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One man’s permanent departure from a congregation over theological differences in marriage got Liz Schneidewin thinking about faith, change and the power of words to inflict deep hurt.

Yesterday, a man who I had never met left the church.

I was sitting with my cherished friends, chatting comfortably about which stall I would man for the upcoming Christmas markets when the door to the second service opened and a man walked out.

I thought absolutely nothing of it. People are coming and going all the time and, I am almost ashamed to admit this, but after more than four years membership in my congregation I only know a handful of people by name, and those people, in many cases, are wearing name tags for the benefit of buffoons such as myself who rely on the nametags for most casual conversations.

The door opens, a man leaves the church. But this is no small leaving to rush to the supermarket to cater for last-minute guests. This is a “Last Time I Will Ever Step Through This Door” kind of leaving. It takes me a few moments to untangle my thoughts from the Christmas markets but I realise the man is speaking. And his words are not small words.

“I cannot stay,” he says. In his hand is the letter from the church council we have all received in our welcoming bundles of paper. I have not read it yet, but I know what it says. It is a letter affirming our church’s choice to provide our premises for same-gender marriages. The question was put to our congregation. Our congregation voted. The result was accepted, but not by everyone.

“I cannot stay here,” he repeats. We realise this means he is leaving our church forever. He talks about great regret, explaining the history of another church I know nothing about. His foreign accent suggests that he knows a great deal about it and has already lived through, or around, a terrible upheaval that shook the faraway church to its foundations. He says the word, “Eight Hundred”. He has seen it happen before. Eight hundred churches closed down over a similar decision. Eight Hundred. It’s an oddly specific number.

My friend, who is a member of the church council, is concerned. Her concern is a large part of the way she loves and I love her for it. She says the man’s name. She offers the man a conversation, a chance to talk about his feelings, but he refuses. He smiles, but he refuses as he draws closer to the door. And then he apologises to us all, as though what he is doing is hurting us in any way. And then I realise he needs it to hurt someone. He needs his decision to matter.

“I am an old man,” he says, but it is not what he is saying. “I cannot change,” is what he means.

And I understand. Not for myself, of course. As an individual I am thrilled that the Uniting Church is making its first tentative moves to heal a historical gash in the face of its faith. Any difference that does no harm but divides one group of people from another is wrong, must be wrong, to me. But as a human being I do understand. Something this man has been taught his whole life to be an unassailable truth is now considered a mistake. That cannot be easy to accept.

Less than a hundred years ago, people like me, people who considered themselves to be “Good Christians” were taught that people with a darker coloured skin than their own were naturally inferior and did not deserve to share a pew with superior people such as myself, much less a seat on a bus.

That was wrong. It’s easy for me to say it now because, from my perspective, all that happened in the past and “we know better now”. But the process that stands between “knowing” and “knowing better” is total and utter upheaval. This is change. People will be hurt. People are hurting. If we’re lucky they will only be hurt emotionally, but pain is pain.

No one likes letting go of what they see as being theirs and they will fight to keep it one way or another. When we feel we must fight, we choose the nearest weapon at hand. This man’s chosen weapon on this occasion is his words.

He speaks of an evil at the centre of the change. It is clear to me that he sees homosexuality as a kind of evil and at the moment it is undermining the sanctity of the church, like a woodworm or a rot boring into and through the crucifix that, if left unchecked, leaves behind nothing but dust.

He does not choose his words very carefully, and perhaps he doesn’t even know, but they hit their target.

My friend is on the church council. It was not their decision to change church policy in this way. This a change that is reverberating through the Uniting Church from its pinnacle to its base. It is a change long in the making and, at least to my mind, long overdue. But not everyone agrees, and in our society, we vote with our feet.

The man does not want to talk about it. He is eager to leave. He is an old man and he cannot change and so he is leaving the church. And so, he goes out the door for the final time but not before his parting words have hurt my friend on the church council.

My other friend and I comfort her. We heard a different message in the old man’s parting words and we try to explain this to our dear friend from the council but she has taken his words to heart. There is nothing we can do for her now but love her. And so, we do.

Soon after that I leave. I want to stay but my lift has arrived and I am going shopping. I feel like a false friend.

A man has left the church forever. A heart is wounded. And I go shopping.

This, too, shall pass. Perhaps.

I see the man one more time, at the supermarket a few minutes later. He leaves as I arrive. He is carrying bananas. That was his day. Make life changing decision. Buy Bananas. I don’t know what to think about that.

Liz Schneidewin

Liz Schneidewin is a Toowoomba based writer/editor who has written numerous plays, short stories, magazine and newspaper articles as well as stories for children. 



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