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Scattered opinions are more than polarisation

The following opinion was offered as the Editorial for the December 2005 edition of Ruminations the quarterly journal of the Uniting Church NSW Rural Ministry Unit and was written by Bruce Irvine:

There are some who say that the Uniting Church is a church divided.

Divided implies that there are two opposing groups, or points of view. But on every subject I can think of, there are not two, but a huge range of points of view!

As the UC approaches the 2006 National Assembly, we are in great danger from those who would polarise us. According to them, there are “two mutually exclusive points of view” on matters of sexuality.

Their solution is to have a simple majority vote of all members of the church to determine who wins and who loses. In my view, that solution would make us all losers!

On issues of sexuality, as on all other issues, the attitudes of the people of the Uniting Church are scattered across a wide continuum.

There appear to be a very small number of folk who hold radical views at each end of the continuum, while the rest of us are scattered along that continuum, with a broad diversity of views on different aspects of sexuality.

Each of us is constantly moving along that continuum, sometimes one way, sometimes the other, as we respond to new knowledge, new relationships with one another, and new insights from God.

Furthermore, there is not just one sexuality issue on which there is diversity. For example, there is a diversity of attitudes within the UCA about marriage, divorce and remarriage, (though the Assembly, in 1997, approved a statement which has not been challenged). There are diverse attitudes to sex education in schools, though this diversity seldom arouses heated discussion.

What does arouse heated discussion is the diversity of attitudes about membership and leadership of homosexual people, and the diversity of attitudes about recognition of same sex unions.

Let us be clear. There are not “two mutually exclusive views” on either of these issues. There is huge diversity. And some of us hold relatively conservative views on one of these and relatively liberal views on the other.

For example, on the issue of recognition of same sex unions, there are some who say that there should be no recognition of same sex unions under any circumstances.  And there are others who believe the church should recognize and celebrate marriage of same sex couples in exactly the same way as it recognizes and celebrates marriage between men and women.

In between those positions, there is a wide range of attitudes. Some Christians are comfortable that same sex couples should have similar legal rights as heterosexual couples. Some Christians are happy that a same sex couple could have a civil ceremony that recognizes their loving relationship. And other Christians would be happy for the church to recognize a same sex union, provided it was not named “marriage”. The Anglican Church in NSW is considering recognition of “chaste” same sex unions.

• Will surveys and statistics solve our problem?

Some people claim that “80% of church members are opposed to homosexuality”. This is based on responses to the report “Uniting Sexuality And Faith”, published by the Assembly in 1997. Other people question the statistical validity of this, because it was a voluntary response, not a survey.

A survey by the Australia Institute in July 2005 found that only “35% of Uniting Church members believe that homosexuality is immoral”.

That appears to give a very different picture to the Assembly responses. This survey was conducted by an independent research agency (Roy Morgan Research) using interviews with 24,718 people across Australia.

Whatever 35% of us – or 80% of us believe, quoting survey results will not help us hear God. Batting “statistics” back and forth will likely produce more heat than light.

• Will a “majority vote of members” solve the problem for us?

I don’t believe it will. Why would we presume that the vote of 50.1% of any group of Christians is God’s final word on any subject?

If we genuinely want to hear God, the most creative way we can do that is to listen to one another; to offer each other grace and respect, rather than insist that everyone think the same.

The reality is that there is a wide range of views within the Uniting Church about same sex unions and about homosexual people in leadership.

Any proposal which attempts to polarise opinion fails to grasp the concept of unity in diversity. We don’t all have to think the same.  God created us as unique individuals and in God’s Kingdom there is room for us all – Thank God!