Responding to UnitingJustice on Marriage Equality
Published 22 June 2012
Who Speaks for Who?
It is helpful to note from the outset that the UnitingJustice submission, as it states in its Conclusion, is a "rights-based" approach grounded in human rights statutes. It is important to recognise that it is not intended to be a theological rationale,---- it is more like a crafted opinion on social policy. At the same time it is a concern that this opinion also claims to represent and speak for the whole Uniting Church. (eg "The UC believes, UC supports, the UC is committed" etc.)
The document also states that, "The Church does not comprehend a discussion about the rights of Individuals in the wider Civil Society" At this point rather than representing the Church in a Civil context the submission also sets out to pastorally lead and enlighten the Church itself. While the intention of the Justice Unit to stand by Individuals and speak in a relevant way into the Civil and Christian context is commendable, it is clear the Church needs to do its own theological and pastoral homework first, if it is to be an authentic voice and to pastorally take its membership with it. This is always a better option than appearing to be a bureaucratic leadership sold on its own idea of social innovation.
The Civil Context
The Submission gives attention to Individuals and to Civil Society as distinct from Corporate Community or a Christian Society. That is, there are legal rights that proceed from the State that should be accessible to all people in the Community regardless of their personal or religious values. Generally speaking this distinction is important to recognise because there are still many Christians who are reluctant to acknowledge that times have moved on and that the values of the State can no longer be expected to necessarily express Christian values. Speaking into this context the UnitingJustice submission adopts a Civil, Social, Rights based approach rather than trying to present a Biblical definition of Christian marriage.
Having said this, while the submission appreciates the Individual, and Civil context, in its enthusiasm to do this it ends up depreciating and compromising the Historic Faith and the very reason for its existence as a Christian Church. It does this by depending heavily on, social conventions and today's cultural definitions of discrimination and equality. These terms and concepts are limited to advocating legal access and individual rights. Approached in this way the Christian perspective quickly succumbs to being a casualty to contemporary social engineering and to shallow popularism. An example may be helpful here. Christians cannot afford to demonise the word "discrimination" when its primary meaning is to, "see the difference between things." Jesus calls us to discriminate and to see the difference between good and evil, His kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. While the laws of the State are legitimate to bring order to Society, Christians are entrusted with a deeper perspective of life.
Being Gospel Faithful
The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is both personal and public, it cannot be kept for ourselves but unlike Sharia law Christian values are never imposed on people or the State. Neither should Christian values prevent other people from advocating what they regard as a right or equality. Amid the democratic process and the formation of public policy however Christians are called to discriminate for the sake of the Kingdom and to be ‘light and salt' in the world. They are called to be responsible and to take a bold stand for the common good of individuals and a healthy social order.
This is where the Church has failed to do its homework. The submission refers us to various theological statements of the National Assembly and it claims that as the Uniting Church, our "support for human rights is based on how we understand the Christian faith." However, the submission then goes on to point out that we are in a process of an, "on-going and evolving discussion about the nature of our faith and doctrine." Not only are we undecided about the faith our support for human rights is based on, but it is also evident that when it comes to the conclusions of the submission itself there is little that is "on-going or open." Sadly this contradicts the claim that the response is based on an understanding of the historic faith. In fact it is the other way around; it becomes clear the faith is shaped by how UnitingJustice socially interprets human rights.
Honouring the Balance
It is not difficult to agree on the inherent dignity of the individual and the high place the submission gives to the importance of human Community but it fails to honour this balance by emphasing the importance of the individual right at the expense of a collective health and right of a Community and State. The Church needs to convince the State, the Community and its members that it has seriously done its homework by looking at the implications of the proposal it presents. The UnitingJustice or the Uniting Church has not attempted to do this or to acknowledge the radical change its proposal brings to a core fundamental institution of Society. While it is said the Church is interested in building a Society where all people are valued, how can any Faith-Community value and respect others if it fails to recognise or respect the significance of an institution that can be described as the "glue" that Civilisations have built "Community" upon. It appears to fail to consider the social implications of modifying the gender basis of marriage or to be willing to explore other possible options for Civil or Public recognition. Neither has the Uniting Church ever set out to assure its members or anyone that what the Justice Unit is proposing fits in any way into Orthodox Christian belief. We are constantly reminded that the Uniting Church believes in human right standards, processes and structures that promote human dignity and peace, but how can it be serious about doing this without its own assessment of what it believes and some agreed basis for promoting dignity and peace?
At Point 2 the paper attempts a pastoral view meant for the Church. While Community and solidarity with the marginalised is upheld, the submission identifies diversity as a gift that seemingly justifies an individual interpretation of the Bible and Christian faith. While it says UnitingJustice does not want to divide the Church there is no expression of what it may mean to be guided through this issue by "one Faith, one Lord, or one Church." It is on the basis of diversity and re-examination that doctrine is regarded as an ever illusive, "internal evolving discussion." This position enables the Church to appear to be progressive while at the same time it postpones decisions about important contemporary issue such as sexuality and the ‘long standing doctrine of marriage.' The Church is also exhorted to be inclusive amid this diversity but the Submission then offers selective recognition to the pain of homosexual people while excluding those of orthodox or evangelical conviction within the Church.
At point 3, the submission validates its view with a progressive air by referring to the Councils, Courts and Conventions of bodies like the United Nations. It appeals to legal cases, international responses and social dysfunction as reasons for legal access and the redefinition of marriage. It calls people to reconsider the effects of legislative arrangements on particular groups of people without mentioning the protection or security the law offers the Community from the exploitation of minority groups. Marriage in this context is reduced to merely being a way of acknowledgment that validates a human commitment. Sadly, like sexual relationships, Christian marriage as defined by the UC in 1997 is portrayed as a matter of continuing dialogue. Rather than the Church providing leadership these important issues now join a growing list of beliefs that the Uniting Church is uncertain about.
The Broader Issue
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the Submission from a Christian perspective is that it gives the impression that restoring feelings of self-worth, personal dignity, equality and respect for homosexual people is solely a matter of altering legislation and changing the meaning of marriage. The feelings of a marginalised minority group of people can never be unimportant to a caring Church but it is true to say that the matter of equality, low self-worth and relational breakdown is a much broader issue than the Church is willing to recognise. According to current statistics there are many thousands of people who "feel diminished" in their relationships, including those already within the Institution of Marriage.
The real question here is where is the Church with a Vision and with Mission Resources that will dare to seek to strengthen relationships between people across the Community by offering relational programmes based on what it means to know and relate to Jesus Christ?
Rev EA (Ted) Curnow 14 June 2012