The experiment of progressives and evangelicals in one church

Note: This is a news story that does not attempt to analyse the theological correctness or otherwise of the events it describes. Instead, it brings recent events to readers’ attention.

Lulu-OHa’angana Senituli has had enough. The Minister of the Word at Sunnybank Uniting Church in Brisbane’s southern suburbs has resigned. His reason? “I have resigned as a Uniting Church Minister, so I am able to join my family as a lay member of the church to worship God together. I have been exiled for six months.”

His resignation comes “after being subjected to six months of a ‘Re-education Program’ to widen my theology and Biblical framework.”

In Senituli’s view, “the Uniting Church in Australia leadership wants the evangelicals out of the church. The ACC [Assembly of Confessing Congregations, a conservative group in the UCA] has been demonised and labelled fundamentalists and extremists. Yet, evangelical congregations are the grassroots of the UCA, growing numerically and with children and youth ministries.”

The Queensland branch of the UCA will have a different view to Senituli, but they have declined to give their perspective to Eternity. This may be for pastoral reasons.

Senituli tells Eternity that he has not resigned simply because of the “two rites” decision of the UCA to allow same-sex marriages. The 2018 decision of the UCA Assembly gave Uniting Church ministers and authorised celebrants the freedom to conduct or to refuse to conduct marriages for same-gender couples. The church adopted a marriage rite for “two persons” alongside its traditional rite.

But Senituli’s troubles began after that change. “On Sunday 29 July, 2018, my congregation (Sunnybank UC) held a Special Congregational meeting and overwhelmingly voted to join the ACC.”

“From that time I became the subject of persistent ‘complaints’ lodged with the Presbytery and the Synod in all areas – initiated and organised by Presbytery ‘handlers’.

“Every aspect of my ministry and the ministry of the congregation was under the microscope. Complaints came thick and fast including my preaching, pastoral care, use of power as a minister, failing to present both marriage integrities with equal weight and ‘passion’.”

Once again, we note that we don’t have the official UCA perspective.

“We have been trying as a congregation to live out our faith at the local level … It’s an impossible situation.” – Lulu-OHa’angana Senituli

Senituli tells Eternity that other ministers have been affected. He gives examples of others “terminated—dismissed and evicted from the manse.”

“The major problem and source of the conflict is the [decision of the] Assembly in 2018 that has created an internal state of contradiction. [This] naturally leads to unavoidable conflicts based on unreconcilable biblical and theological differences that enter into the substance of the faith.”

Senituli believes it is getting too hard to be an evangelical in the UCA. “The ongoing struggles of evangelical and reformed orthodox Christians in the UCA is evidence that the decision by the UCA Assembly … can’t be lived out without conflict under UCA polity.

“We have been trying as a congregation to live out our faith at the local level, in the light of the fact that the Assembly has now changed the doctrine of the church. It’s an impossible situation.”

But that is not the full picture of the life of conservatives in the UCA.

In South Australia, the Generate Presbytery has proved to be a gathering place for “orthodox, evangelical” congregations. It has attracted those troubled by the UCA National Assembly’s marriage decision in 2018. It has allowed them to concentrate on evangelism, growing their churches, and raising strong leaders.

A leader from the Assembly of Confessing Congregations – the same group that Sentituli belongs to – tells Eternity that the Generate Presbytery has formed a place he is happy to minister in. (In UCA-speak, congregation means a local church. Presbytery is normally a geographical group of churches but, in SA, Generate gathers evangelicals from across the state.)

Stu Cameron, who has moved from Queensland’s largest UCA Church, Newlife, to NSW’s largest – the Wesley Mission, as CEO/Superintendent Minister – is an example of a high-profile evangelical pastor gaining advancement in the UCA. Newlife has planted churches in Brisbane and Coolangatta from its base on the Gold Coast, and under Cameron was supportive of other plants. More recently, Cameron has urged the UCA to allow other movements to plant using its building.

If the Uniting Church represents something of an experiment in adopting two rites of marriage – a signal to both wings of the church to stay in – then we are seeing varied results.

A world of different approaches

In the wider worldwide Methodist movement, different paths are being taken by various branches. The 12 million-strong United Methodist Church (which reaches into the US, Africa and Europe) is in tension, with a proposal to split with their evangelicals and form a new Global Methodist Church. This move has been delayed by COVID.

A “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” negotiated in 2019 has the evangelicals volunteering to leave, with a system of church and regional plebiscites to decide who will go. A smaller group of “Liberationist” Methodists have decided to leave the UMC, believing the church has not moved fast enough towards LGBTQIA rights. A strong LGBTQIA lobby group called “Love Prevails” announced it was leaving the UMC last week.

The wider Anglican communion has undergone a de facto fracture over human sexuality …

The UK Methodists have voted to have same-sex marriages in a system similar to the UCA but more restrictive, with local churches unable to refuse the use of their buildings for same-sex marriages.

As a result, the Irish and Kenyan churches have voted to distance themselves from the UK decision.

In Anglicanism, a similar polarisation has taken place, with the latest incident being a realignment in Birmingham, Alabama. The Cathedral of the Advent, an evangelical parish, has made peace with its more progressive diocese (region). It has moved closer to the Episcopal Church’s liberal mainstream, using their prayerbook rather than a more evangelical one written by the minister, Andrew Pearson. He has stepped down as minister to join the conservative breakaway Anglican Church in North America.

The wider Anglican communion has undergone a de facto fracture over human sexuality with the emergence of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference), a network of conservative national churches (for example, the Church of Nigeria) and dioceses, such as Sydney. In effect, GAFCON has replaced the formal structures of the Communion for many conservatives and has supported breakaway churches in places where the progressives are in charge – such as the Anglican Church in North America.

New Zealand’s Church of Confessing Anglicans  (CCAANZ) is another example of a breakaway, with Australian evangelical bishops consecrating the CCAANZ’s own Bishop, Jay Behan.

The Church of England (CofE) General Synod (church parliament) received a 130-page report last week on an earlier experiment in tying opposing factions together – those for and against women’s ordination.

The report examined how the aims of “mutual flourishing” had worked for the mainstream of the CofE and the two groups opposed, traditional catholics (TC) and complementarian evangelicals (CE). Since the CofE first appointed women bishops six years ago, it has become apparent that it is very difficult or impossible for a TC or CE minister to be appointed as bishop.

The report found that the special bishops set aside to serve the two minority groups needed either extra support or more bishops; that there was plenty of conservative evangelical ministers but they found it hard to be placed. The minorities still feel they are marginalised, and women ministers feel confronted by having fellow ministers who do not believe they should be there. That experiment is still running.

Meanwhile, Lulu-OHa’angana Senituli is sitting with the people as an ex-minister worshipping in his local church at Sunnybank.