The strength of opposition to any recognition of same sex marriage was conveyed to senior leadership of the Uniting Church of Australia at the annual conference of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) in Tasmania last month.
Around 80 ACC members gathered in the village of Poatina, which is about 60km south-west of Launceston, for the three-day conference.
They were joined during the second day by the President of the Uniting Church, Stuart McMillan, and representatives of the Assembly Doctrine Working Group.
Mr McMillan was the first UCA president to attend a national conference of the ACC, which was formed in opposition to the 2006 National Assembly’s decision to re-affirm its position allowing congregations to install gay clergy.
Speaking after the conference, ACC national chair Dr Hedley Fihaki said the group had a mission to fulfil within the Uniting Church, which was keeping it faithful to Scripture and the foundational Basis of Union document.
“I believe we play a vital role,” Dr Fihaki said.
“Not in seeking to see ourselves as independent and outside the Uniting Church but in confessing Christ as Lord of the Church and ensuring our faith adheres to the teachings of the Basis of Union.
“I think that is particularly important when the church has become so diverse that it is no longer clear what it means to be the Uniting Church.”
On its website the ACC states that it exists to confess the apostolic faith, as outlined in Scripture, and oppose church teachings and practises that depart from this understanding.
Those teachings or beliefs are labelled as heresy and to condone or promote them is an act of apostasy.
The confessing movement – those who believe churches are deviating from core doctrines and need to be called back to them – is international and ecumenical.
Prominent representatives of other denominations were in attendance at the ACC conference including the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, Rev Dr Julian Porteous, the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, Rev Dr Richard Condie as well as Wendy Francis, from the Australian Christian Lobby.
Within the UCA, there are 155 ACC congregations nationally, including 14 congregations and four clusters (people who gather from different local congregations) in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.
The ACC has a strong base particularly among the church’s ethnic communities, many of which include a significant number of young people.
Mr McMillan described the ACC as a group that had to be taken account of.
“It is important for us in Assembly to give time to those significant networks in the life of the church and to listen and to understand what their issues are,” he said.
Dr Fihaki said he was concerned that sections of the Uniting Church were in danger of losing the essential defining differences of Christianity, what the Bible describes as the believers’ salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16).
“It looks to me just like the world. The uniqueness of Christ is not being shown to the world,” he said.
Although the ACC does not consider itself by any means a single issue organisation it is clear the group has one overriding area of advocacy.
“Our concern is that the drift in the UCA towards the normalisation of homosexual intercourse and its tolerance of other non-Christian beliefs will finalise its departure from the historic and ecumenical church,” the ACC website reads.
“Our aim is to strengthen its unity with the church by encouraging it to confess Christ’s teaching about the expression of our sexuality.”
Dr Fihaki said much was at stake in the same sex marriage debate and he refused to accept it was a side issue for the church.
“We are passionate about this issue. It is not a fringe issue but it is at the heart of the gospel,” he said.
He said the ACC, like many of the church’s ethnic communities, had become “a little tired” of the constant consultation on same sex marriage from the Church’s leadership.
Among some such communities there is a belief that continuous consultation was a stealthy way of breaking down their opposition.
“It would be more honest (for those in favour of recognising same sex marriages) to say ‘we want to redefine marriage for these reasons’ rather than continuous consultation,” Dr Fihaki said.
“The UCA has a formally endorsed position on marriage; it is not a case of the Church actually looking for a position.”
Speaking separately, Mr McMillan also said that he sometimes regretted the amount of time devoted to the marriage debate from within churches.
“I do not think it is the single most important issue to us as the Christian community today… but it tends to consume people’s energies and that frustrates me at times,” he said.
Dr Fihaki stressed that Scripture should guide the Church’s position.
“Doctrine is not based on the views of society but it seems to me there are some wanting to point to the views of society as the basis for doctrinal change,” he said.
This was a theme taken up by one of the conference speakers, Max Champion.
Mr Champion, founding national chair of the ACC, challenged those seeking to alter the UCA’s current Doctrine on Marriage – as being between a man and a woman – to present a case founded on biblical grounds.
He told the conference that the meaning of marriage within the UCA was a debate which must be decided solely on theological principles.
“If the UCA’s current position should change they (supporters of marriage equality) need to be able to say what is wrong with the current definition of marriage based on the Scriptures,” Mr Champion said.
He warned the UCA risked the dismantling of Christianity “as we have understood it through the Scriptures” by permitting ministers to conduct same sex weddings even if it became legal.
Mr Champion said while the option of providing a blessing was a way the Church might be seen to give ground on marriage without a complete change to its doctrine, he did not see this as an acceptable compromise.
However, Mr McMillan said he was aware that support existed for same sex unions to be blessed even among congregants who were opposed to any change in the Church’s definition of marriage.
In a special session ACC members met with representatives of the Assembly’s Doctrine Working Group and strongly affirmed their support for UCA’s current position on marriage.
Mr McMillan later urged both sides of the debate to build personal relationships which encouraged deep listening and respectful conversations.
“I think we are working on it. I don’t think we have reached it. Like Paul I would say we ‘press on towards the goal’,” Mr McMillan said.
“It is important that we are giving people the space to have the conversations they need to have. I think we are doing that in different places.
“I don’t think we have reached the point where we have strong enough relationships (throughout the Church) to have the kind of conversations we still need to have.”
Another issue the conference devoted time to was the perceived assault on the traditional understanding of sexual identity.
ACC national council secretary Rev Rod James warned of a deliberate campaign to break down the traditionally accepted male and female dichotomy.
Delivering a paper entitled ‘Standing Firm Together on Gender’, Mr James said he was concerned that a new view on gender – which argued that gender was simply assigned and can therefore be reassigned – was doing enormous damage to many young people.
While acknowledging that “a very small number of people” had an indefinite gender, Mr James said for most people their sex was an ontological given, therefore not something which could simply be chosen.
“Part of accepting the authority of God is accepting the gender he has given you. God your creator has made you who you are – a man or a woman,” he said.
“There are some who feel they should be a person of the other gender and they take extraordinary steps to undergo gender reassignment.
“However each cell of their bodies retains its original chromosome make-up (which means)… such people have to be content in knowing that they have not really changed gender, but are living as a person of the other gender.”
Mr James said while teaching gender fluidity to children had the perceived short-term benefit of making a small minority of children feel better about themselves, it had led to an exponential rise in the number of children who were entering gender clinics.
He said the Royal Children’s Hospital, in Melbourne, reported only one case of gender confusion in children in 2003 and about 200 cases last year.
He blamed initiatives such as the federally-funded Safe Schools program for promoting the new view of gender fluidity among children.
“Promoted as being an anti-bullying program it contains a deliberate ideology designed to break down the male and female view of humanity,” he said.
“Society has a duty-of-care to note that wherever children are taught they can choose their gender the incidence of gender dysphoria increases enormously.”
While the UCA has not made any public declaration on Safe Schools, the program recently received the backing of The Salvation Army.
The denomination’s Victoria State Council said that it had thoroughly reviewed the program’s associated materials in light of criticism around its agenda and had found those allegations “unfounded”.
Mr James stressed Christians who wanted to enter the gender debate needed to steer a “grace course” of understanding and compassion that was “balanced with honesty that is faithful to the biological realities and to the will of God”.
He quoted Australian Marriage Forum president Dr David van Gend who argued in his book Stealing from a Child – the injustice of marriage equality: “When we sit with a gender-confused child, gender realism (that you are the gender you were born with) sounds like tough love while gender gnosticism (fluidity) sounds compassionate.
“But it is a false compassion to affirm a gender-confused boy in his mistaken assumption that he is a girl. He is not, he is an effeminate boy – and we still love him.
“Tough love requires understanding the sources of his confusion, helping heal any emotional wounds and keeping him company as he finds his way through puberty, at which times most young people get over their confusion.”
Although the Senate’s blocking of the same sex marriage plebiscite may have quietened natinonal debate, the ACC is well aware it’s an issue the Church will continue to face. The group is steadfast and ready with the conference approving a declaration on marriage and family to be given to Assembly.