“Uniting Church” Disunity Over Sacred Unions

In Australia, a church ceremony that was not a gay wedding has attracted the ire of gay marriage foes. In doing so, it has highlighted many of the challenges, tensions and achievements facing the churches over LGBT inclusion.

On one side:

NEITHER partner wore white, and everyone concerned carefully distanced themselves from the words ”wedding” or ”marriage”.

But the intent of the same-sex ”sacred union ceremony” at Brunswick Uniting Church was fairly clear: vows and rings were exchanged, there were prayers and blessings, and a multi-tiered white cake to aid post-service celebrations.

Damien Stevens, 30, who celebrated his sacred union with Chris Todd, 22, saw it as emotionally and politically significant to have their relationship recognised and blessed in church.


They were one of four couples who were joined on the same day in not- Holy Matrimony.

Not everyone was convinced:

”[Gay unions] undermine 2000 years of Christian tradition, and you only do that if you have a good theological case – and that hasn’t been made,” says ACC chairman Max Champion. ”We don’t want to harass gay men or women, but to understand where they are coming from is quite different from moving ahead and advocating some equivalence of this [gay] relationship with marriage.”

Dr Champion, minister of St John’s in Mount Waverley, has complained to Uniting Church president Alistair Macrae, who told him that the hierarchy did not intend to reopen the issue.

Dr Champion says calling the ceremony a ”sacred union” is just playing with words. He wants a moratorium on such services until they are properly debated by the church’s national assembly.

(Read the full report at The Age)

Dr Champion here misrepresents “2000 years of tradition”. In fact, these unions are a lot closer to ancient church tradition than modern opponents would like to admit. “Traditional” marriage as we know it, based on a romantic relationship freely entered into by two opposite partners and solemnized in church, is a modern invention. Biblical marriage was more likely to have been a legal contract to protect property and inheritance rights between two men – the husband, and the wife’s father. For the wealthier classes in early European history, formal marriage was similarly a affair arranged in negotiations between families, for political or financial benefit. For poorer people with no property to protect, formal marriage was not required, and often ignored. Sacramental marriage in church was an obligation only for the clergy.

On the other hand, church ceremonies for commitments between two people based on love relationships, were recognised and enshrined in liturgical rites – for male couples. In the Eastern church, these were known as rites of “adelphopoeisis”, in the Western Church as “Sworn brotherhoods”. These were clearly not “the same” as modern marriage – but nor was anything else.  They were certainly based on “friendship” rather than erotic love as we understand it today: many of the couples known to have entered then many not have had physical relationships, and may also have had wives. On the other hand, the conception of “friendship” between men seems to have been much stronger than in simple buddy relationships we know today, and many of these pairs did include sexual relationships, even if not all did so.

In admitting same sex couples in specially written liturgies of sacred union, the Uniting Network has not ignored, but rather has drawn on, an important strand of authentic Christian tradition.

The controversy however, also highlights another element of continuing dispute over LGBT inclusion: that of ordination as pastors of openly gay or lesbian men or women in committed relationships. This has been a regular, contentious issue at church Assemblies ever since the church was first founded when many congregations of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists of Australia came together under a union. (Today, it ithe third largest denomination in Australia). This extract from Wikipedia shows the constancy of the contention, and the lack of clear resolution:

  • 1982 Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) decided that sexual orientation was not a bar to ordination and left the decision about candidature with the Presbytery.
  • 1997 Assembly after an emotional debate, a decision on the issue was not made
  • 2000 Assembly decided not to discuss the issue of sexuality.
  • 2003 Assembly attempted to clarify the church’s earlier position:
    • a resolution was passed recognising that people within the UCA had interpreted the scriptures with integrity in coming to two opposed views
    • That based on these different views, some concluded that a gay or lesbian person in a committed relationship could be ordained as a minister and others not.
    • The recognition of the two positions failed to distinguish between orientation and behaviour, this surprised many as it went further than the 1982 Assembly Standing Committee decision.
  • Post 2003 Assembly:
    • Uniting Network, a group for supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCA members welcomed the decision. Although some saw it as a compromise from their preferred position. (Uniting Network formed out of bi-annual gatherings of gay Christians begun in 1994.)
    • many members of the UCA and particularly EMU condemned the decision
    • The Reforming Alliance was set up – representing EMU, many ethnic congregations and the many in the UAICC.
    • The ASC subsequently varied the wording of the resolution to remove reference to specific positions, so as not to affirm any particular standard of sexual ethics. The ASC also issued an apology that better communication did not occur leading up to 2003 Assembly
  • Leading up to the 2006 Assembly, a church wide process of response, reflection and preparation has been initiated.
  • 2006 Assembly considered the matter again and did not reach consensus:
    • Members of its 11th Assembly meeting in Brisbane agreed they were “not of one mind” on the issue of accepting into ministry people who were living in a committed same-gender sexual relationships.
    • They said that “notwithstanding the hopes of many in the church”, the Assembly “is not prepared to exercise further its determining responsibility in this matter”.
    • One key  element in the Assembly’s resolution was an assurance that congregations who do not wish to receive into placement a minister who is living in a committed same-sex relationship will not be compelled to do so, and that congregations willing to have such a minister will have their decision respected;

The division is clear – but so is a commitment to recognising the validity of the opposing views.

This recognition and respect for decisions in conscience, represents a way forward, on ordination, and also on same sex unions.

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