Window on the World - Australia
Greetings in Christ from Evangelical Members within the Uniting Church in Australia (EMU). The Uniting Church in Australia officially came into being on June 22 1977 when the Methodist Church, (most of) the Presbyterian and the Congregational Churches agreed to unite to further the cause of the gospel. The term 'uniting' was used to signal a work in progress.
Very early on in its history (1982) the issue of the ordination of homosexual people was raised in the councils of the church and a statement was made that 'homosexual orientation was not in itself a bar to ordination'. EMU came into being in 1991 when the issue of the ordination of homosexual people came to the fore again and it was obvious that the agenda was to make it acceptable for practising homosexual people to be ordained and to exercise ministry anywhere in the UCA. EMU was formed out of the realization that for too many years evangelicals within the UCA had abdicated their responsibilities in the councils of the church and were now reaping what they had chosen not to sow. In recent weeks our membership has risen significantly after falling back over the last few years.
The 10th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) was held in Melbourne in July 2003. A proposal entitled 'Membership, Ministry and Sexuality' was brought to the Assembly. The Assembly was assured that this proposal would change nothing, merely make statements about our current practice, and it was designed to smooth over the differences that exist in the UCA regarding sexuality. The motion was passed easily by formal vote. However those who voted against it were all evangelical and these people, who included the Aboriginal Christian Congress, were deeply alarmed at what the proposal allowed. There was such an outcry, including a petition of over 20,000 signatures collected by evangelical members within the UCA (EMU) over only two weeks, that the members of the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) amended the wording of the proposal at their first meeting in August. This in itself was a precedent. Some words, which were seen to be contentious but which were only descriptive, were removed but the intent of the motion remained the same. These amendments are totally insufficient to calm the troubled waters of the UCA. (See the Assembly website: www.emu.asn.au for the wording of the document as it now stands.)
The Assembly decided not to refer its decision to the Councils of the Church for concurrence as it is obliged to do on issues which are vital to the life of the Church, on the basis that the decision didn't change anything.
There are three contentious issues for evangelicals:
First is the inference that it is alright for people in the Church to hold mutually exclusive views on some issues from the same scriptures.
Second is that for the first time people have realized that the UCA sees no problem with ordaining practising homosexuals. There has been a jump in understanding from 'homosexual orientation' to 'homosexual practice' which is very disturbing. This jump has certainly been one of interpretation rather than one that has come through the properly constituted processes of the church. (In 1982 it was stated that homosexual orientation was not, in itself, a bar to the ordination of a person.)
Third, that the Assembly did not see fit to refer their decision on for concurrence. It is clear that the Assembly does not understand the vast majority of members of the UCA.
This, clearly, is not acceptable. Christ is not divided and neither is his Word open to mutually exclusive interpretations. The reaction to this in the pews has been incredible. Thousands of people are up in arms and struggling to understand how the church to which they have given so much of themselves has come to this point. They are absolutely bemused by the understanding that practising homosexuals can now be ordained and settled within the UCA.
EMU called meetings in most of the capital cities and then decided that because this issue was touching people from a much wider sphere than EMU, there was a need for a national summit to discuss the way forward. This historic event was held in Sydney from September 22-24, and 'The Reforming Alliance within the Uniting Church' was formed. While our unity in Christ was very real, three different approaches emerged in response to the increasingly liberal climate of the Uniting Church. These three strands will support and encourage one another in the Reforming Alliance. Ecclesiastes 4:12 helped us very much to see how three different approaches to the same problem could work and stay together.
The three groups are:
Those who wish to stay and work wholeheartedly for change within the current structures. They will review their position from time to time.
Those who want to stay in the Uniting Church in Australia but move to parallel structures to bring about change. They will review their position from time to time.
Those who feel they have to leave the current structures of the UCA but remain members of the Alliance and wish to encourage those who remain.
It is envisaged that individuals, congregations and even Presbyteries or Synods could choose to belong to the Alliance. The groups within the Reforming Alliance are flexible and will help people or councils to move from one group to the other as necessary, functioning simultaneously.
Almost 21,000 people signed a petition to the ASC in August requesting that the issues raised in Resolution 84 of the 10th Assembly in Melbourne be referred to the Councils of the Church for concurrence. The ASC ignored this request. In response, the first action of the Alliance was to survey each council of the Uniting Church in Australia and as many individual members as possible, to ascertain their position with regard to the decisions of the Assembly and the ordination/settlement of practising homosexual people. This survey was distributed in October, including translations for the benefit of migrant and ethnic congregations. The results were collated in November and made public (though at the time of writing this had not yet happened).
A confessional statement is being drawn up for the Alliance along with a statement of purpose. These will be found on the EMU website at www.emu.org.au Membership of the Alliance is open to individuals and any council of the UCA which is in agreement with the Confessional Statement and Purpose of the Alliance and adheres to the Basis of Union and the creeds and statements which are a part of the Basis. There is no fee to belong but donations are very welcome.
There were 73 people at the Summit representing every State and Territory. 34 were EMU members and 39 were not EMU-members. They included lay pastors, ministers, theological students, members of migrant ethnic congregations and a representative of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC).
The summit resulted in a creative response to the spiritual malaise of the Uniting Church that avoids a mass exodus by orthodox/evangelical Christians at this point in time. The creation of the Alliance is a positive move to help bring about much needed reform. Only God can achieve such reform, and we must follow God's leading. These are exciting times.
Where we will end up remains to be seen. What is clear is that the structures of the Uniting Church, after only 27 years, are failing badly. There is a need for new wineskins and a new dependence on the Holy Spirit to lead us forward. Some are saying that the Assembly was a prayerful meeting and the voice of God was heard. How can God lead us in a direction which is contrary to scripture? It is fascinating to see how clearly many people in the UCA are divided at this time while many others remain confused. There are some like ourselves who are horrified by what is happening and others, who include the Assembly officers, who don't understand what the problem is all about. We must return to a place where our unity is truly in Christ and not in our (unbiblical) diversity
We value your prayers as we seek God's way forward for the Uniting Church in Australia.
Mary Hawkes is the National Chair of EMU and the Interim Chair of The Reforming Alliance.
Headline Winter 2003/4 pp 5-5.