From Friday, September 21, the Uniting Church (UCA) will be the first of the three major Australian Christian denominations to endorse same-sex marriage, and thus the first to offer gay and lesbian Christians the option of a church ceremony.
This move comes nine months after same-sex marriage was made legal in Australia, and as a result of a decision made at the Uniting Church’s national Assembly in July 2018.
It permits those being married in the UCA to choose between two authorised marriage liturgies – one that continues to use the traditional language of “husband and wife” and one that speaks of the union of “two people” and is therefore open to same-sex couples.
The choice also allows clergy, like myself, to exercise individual freedom of conscience. Ministers will not be compelled to marry a same-sex couple if it goes against their personal understanding of marriage. This freedom reflects the diversity of opinion on the matter while upholding a fundamental commitment of the UCA to maintain diversity in unity.
While a shock for some, for others this change has been painfully slow. It is the result of decades of conversation, education, resourcing, discernment, and debate that began in the early 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the UCA Assembly – the church’s national council responsible for policy and doctrine – actively encouraged conversations about sexuality and theology.
They produced Bible studies and other resources for congregations. They also commissioned doctrinal groups to examine the matter in response to growing requests for clarity on such matters from their regional bodies.
Notable among these resources was the 1997 Report “Uniting Sexuality and Faith”, which proposed the development of liturgies to bless same-sex couples.
At a national level, motions relating to sexuality were often on the Assembly’s agenda. In 1997, the big issue was whether LGBTIQ Christians could be full members of the UCA, with the implication that such members could then serve on leadership committees and have equal status within the church.
No decision was made at that time, in part because of the UCA’s commitment to Aboriginal and Islander Christians , who were unprepared to accept such a move towards inclusion. The Assembly advised continued respectful conversation.
In 2003, the issue was whether lesbian and gay Christians could be ordained as ministers in the Uniting Church. The reality was that several gay and lesbian clergy had been ordained, some of whom were out, and others who had kept their sexuality private.
As the Assembly itself has noted at times, homosexual people have always been involved in the church. The question is, how openly and what can the church say theologically about the diversity of human sexuality?
Ordination of openly gay clergy signified a shift away from the traditional view that anything other than a heterosexual orientation was sinful and towards a view that considers diverse sexualities part of God’s good creation.
Over 75% of that meeting supported the motion that sexuality was not, in itself, a barrier to ordination, making it the first Christian denomination to allow ordination of openly gay ministers.
At each of these stages, opponents claimed decisions that increased inclusion of LGBTIQ Christians would split the church or be its demise. While such data is notoriously difficult to track, there is little evidence great numbers have left over such decisions. Nor has the church been split.
Critics of the UCA’s marriage change, both within and external to the UCA, have argued this decision sets the UCA at odds with worldwide Christianity. That is not quite accurate. While the majority of Christian institutions worldwide continue to limit marriage to the traditional arrangement of one man and one woman, several mainstream churches already marry same-sex couples.
Australia’s Uniting Church now stands with Canada’s United Church of Christ, the USA’s Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUSA), the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church of Sweden, and closer to home, the Methodist Church in New Zealand in marrying same-sex couples.
Many other churches are moving in this direction or offering blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Unlike the aforementioned decisions, the 2018 Assembly vote about marriage was conducted behind closed doors in a private session. As historian, Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, points out in her recent article, one of the significant shifts that allowed the motion to go to a vote was a statement by the UCA’s Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress that acknowledged a diversity of views in their own communities.
This meant they would not be moving to block such a change. In doing so, they embodied the “unity in diversity” that is almost a catch-cry of the UCA.
None of these decades-long decisions have been easy or without controversy or personal cost to many, something acknowledged by Dr Deidre Palmer, UCA President, in her pastoral letter.
But the outcome of that work can now be seen in a Christian denomination that could remarkably quickly respond to a change in the federal Marriage Act with a same-sex service of their own. Fundamental differences remain, certainly.
But I suspect the church that was birthed by bringing together three different denominations in the 1970s knows how to handle diversity and should be well equipped to live with the tension of differing views within its people.
Change of this nature is never easy for an institution and especially for the church where tradition is so highly valued. For some, same-sex marriage challenges their belief in a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, although the UCA’s own stance towards the Bible is one that takes the text seriously but not literally.
For others, this recent decision is a source of celebration and perhaps even symbolic, finally, of full equality in the church for gay and lesbian members.