THE UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA AND HOMOSEXUALITY
The Uniting Church in Australia is the third largest Christian
denomination in Australia, being
surpassed in membership by Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
It was formed in 1977 as a result of a merger of the Presbyterian, Methodist and
Congregational churches. The church has an unusual organizational
structure. It is "governed by
a series of inter-related councils" within which the national Assembly has "determining
responsibility for matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline."
They follow a form of local option concerning the ordination of gay and
lesbian candidates who are in loving, committed relationships. Individual
presbytery can automatically reject all such candidates. Other presbyteries can
consider the nature of a candidate's relationship as one aspect of their
The Uniting Church is not the only mainstream denomination in
Australia to have ordained homosexual men and women. But, it may be the
first to admit that it is possible. While some homosexual ministers have
come out in the past, the decision of "clarification" at the 2003
Assembly, and the negative reaction to what for many was an unpleasant
revelation, will not make it easier for openly homosexual candidates for
ordination to find welcoming congregations and presbyteries.
The Standing Committee advised presbyteries that: "the sexual
orientation of a candidate is not and has not been in itself a bar to ordination. A
decision on the suitability of a candidate may of course depend among other things on the
manner in which his or her sexuality is expressed" They continued: "because
all applicants and candidates for ministry of the Word, ministry of Deacon and Specified
Ministry of Youth Worker are to be assessed on an individual basis in accordance with the
Regulations, it is invalid for any presbytery or synod to establish or maintain policies
which prevent certain categories of people from having their suitability for ministry
considered in the specified way." However, this policy is not necessarily
reflected in practice. Lesgay candidates for ordination who are open about their sexual
orientation were always rejected by their presbyteries. Homosexual clergy often feel that
they have to remain in the closet and not reveal their orientation to their congregation.
Openly gay clergy find that many congregations refuse to accept them as their minister.
The Standing Committee decided that "all baptized Christians belong in Christ's
Church and are welcome at his table, regardless of their sexual orientation."
This implies that sexual orientation is irrelevant to eligibility for confirmation,
membership and participation in the life and mission of the church.
1992 Task Group
An Assembly Task Group on Sexuality was formed to examine a wide range of
concerns related to human sexuality.
In 1996-MAY, the Task Group issued an interim report, the discussion paper "A
Journey Into Sexuality". The report concluded:
||"The historical distance between our times and biblical times means [that] we
can not simply translate the writers' conclusions about sexuality into our own
time.....Our task is to bridge the gap between the ancient world from which the scriptures
come and our contemporary situation."
||There are many verses in the Bible which condemn
specific homosexual behaviors, like homosexual rape, homosexual
prostitution, etc. The authors concluded that "there
is no legitimate reason for rejecting homosexuality or homosexual relationships."
||they support those homosexual relationships which are " characterized by agape,
the love, caring and compassion embodied in Jesus Christ".
||there is "no evidence that a person who is a homosexual is less fit for
ministry, or that a homosexual minister damages the credibility of the ministry, any more
than anyone else...To reject a person from the ministry because that person is a
homosexual is a rejection of their personhood."
||"The phase 'living in sin' is an alienating concept" which does not
reflect "the ethnic and theological diversity of people's relationships."
The response from church members, elders and ministers was overwhelmingly negative.
Also in 1996, a National Church Life Survey (NCLS) was conducted to determine
church members' opinions about gays and lesbians in the church. 1
Some findings were:
||56% favor accepting celibate gays and lesbians as members
||43% favor accepting gays and lesbians as members
||12% favor accepting gays and lesbians in leadership positions
||27% agreed that "Gays and lesbians are as healthy and moral as anybody
else"; 58% disagreed and 15% were unsure.
Surprisingly, there was little variation in opinion among different age groups.
In 1997, the Task Group issued its "Uniting Sexuality and Faith"
report for presentation to Assembly members in advance of the 8th annual Assembly in
1997-JUL. 2,3 They affirmed that:
"We were not asked to conduct a survey of opinions of members of our church nor to
undertake market research to discover how the UCA might present the most palatable
approach to sexuality for the secular world. Instead we were asked to assist church
members make faithful decisions relating to sexuality and to help people allow the light
of the gospel to shine into our created nature as spiritual/sexual beings called to
glorify God in every dimension of our lives."
The Task Group concluded that:
||(Unanimously) heterosexual and homosexual people were brothers and sisters in Christ.
||Having a homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual was not, of itself, morally good or bad. "It is
not our orientation but what we do with our sexual nature that constitutes right or
||The Bible is silent about homosexual orientation.
||It could not affirm the practice of referring to Bible passages that have traditionally
been considered anti-homosexual. Agreement about the interpretation of those passages was
not the central challenge for the church.
||Some of its members believe that homosexual acts are contrary to the will of God and "remain
as part of a disordered world that is in rebellion against God and therefore should not be
endorsed by the church."
||Some members believe the same standards should be applied to people of all sexual
orientations, and that loving, faithful, long-term homosexual relationships could be
blessed by the church.
||They had "no reason to believe that a person with a homosexual orientation is
less fit for ministry than a heterosexual person," or was more likely engage in
||They had concerns about the statement "'celibacy in singleness and faithfulness
in marriage'...it underestimates the complexities of human sexuality." It also
might be used unjustly against certain people (presumably those who are not permitted to
The Task Group recommended that:
||The Assembly affirm the principles of the 1982 and 1987 Standing Committee. This would
preserve the status quo regarding homosexual ordination.
||That Standing Committee appoint a group which would make recommendations to the next
Assembly "on how the church may respond to lesbian and gay people who wish to have
their commitment to a life-long faithful relationship affirmed by the church."
||The church affirm "the joys and responsibilities of God's good gift of
sexuality" and recognize that sexual behavior which is exploitative and demeaning
is unacceptable and contradicts God's purpose.
||The Assembly approve a policy statement on marriage which would define marriage as: "the
freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live
together for life." In case of irretrievable marital breakdown, the church would
recognize that "divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to
||The church develop a method of liturgically recognizing the end of a marriage and assist
in the ex-spouses' process of "grief, repentance and moving on in God's
At their Eighth National Assembly in Perth, in 1997-JUL, the delegates debated a new
policy concerning gays and lesbian in the church. They were scheduled to vote on
homosexual ordination. 4,5 However, migrant, ethnic and
Aboriginal members felt that they were not ready to discuss the issue:
||Reverend Djiniyini Gondorra, chairman of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander
Christian Congress said that if the denomination voted to ordain gays and lesbians
that "...the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress will review its
stand with the church we love, the church we trust."
||James Latu, spokesman for
the migrant community said that they had no wish to split the denomination, but that his
group was not ready either. He said "I want to say to you, we are not ready; you
are flying, we are not even walking."
The Assembly concluded that they were unable to reach agreement. The issue
was delayed until a
Assembly. The Assembly also
offered "deep regret to those whose personal pain remains unalleviated by its
inability to reach decisions at this time". They made a commitment to continue to
attempt to reach an agreement in the future. Some gay and lesbian members wept in
Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon, the Church's second most senior office-holder, revealed at
the Assembly that she lived in a committed relationship with another woman. Calls were
made for her resignation. Three other gay or lesbian clergy also came out of the closet.
Reverend McRae-McMahon resigned later. She said: ""What was
happening was there was a huge carry-on around my person which was sapping our energy and
really taking away the focus from where it should be, on much more important issues than
Church delegates, meeting in Melbourne on 2003-JUL-17, reiterated previous
decisions relating to the consideration of gays and lesbians for ordination.
The Assembly Standing Committee introduced their Proposal 84 "Membership,
Ministry and Sexuality." It called on members of the church to seek to live
together in peace as people of faith, and accept the diversity of belief
concerning of same sex relationships. The committee recognized that it could not
make an authoritative recommendation which, if passed by the Assembly,
would define the place of persons in same sex relationships in ministry to be
effective throughout the denomination. In the preamble to the Proposal,
they recognized that a serious lack of consensus existed within the church. Many
members have adopted mutually exclusive positions. The Committee realized
that: "The Church needs to find a way of living together with different but
genuine and faithful views on the issue of same sex relationships in the Church."
13 Quoting from the Assembly's unconfirmed minutes, the
preamble to Proposal 84 originally stated:
"There are members of the Church who have reached the conclusion
that 'celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage' is a
faithful Christian standard for Christian sexual ethics;
"There are members of the Church who have reached the conclusion
that 'right relationships' as outlined in Uniting Sexuality and Faith
is a faithful Christian standard for Christian sexual ethics..."
The minutes, if accurate, may be lacking in precision. The "celibacy"
viewpoint is not seen as "a faithful Christian standard" by most of
the conservatives within the denomination. It is the only "faithful
Christian standard" that they find acceptable.
The Proposal also reminded the church’s Presbyteries and Synods that when
considering candidates, ordination or commissioning for ministry
decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. Such decisions would depend
on a wide range of criteria that might include consideration of the manner
in which the applicant’s or candidate’s sexuality was expressed. 11
Proposal 84 was approved. It allows a type of local option.
Presbyteries and Synods may accept
sexually active gays and lesbians for ordination. However, those Presbyteries
and Synods which refuse to consider them for ordination will
not be disciplined. Church President, Dean Drayton, said: "The Assembly has
decided that we are a diverse church, we have great and genuinely held
differences, but instead of allowing these differences to divide us, we will
hold together in something greater—our love of God and our love of the Uniting
Comments by some of the delegates indicated the depth of the division within
||Ian Weeks, minister at Coffs Harbour and chair of the New South
Wales Evangelical Members, said that: "Presbyteries, the regional
bodies of the Uniting church still have the responsibility of determining who is
ordained. That has been the case within the Uniting church since its
inception....But unfortunately I guess yes, the sexuality issue has the
potential to cause great devastation in the daily life of the Uniting church in
Australia....We see the issue of sexuality as being an issue of the
nature of the Gospel, the way God calls us to live as Christian people. The issue
of sexuality is fairly clear cut. I think there are certainly moves within the
Uniting church and other denominations to somewhat blur that basis, that
teaching that we understand the Bible has to say to us on the issue of
||Reverend Harry Herbert executive director of Uniting Care's NSW said
that little will change as a result of the resolution. "In the structure of
the Uniting Church, the assembly cannot tell any presbytery who [it can] or who
it can't ordain. I would predict that in most of the regional councils or
presbyteries it would still be extremely difficult for a person who was openly
gay to be accepted as a minister of the church."
||Mary Hawkes, a spokesperson for the conservative Evangelical Members within
the Uniting Church group, predicted a massive loss of members because the
resolution was passed. She said: "It looks to me ... that there is a real risk that some elements of the
church will just say, 'Well, that's it', and pack their bags and go. And I'm not
sure that the church is ready for that." Concerning a loss in church
membership, she said that: "It's hard to tell at this point in time, and it would vary from state to
state, but it would be significant." She estimates that about 3,000
evangelicals out of the total membership of about 1.2 million were planning to
leave. She said, "If there's going to be an exodus, my hope is it will be a
mass exodus—I don't want people going in dribs and drabs."
||Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon, a retired priest and lesbian in a
committed relationship predicted that the
change would unify the congregation. "This decision...[will allow us] to
walk together and see how we go, and to learn to know each other better and
therefore find the truth." She does not anticipate a split in the
church. "If people choose to leave, that is their decision and I would be
very sad about that....But there are many times in the history of the church where decisions are
made and people cannot live with them. When the church fought against slavery,
people left the church. When the church fought for the ordination of women,
people left the church." She rejected the suggestion that the
resolution would lead to moral decay in the church. She said: "As a lesbian I am not in moral decay. I am in a loving and faithful
relationship that brings me life and hope and that my family supports and that
has enriched my life as a Christian. People die over this -- that is moral decay"
She also said: "This is not primarily about sex. I'll be 70 in a few months,
I'm not on sexual adventures. This is about love, it's about the freedom for
people like me to love another person body, mind, heart and soul - as you
[heterosexuals] are permitted to." She asked members
who had threatened to leave the denomination to reconsider. "I say: please
stay, we love you, we respect you and I want to talk to you ... let's just get
to know each other." She feels that the ruling might actually
encourage individuals who are looking "for a place where people are asking
the hard questions" to join the church.
||The Reverend Sealin Garnett, chairperson of the United Aboriginal and
Islander Christian Congress said that for cultural reasons "...it is
difficult for many of us [Aborigines] even to discuss such matters in
public, but we don't believe homosexual practices are right or godly."
||The Reverend Liva Tukutama, a migrant church leader, speaking only for
himself, said he saw parallels between the struggles of the gay community and
migrants. He said "I don't like talk of the will of God. No one has a
monopoly on the will of God."
The Sydney Diocese of the Anglican Church
expressed "grave concern" at the resolution. They warned that allowing
homosexual ministers might threaten the future merger of the two denominations. Peter Tasker, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, said: "Homosexual practice is
incompatible with scripture." 7,8,9,10
Reactions to the 2003 Assembly decision:
On 2003-AUG-22, representatives of the Evangelical Members within the
Uniting Church in Australia (EMU) delivered petitions containing 20,423
signatures to the Assembly President, Rev. Dr. Dean Drayton, and to the
Assembly Standing Committee who were holding their first meeting after
the 2003 Assembly. The signatures represent about 1.7% of the total
membership of the denomination. According to EMU: "The petition expressed
the deep spiritual and emotional dismay and concern of Uniting Church
members and adherents following the Assembly's decision on sexuality
("Resolution" 84). They believe that the concept of 'right relationships'
has never been adopted by the Assembly and that its recognition places the
Uniting Church outside the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in
contravention of paragraph 2 of the 'Basis of Union.' They also are appalled
that the proposal was not referred back to other Councils of the Church as
the Assembly is obliged to do where a matter is of vital importance to the
life of the Church."
EMU has called a special National Summit for 2003-SEP-22-24
of evangelical/orthodox people from within the membership of the Uniting
Church of Australia. The theme of the summit is "The Way Ahead?"
They are seeking as broad a representation of conservative membership as
possible. 12 EMU leadership has suggested, as one possible
resolution to the homosexual issue, that conservatives may have to leave the
Uniting Church and found a "Reformed Uniting Church." However,
they recommend that fellow conservatives take no action at this time.
Responding to negative reaction to the Assembly decision, including the
EMU petition, the Assembly Standing Committee issued an apology that
more was not done to make the membership aware in advance of the issue would
be considered at the Melbourne meeting. The Standing Committee also
amended the proposal by deleting the two paragraphs in the preamble to
Proposal 84 which referred to the two sexual ethics ("Celibacy in
singleness and faithfulness in marriage" and "Right relationships").
They said that these were only used to illustrate differing views held by
church members. Neither viewpoint has ever been endorsed by the Assembly.
Stephen Webb, "Homosexuals not welcome in leadership" [Report on the
National Church Life Survey] is at: http://assembly.uca.org.au/assembly97/ncls.htm
"No change for church in sexuality recommendations" at" http://assembly.uca.org.au/assembly97/recommendations.htm
A copy of the "Uniting Sexuality and Faith" report can be ordered from:
Keryn Ashworth, "Tears as Church Defers Gay Ruling", The West
Unknown author, "Church Gay Decision Faces Delay", The Herald Sun,
- Australian Broadcasting Commission, radio news article, 1997-SEP-1.
set to ordain gay priests," Townsville Bulletin, 2003-JUL-16, at:
Barney Zwartz, "Uniting Church set to approve gay ordinations," The
Age, 2003-JUL-17, at:
Heather Gallagher, "Church
split on gays decision," News.com.au, 2003-JUL-17, at:
"Gay ministers 'unlikely' to be ordained," Australian Broadcasting
Corporation News Online, 2003-JUL-18, at:
"The Uniting Church's sexuality debate and 10th Assembly conclusions,"
"UCA 10th National Assembly: Ministry and Membership (Sexuality),"
"Extract from unconfirmed Minutes of the UCA Tenth Assembly, Melbourne,
17th July, 2003," at:
Essay originally published: 1998-MAY-5
Last updated: 2003-SEP-16
Author: B.A. Robinson