Liberalism, Sexuality and the Future of the UCA (Part II)

Published 24 September 2010

by Peter Bentley

I want to first comment on liberal development and reactions, rather than conservative and evangelical reactions because the liberal development of the Uniting Church has been far more pronounced, and in particular there has been the progressive orientation to sexuality issues, which while only one issue, is really the catalyst for the present debate and predicament within the UCA and the key point when one considers the future of the UCA.

I believe most commentators would agree that the Uniting Church is trying to develop as the mainstream liberal theological church in Australia with its primary focus being social justice and responsibility (I elaborate on this in part I on the development of liberalism in the UCA).

Historically for such a young denomination, the most important factor in the continuing debate was the Interim Report on Sexuality and the final report on sexuality presented to the 1997 Assembly, documents now probably more well-known than the Basis of Union. Looking at the Interim Report itself, the style and editorial layout of the Interim Report unfortunately or unwittingly focuses the reader's attention on issues related to homosexuality. It is the main area where significantly different or radical conclusions are outlined and clearly endorsed. In particular, the last chapter focuses all the report back onto a particular aspect, reinforcing the introduction which set the context.

Why was the church so polarised over this report?

I believe that rather than helping the debate, or provide a new context (because the Interim Report did not really provide anything new to the debate), the traditional liberal positions on sexuality were presented and deliberately campaigned for in a way that marginalised those with a different point of view, thereby sealing the direction and future of the debate. Why was the smaller liberal side so committed to change, and why was there such a reaction from the liberal side to the responses and then a continuing re-visioning of the church's history and context?

I believe that much of the negative reaction to the responses from certain groups can be traced to the first couple of weeks in November 1996 (around the time of the deadline for responses) and the reactions from some Assembly staff and key players in the debate. Reactions included being "traumatised", "shocked", and "outraged". Some people outlined that the responses signalled the need to split the church. The sheer volume which arrived during this period and the overall weight of the responses appeared overwhelming to many people committed to change at the 2006 Assembly and led to a continuing campaign and even more entrenched positioning to ensure change in the church. After the initial reactions, there were two broad responses from the liberal group:

  1. The view that respondents could not have read the report

    Some people found the large negative reaction simply impossible to believe so they presumed respondents could not have read the report. This of course implies that if people had read the report they would of course have reacted differently, or perhaps it was the standard line of just more time was needed to make people understand and thus approve. For example, a member of the Task Group, in answering a question at the Assembly highlighted the form letters in the responses. This unfortunately could have helped to promote the myth that all the negative responses were just form and petition based letters from people who had not read the report and this had not really considered the theology and issues raised by the report. You need to read my statistical analysis to understand the true picture of the substantial and detailed responses received.

  2. The view that the negative orientation of the responses was simply not true or could be shown to have been wrongly reported or a different interpretation made

    The strength of the responses and the volume encouraged a view that said it couldn't be true, there had to be another "story". Never before had the Assembly received such a volume of material. However, one of the most interesting responses I heard was ‘after all there were only 8000 responses and this was only a small percentage of the church". In fact this person implied that everyone who did not respond could be taken to be in agreement with the report's theological direction. Unfortunately this viewpoint does not acknowledge the fact that the number of responses was many times any response level received for any other assembly document. Also many people chose to respond through their relevant parish or council or a small group. That is why the actual number and comparison of parish responses is very significant in my analysis and also quite amazing given that responses were voluntary.

    As to whether those people who failed to respond where really not at all "troubled", I believe one could also argue on the same logical plain and perhaps anecdotal level that a good percentage of the members of the church did not respond because they believed that the Assembly would not listen to them. Certainly a common remark in the reviews and letters to Assembly and church papers after the release of the final report was "Why did we bother', and this theme has continued as evidenced later consultations. Another issue was the fact that the responses were not a survey. I became fascinated by the traditional line -"it was not a survey". Of course this should have been obvious to anyone reading my report. I believe one has to be careful of setting a dangerous precedent by fostering a perceived implication of the line that "it wasn't a survey", namely that we cannot take the responses seriously. Yes, it was not a survey, but I stress that any group which did not take such a response seriously is in danger of irreparably damaging its basis for being. It has raised a question for me - ‘Does our church seriously want feedback from its members and actually believe that God could speak through this way, or it is just paying lip service to a process of consultation'?

    Another line often trotted out was that the responses only reflect the orientation of the people who responded, that is, you always have large groups of negative people who respond to material. This is an interesting argument, but how we really know this, and what does it say about the comparatively large number of positive responses to the Interim Report? How do we regard these responses, as the lunatic ravings of radical liberal fanatics? They have certainly not been categorised in this way, and I have often wondered what would have been the response from some circles if the percentages had been reversed. When asked to comment as to whether the responses were representative of the church, I commented, basing my opinion on my knowledge of National Church Life Survey material and National Social Science material. I believe that in the broad sense they were representative of the church, though I believe that both the affirming and negative response rates were slightly above what a random survey would have revealed at the time. Also, the responses revealed a much smaller group of people who fitted into the ‘don't know' category. Respondents usually expressed a strong opinion, no doubt prompted by the orientation and seemingly non-partisan nature of the Interim report. Interestingly, and this is not widely known, a small number of significant theologians and scholars, who were very affirmative of the direction of the report also blasted the report for its polarising and caricaturing tendencies and for failing to fully present an adequate theological case.

    There is also the fact that the responses to the IRS were treated differently in terms of process and decision-making than responses to other reports. Having studied or read reports on the responses to other reports from the Assembly there are many other cases I could name, but two will suffice for the time.

    • Bishops in the Uniting Church. A small number of responses were received, and following consultation the responses to this ensured that the church shelved plans to introduce an Episcopal system of government.
    • Ordination and Ministry (1992 - 1994)

    The Commission on Doctrine's reports on Ordination and in particular its position on the diaconate and the sacraments. Compared to the responses to the IRS, less than 1% of the number of responses was received. Interestingly a similar percentage to that, which was opposed to the direction of the Sexuality report, was against the position of the Commission. The Commission was already aware of considerable opposition to its position and quite plainly admitted defeat and changed its position.

Well, what does the future hold?

  1. There will probably be significant conflict and continued problems at the local regional councils of the church in terms of decision-making. There will be a prolonged and deep decline of the church with many non-viable and dysfunctional congregations but there will also be pockets of evangelical groups, and a handful of liberal congregations.
  2. If there is more radical change or reinforcement of a liberal position on sexuality then a significant split will occur, with the result that within 15 years the Uniting Church will have probably about 10%-20% of the number of viable congregations it has now and many of these may be migrant-ethnic congregations remaining in the church but almost separate, perhaps in Commissions (like the Korean Commission) or separate presbyteries. The Uniting Church will be known as a small church, with few churches in rural areas, and mostly niche type churches in the cities. It will have a large network of social and community services.

What are the options?

There are many valiant attempts to look at options for the future.

  1. Networks have been suggested - like what has developed in the One Synod and One presbytery models, but the truncation or dismantling of UCA polity has not been adequately addressed, and presbyteries in these Synods have largely become functional and under the Synod.
  2. Theologically aligned presbyteries. NSW has already granted a quasi presbytery status (to Korean congregations as a commission), so this could be the way some parts of the church will develop (if a Synod allows).
  3. Perhaps dual Synod models if the property issue becomes a significant one.

Whatever develops there will not be any real peace unless the following factors are addressed.

  1. Theological Education

    Evangelicals are going to have to be allowed access to other colleges for training, or at least provision of greater diversity in training for ministry.

  2. Involvement in the decision-making process

    Genuine involvement of evangelicals needed in decision making process, including broadening the Business and Facilitation Committees of the important meetings of the church.

  3. Pastoral Oversight

    The challenges to the proper functioning and oversight provided by presbyteries need to be addressed. How can the church maintain its polity, especially the responsibilities of Presbyteries, when they have the potential to become increasingly dysfunctional and divided and struggle to find competent members to undertake the many tasks assigned. These issues helped two Synods move toward a One Synod and One Presbytery model.

  4. Ministry placements and Candidature

    The church will need to address how the placement and candidate processes are undertaken, so that continuing and debilitating debates are not held within presbyteries especially where the presbytery is not reasonably homogenous in its membership.

  5. Noting of a Sexual Ethic

    Overall I perceive a need to outline or confirm in some way the traditional position and understanding of the majority of the Church with regard to sexual ethics. Please do not think I am saying the church has to be ruled by survey, but unless the views of the members are similar to those of the leaders you will always have continued conflict.

Conclusion: Two Churches

As I have continually raised, the Uniting Church needs to address how it can continue to allow different two fundamentally different ecclesiologies to develop, particularly when one has the tick by the official leadership. I question whether post-modernism is possible in a church of our history, development and the age of our members. Here is a key factor for the current debate - our present dispute is quite natural and destined to happen when the majority of the membership basically believes one thing and the Assembly tries to tell them it doesn't, shouldn't, or perhaps never actually did.
I believe the way sexuality has been handled in the Uniting Church has established a dangerous precedent and this is partly why our doctrine, our Basis of Union and our unity in Christ continues to be challenged and the future of the Uniting Church is clouded.

This paper was originally given at an address to the open meeting organised by the Reforming Alliance and EMU and held during the September 2004 NSW Synod.

Revised 23 September 2010