Sexuality debates within the Uniting Church have been around almost as long as the institution itself.
In 1981 – less than five years after the Church came into being – the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) was asked to consider the ordination of homosexuals by the Presbytery of Yarra Valley after a candidate informed the presbytery she was living in a lesbian relationship.
In response to a request for advice from the assembly, the ASC advised the presbytery that “in its view sexual orientation 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.’’
Neither the ASC nor the assembly has ever clearly ‘ruled’ on the question of ordination, instead leaving it as a decision for the council charged with ordaining – the presbyteries – to form their own position.
As a result some presbyteries have ordained gay and lesbian candidates and some have not.
Debate and discussion on the issue of same-gender marriage at the 2015 Assembly revealed continuing significant differences of opinion on matters relating to homosexuality.
Until the issue of same-sex marriage appeared, prompted by the prospect of a change to Federal marriage legislation, there had been something of a hiatus in these debates.
This was a relief for some in the Church who lamented the time and energy the issue had consumed, but a frustration for others who would like the Church to either affirm the current position on marriage or change it to be inclusive of same-gender couples.
Sexuality has held centre stage at many Assembly meetings since the fourth gathering in 1985 debated the report Homosexuality and the Church.
The Assembly sought to establish 1994 as a Year of Listening to enable the church to discuss issues of sexuality and sexual ethics.
However, if that year was meant to assist resolve outstanding concerns, that didn’t happen. The Church’s Interim Report on Sexuality, co-authored by former president and current Wesley Church minister Rev Alistair Macrae, was released in May 1996. It became arguably the most explosive document in the UCA’s short history.
The report was bound to be controversial for some given it spoke positively about the ordination of homosexual ministers, suggested pre-marital sex was not ‘living in sin’ and described masturbation as a “natural sexual activity (which) can be a positive experience”.
Not only did it attract much debate from within the Church but also from the mainstream media, which covered it – and the fallout – extensively.
In the following months Crosslight was flooded with letters of complaint about the report and its authors.
One letter writer stated: “If I found that any Uniting Church minister is a homosexual I would definitely find another Church.”
Praising the efforts of the task group, another letter writer said many of the recommendations would have positive outcomes if implemented and were to be applauded. But he went on to write, “however it is difficult to identify any benefit that would accrue from the ordination of people actively following a homosexual lifestyle”.
In August 1996, Rev Sir Allan Walker said the report was “thoroughly unrepresentative of the church” and the Year of Listening was “wasted” on the committee because it only listened to the pro-gay section of the church.
Mr Macrae described this criticism as “untrue and unfair”.
“Neither the task group’s process nor the mission of the Church will be well served by dismissive, inaccurate or unfair generalisations,” he wrote in September 1996.
So fervent did the debate become that former theologian Rev Dr Nigel Watson wrote an article in Crosslight imploring all participants to “lower the decibel level by at least 75 per cent and listen patiently to one another”.
The Church received more than 8000 responses to the report with almost 90 per cent – representing the views of 21,000 members – negative.
In Crosslight in May 1997, the assembly general secretary Rev Gregor Henderson said he was disappointed that a large number of responders confined themselves to the question of homosexuality rather than the broad range of issues raised.
At the 8th Assembly in 1997 – as the meeting debated the final Uniting Sexuality and Faith report – several members of the Church came out as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual.
However, the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress withdrew from the debate.
It meant that the Assembly was left to pass a motion which expressed sadness that the meeting had been unable to reach agreement on the report.
The 11th Assembly statement on sexuality expressed regret for those ministers and members who felt they had no option but to withdraw from the Church and also for faithful Christian gay and lesbian people whose lives the Assembly deliberations impacted.
Co-convenor of the Uniting Church LGTBIQ Network Keith Gerrard said he believed the church had failed to face the issue of sexuality squarely, preferring to be seen as all things to all people.
“Others churches have made statements against same sex marriage but the Uniting Church position seems to be one of not wanting to deal with it,” Mr Gerrard said.
Mr Macrae disagreed with Mr Gerrard’s assessment.
“The Assembly’s Working Group on Doctrine continues to consult, study and write on the issue and is preparing a report which will come through the ASC to the next Assembly meeting in 2018 where the matter will be discussed and debated,” he said.
Former Assembly of Confessing Congregations chair Rev Dr Max Champion argued that any proposal to change the Church’s current position on marriage needed to be grounded in theology, something he did not believe had occurred.
Dr Champion said he believed there had been a shift in thinking from some within the Church who had moved away from the Basis of Union position on diverse gifts of the Church to arguing for diversity to be the main theological base.
For 40 years the Uniting Church has grappled with the difficult and sometimes divisive issues of sexuality, and it’s a conversation that shows no signs of quietening down.