Uniting Church evangelicals consider their future

“Two integrities” solution is being tested

The Uniting Church in Australia is now using two marriage rites that reflect “two equal and distinct views on marriage to honour the diversity of Christian belief among its members”. The process of making that work – or discovering it will be difficult – has begun with local churches deciding how the decision to adopt two forms of marriage affects them.

The conservative lobby group within the UCA known as the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) has announced that it “offers to congregations the role of a replacement assembly in the life of its confessing congregations”. This largely symbolic act of protest targets the UCA’s National Assembly, which is the official peak decision-making body of the denomination.

Protest is in the air. Eternity has also reported the the UCA’s largest Church, Newlife on the Gold Coast will drop “Uniting” from its name. One emerging theme from the protests is a call for the UCA to adopt “non-geographic presbyteries” (regional councils) which would allow evangelical churches that hold to traditional marriage only to band together. Newlife church, the evangelical networks in South Australia and the ACC are all backing the proposal.

Referring to proposals discussed at the ACC meeting held at Wesley Mission in Sydney, a pastoral letter from the UCA President Deidre Palmer states, “In recent days there has been some public commentary made about the possible creation of alternative conciliar and related structures within and outside the Uniting Church in Australia.

“These statements have suggested, among other things, a ‘replacement’ Assembly, a separate College for the training of ministers, and the creation of alternative Presbyteries.

If a Uniting congregation leave, or are forced out of, their church property for holding traditional view of sex and marriage, please host them on your property if you can. — Kamal Weerakoon, NSW Presbyterian Moderator

“I am concerned that members and those in specified ministry who adopt and/or subscribe to these statements, inadvertently or otherwise, will place themselves outside the Church’s formal governance structures.”

If any congregation was to decide to leave the UCA, some other church leaders have offered to provide a place of refuge. Eternity understands that none of these leaders are actively seeking out UCA contacts to defect.

“This is not a time for gloating,” Kamal Weerakoon, NSW Presbyterian Moderator, has written in their official magazine, Pulse. “This is a time for grief, compassion, and prayer.

“This is not a time to merely criticise denominations and institutions. It is a time to care for the people who make up those denominations and institutions. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, shed his precious blood for them.”

Crucially he adds, “I appeal to all Presbyterian ministers, elders, and congregations to do everything you can to support and encourage our brothers and sisters within the Uniting Church who seek to hold on to the biblical gospel. Meet with them, pray with them, and show them they are not alone. If a Uniting congregation leave, or are forced out of, their church property for holding traditional view of sex and marriage, please host them on your property if you can.”

The Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, Richard Condie tells Eternity, “We are already doing that with a Korean congregation that was meeting in a Uniting Church in Hobart. They now meet in an Anglican Church building. We would of course welcome anyone else who needed to find a home.” (Update: Some members of a still-active UCA congregation have left and that congregation still meets in a UCA building, a spokesperson from the UCA Victoria and Tasmania Synod tells Eternity. A new group now meets in an Anglican church.)

His colleague, Rick Lewers, Bishop of Armidale, says he would encourage his local church ministers and wardens (in charge of properties) to make any refugee congregations welcome.

Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has a more diplomatic response, critical of the UCA but avoiding any hint of suggesting congregations should leave. “The decisions of the Uniting Church National Assembly should be of grave concern to faithful Christians of all denominations.

“On my behalf, Bishop Michael Stead has been in discussions with the leaders of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations and others.

“We urge them to stand firm in the face of a departure from the doctrine of Christ and compromise with the spirit of the world by the Synod of the Uniting Church.

“They have our support and our prayers as they consider how best to continue faithfully proclaiming the gospel together.”

At the ACC gathering, Stead told the UCAers that the “two integrities position is theologically unsustainable if the ‘true believers’ in traditional marriage don’t believe it. The ‘true believers’ in same sex marriage don’t believe it either.” However he added “I believe you have good grounds to stay put. You are not the ones who have departed from the faith once delivered to the saints.”

My gut feeling is that the energy being expended on having the decision on marriage declared ‘vital to the life of the Church’ would be better spent on finding ways to live together in our disagreement on this issue – faithfully and with integrity. — Andrew Dutney, former UCA president.

There was one important proviso: they could stay but only if they were not muzzled from proclaiming their belief in traditional marriage.

The matter of whether “non-geographic presbyteries” presumably with voluntary membership by churches could have a jointly held view on traditional marriage will be critical to the unfolding UCA situation.

After a Queensland presbytery (of the old geographic sort) recently passed motions adopting a conservative view of marriage, the UCA’s “Polity Committee” issued a ruling that presbyteries could not bind other bodies such as their constituent churches. Whether a similar ruling is applied to a new sort of non-geographic presbytery will be crucial.

Trying to get the National Assembly to reconsider their decision by declaring it a matter “vital to the life of the church” which begins a recall process is the wrong response, according to Andrew Dutney, a former UCA president.

“My gut feeling is that the energy being expended on having the decision on marriage declared ‘vital to the life of the Church’ would be better spent on finding ways to live together in our disagreement on this issue – faithfully and with integrity. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is the Uniting Church’s particular vocation in a divided society and a divided world. The so-called “culture wars”, in which this is just one battle field, are carried into the life of the church by its members, but it is our calling to show what it means to love our ‘enemies’ within the Body of Christ.”

The idea that the UCA is a particular sort of church that has a sort of humility which enables it to hold the two opinions of marriage is taken up by Ji Zhang, UCA National Assembly Theologian in residence.

“The marriage conversation is an opportunity for mutual dialogue and mutual discovery about what really holds us together as a church. This is a pastoral conversation and we need to offer careful listening to the challenges within the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities, and the real impact upon their members. It takes empathy to journey with people about how the marriage conversation has stretched their congregations in difficult circumstances. … If we are to stand true to the mission of God calling the UCA – reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation – we must also stand true to this opportunity for better and deeper sharing together.”

Whether any UCA congregations leave the UCA or not over the inclusion of same-sex marriage within the life of the church is yet to be determined. Reports from New Zealand indicate that some 20 congregations may leave the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia following the acceptance of blessing same-sex marriages. In a compromise to keep the church together, blessings of civilly married same-sex couples rather than performing same-sex marriages in church has been adopted.

In a recent visit to the NZ Anglican Bishops, Archbishop Glenn Davies proposed adopting ‘Distinctive Co-existence’, with separate NZ Anglican churches within the historic Anglican Communion.

The current proposals for non-geographic presbyteries in the UCA seeks an Australian model of ‘Distinctive Co-existence’.