.
  4. We need to decide if the area of homosexual relationships is a matter of doctrine or theological ethics. If I understand it rightly, doctrine consists of those things which are central to our faith, which are mentioned in the ecumenical creeds and which we hold in common with the whole of the church – such major matters as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the sacraments etc. The Basis of Union points to where our doctrine may be found. There are other matters which are secondary, and about which the church has different views from time to time and across different cultures. In view of the fact that the issue of homosexuality has relatively little prominence in the Bible compared to other issues (and Jesus is not recorded as ever having mentioned it), in view of the fact that it is not an issue mentioned in the creeds, and in view of the fact that the church ecumenical is just as divided as we are, it seems to me that the matter of homosexuality is a matter of theological ethics, not doctrine. It is nevertheless still worthy of serious discussion, because issues of Christian life-style, justice and human happiness are at stake.
  5. Has the Uniting Church “watered down its doctrines and theology out of fear and pressure from society”? I hope not. Nevertheless, along with Scripture and tradition, culture and experience are also sources of theology. Congress recognises that clearly when it appeals to traditional Indigenous views to support its views. Furthermore, if Scripture and tradition were not in constant dialogue with cultures and experience, it would soon have little meaning for contemporary people. God’s Spirit did not go to sleep when the canon of Scripture was finalised, or when the great Ecumenical Councils stopped meeting! Listening to migrant-ethnic groups (all migrant-ethnic groups, and not just some) is an important part of the process. We dare not short-circuit this. It is important to recognise however, that all migrant-ethnic members of the UCA do not speak with one voice on this issue. Furthermore, is listening to the diverse experiences of Christian gay and lesbian people not also important? They, too, have struggled with the issues, no doubt in a much more existential way than some of the rest of us.
  6. Is there one clear biblical view of homosexuality? The Uniting Church has engaged in serious and comprehensive biblical study for over twenty years. Our best biblical scholars have turned their minds to the issue. We have published some important documents. People on all sides of the debate take the Scriptures seriously. One side does not have a monopoly. It is unfair to accuse people who have agonised over Scripture, and come to a different view from ourselves, as being “unbiblical”.
  7. I think it is important that we be fair and factually correct in our conversations together. The Code of Ethics rightly requires it (3.2). I have repeatedly heard that the Tenth Assembly changed something. I was a member of the Tenth Assembly, and I still can’t see what the Tenth Assembly changed. Decisions about the selection, ordination and placements of candidates for ordination have always resided with Presbyteries. That is still the case. I would be grateful if someone could explain to me what the Assembly changed. What changed may have been that people became aware for the first time of our polity and how our system of “inter-related councils” works, but it is not the Assembly which changed that.
  8. Has the Assembly been duped by a “minority group who has seized control of the avenues of information and decision making”? The decisions made (or not made) at the Tenth Assembly were made by the 280 members appointed primarily by the Presbyteries and Synods across Australia. I think this is an unfair and untruthful accusation.
  9. Lastly, let me suggest a way forward. Few who read the Bible seriously would disagree that Jesus announced, preached, lived and inaugurated the Kingdom of God (or Reign of God) in his life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection. The Reign of God, therefore, always needs to be central in our theological reflection. Coming to understand more fully what the Reign of God is all about would be a useful way to put our whole conversation about sexuality into a Christian perspective – and help us find a way forward.