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Who does the ACL speak for? and why Kerryn Phelps was wrong on Q&A

On Q&A last night, John Faulkner, “a 65 year old Christian” asked “Who gave Mr Shelton and the ACL the right to speak for all Christians on the matter of marriage equality?”

Lyle Shelton, managing director of the Australian Christian lobby (ACL) answered that just as a union can’t claim to speak on behalf of every members, the ACL does not claim to convey the views of every union member.

There are two surveys that help answer the question of “Who does the ACL speak for?”

The National Church Life Survey reveals that 73 per cent of the people surveyed in the last 5-yearly church census said they opposed same sex marriage. A Galaxy survey organised by Australian Marriage Equality found that 53 per cent of people who said they were Christian supported same sex marriage. Both polls date from 2011. Unlike pollsters like the Barna poll in the US which ask careful questions to define what people mean by “Christian”, the Galaxy poll asked no clarifying questions.

So in opposing same-sex marriage, the ACL “speaks for” the majority of churchgoers, and (if you apply a qualification such as the historic creeds to work out who is a Christian), probably a majority of Australian Christians as well.

That is using the term “speaks for” as “expresses the majority view of” Australian Christians. The ACL is not a broad-based membership organisation: filling out a baptism certificate does not make you a member of it.

The ACL has good links with the leaders of Australia’s Christian denominations or church networks. At the 2010 “Make it Count” event held by the ACL, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott met a wide range of Evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic and Orthodox church leaders.

Eureka Street, a Catholic-based magazine, not generally regarded a fan of the ACL described it this way: “The broad representation at Old Parliament House and among the participating churches around the country was impressive, though still clearly tilted towards smaller evangelical churches and socially conservative Christians rather than the big established churches. But no church had more senior representation than the Catholic Church. Both Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney participated.”

The UCA was the only church at that event represented by someone other than an official leader. Dr Max Champion, chair of the dissident Assembly of Confessing Congregations in the UCA attended instead.

The ACL continues to take groups of denominational leaders to Canberra for meetings with politicians. There was a recent meeting with the Prime Minister. These are meant to be confidential. Eternity recently wrote about one because a church leader blogged about it. The ACL was a tad annoyed with us, but realised we were just being journalists.

On last night’s Q&A, panelist Kerryn Phelps questioned Lyle Shelton’s answer about who ACL speaks for.

“We don’t claim to speak for all Christians. Yes, our name is ‘Australian Christian Lobby’, but just as the Australian Labor Party wouldn’t claim to speak for all workers… we’re just being upfront about our name. But certainly all of the Christian denominations in Australia – all of them except for the Quakers who I’ve hardly heard of  – they all support marriage between a man and a woman, that’s their teaching,” said Mr Shelton

“40 faith leaders have distanced themselves from you last week,” challenged Dr Phelps, referring to an open letter calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to abandon plans for a plebiscite. The letter expressed concern that the debate in the lead up to the plebiscite would cause further division in Australian society, and that the “negative case” in a plebiscite would be put by religious groups and leaders like ACL “who claim to speak on behalf of people of faith generally, or religious institutions as a whole”.

Dr Phelps can be forgiven for being confused because most media coverage of the open letter issued by the leaders simply called them “church leaders” and did not say who they were. The only place Eternity has seen the list of leaders is on the website of the LGBTI newspaper The Star Observer, and it reveals that most are parish ministers, (for example Rev’d Dr Margaret Mayman, Minister of the Pitt Street Uniting Church, NSW or Rev’d Nathan Nettleton, Pastor at the South Yarra Community Baptist Church, VIC) or lay leaders like Melbourne’s Muriel Porter who are in some cases well known or influential but hardly official leaders of the denomination.

Lyle Shelton has made the comment several times (including to Eternity), that all of the leaders of Australia’s main church groups oppose same-sex marriage. Eternity agrees – and we are open to correction by readers. This means that ACL can truly say that they represent their views. Church leaders will also speak for themselves and ACL is careful not to present itself as an official peak council.