The Uniting Church is characterised by a diversity of cultural and theological perspectives. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church as it examines its stance on issues such as same-gender relationships.
The topic of diversity was discussed throughout the Queen’s Birthday long weekend at the biannual Daring Conference held at the Centre for Theology and Ministry.
Daring is organised by Uniting Network and connects LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex), CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) and interfaith communities together for a weekend of storytelling, prayer and friendship. Approximately 65 people attended the 2016 conference, which focused on the theme ‘honouring our diversity’.
Rev Sani Vaeluaga is presbytery minister of pastoral care in Gippsland. He said honouring diversity begins with acknowledging the universal needs of every human being.
“We are all human. We may speak different languages or eat different food and make different choices, but we live in this world and breathe the same air and yearn for love,” he said.
Mr Vaeluaga said there is great diversity within CALD communities and attributing the opinions of one person as representing the views of everyone in that community can be misleading.
“It really bugs me when an issue is discussed and somebody stands up and says ‘we Samoans think this way’,” he said.
“We are all different in terms of thinking and upbringing. That diversity exists and we need to recognise that. For me, the diversity that people offer is a real blessing.”
Ken Moala is a member of Southport Uniting Church on the Gold Coast and part of the steering committee of the Global Interfaith Network for People of All Sexes, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression (GIN – SSOGIE). He spoke about the need for solidarity between LGBTI members from different faith backgrounds.
“We really need to understand ‘the other’. We need to feel their pain; we also need to share the love,” he said.
Another theme that emerged from the discussions was finding commonality in a diverse community.
Toni Paynter, who was educated at an all-boys private school but now identifies herself as ‘gender diverse’, encouraged the attendees to remember our shared humanity.
“We have more in common with one another than we have differences. And most of the differences are perceptions about who we are and what we belong to,” she said.
“We tend to overlook the simple things in life – we have a magnificent teacher in Christ who always welcomes people.”
Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler, former chairperson of the Assembly’s National Reference Committee for Multicultural and Cross Cultural Ministry, said reducing debates into a binary ‘right and wrong’ argument can be divisive. Rather, a theology of hospitality may pave the way for greater engagement between people with different opinions.
“What I discovered over the years is that ‘honouring’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘liking’ – honouring under a covenant with God means loving people unconditionally, even if you don’t agree with them,” Dr Koh-Butler said.
“What I get really excited about is ministering to communities that have different needs met in the congregation. Not everyone has to have the same version of the gospel but what they have in common is the one God who meets all the different needs.
“They can still be a community that encourages each other by sharing the differences in their story about the one God.”
A topic that generated much discussion was the Uniting Church’s stance on marriage and same-gender relationships. At the most recent Assembly meeting, the Church resolved to hold a culturally-appropriate discussion on marriage into the next triennium.
Attendees shared their views on same-gender marriage with Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones and Rev Dr Geoff Thompson from the Assembly’s Doctrine Working Group. Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan was also present to hear their thoughts. Many participants spoke passionately about their personal experiences as LGBTI members of the church community and why they believe the Church should broaden the definition of marriage to include people in same-gender relationships.
Many older LGBTI people fear discrimination when they enter aged care services. Uniting AgeWell organised a session about how it provides LGBTI-inclusive services to its residents, as well as training for its staff.
David Ross-Smith shared the story of how he and his partner, Rev David Hodges, were supported by AgeWell staff after Mr Hodges was diagnosed with dementia. AgeWell has now set up an annual musical concert series in Mr Hodges’ memory.
David Landis-Morse from the Banyule Network of Uniting Churches attended Daring for the first time. He said the conference challenged him to see Christianity from other cultural perspectives.
“One of the things I really enjoyed was Amelia’s bible study on the first night where she was talking about how we exist in ambiguity. So rather than have a definite black-and-white idea about Christianity it’s having the strength to not always have to nail things down specifically as right or wrong,” he said.
“For a lot of it, it’s experiencing Christianity outside my own culture, so that means I don’t necessarily have to have a right or wrong or immediate response – I can learn and listen.”
Mr Landis-Morse hopes the Church can regain its prophetic voice so that the next generation will be people with the capacity to speak powerfully about their beliefs.
“As we move to a situation where Christianity is no longer automatically a respected part of society, we really need to discover what it means to be a church in society,” he said.
“I hope we would rediscover the radicalness of who Jesus was and how his message was really radical.”