Israel Folau case raises questions of hire purpose

By Claire Dawe

We are a diverse church, but when it comes to renting our church spaces, rooms and even worship centres, is there a limit on the diversity we will accept?

No-one can have escaped the media attention surrounding Israel Folau and the church his father pastors. Their church, with their own theological understandings of Scripture, particularly noting the claim that UCA members are going to hell, sometimes rents a space in a UCA church in NSW.

We could view this renting of unused spaces as good stewardship of church property, but when we rent out our worship spaces to other faith communities does it imply we align ourselves with the values they represent and messages they preach?

Our new church agreements require all hirers to adhere to their parent organisations’ safe child policies. We take seriously our responsibility of ensuring all children and vulnerable adults are kept safe. So how do we ensure that all people are spiritually safe?  How do we ensure those hiring our spaces align with our values as the UCA? Or at least don’t actively work against them?

For example, we don’t hire spaces to businesses running pokies because we know the harm gambling causes. But who decides and how?

Our strength as a church is that we can hold diverse understandings and positions on theological issues. The way we constantly revisit issues is at the very root of our reformed heritage.

I am proud that the denomination to which I belong does not shy away from the difficult issues. Even when I sometimes find the discernment process frustrating, I know this is the way we ensure that the Spirit has space to move and be heard, be known and be felt.

The discussion around Israel Folau and his father’s church has led me to think about how we decide to whom we rent our church spaces. I wonder if we need to extend our safe church policies into the spiritual realm? This will mean having reflective theological discussions at church council meetings about who we are as a church and what are our values.

If a group’s values do not align with our own, then we don’t rent the space to them. It isn’t a decision based upon personal preferences, it’s a decision prayerfully made through theological reflection around who we are and then how we express that to potential hirers.

This whole debate has led me to think about the role of spiritual discernment in hiring. As a minister, I have always left the hiring of church spaces to the more-than-qualified property volunteers, but they need support in making these decisions.

These decisions are not just about if the hirer can pay the fees and if they tidy up when they leave and lock the doors behind them. These decisions revolve around whether the message of God’s love and grace and mercy are lived out through the different secular and faith groups who sign our lease agreements.

Surely we all want those groups renting spaces in our churches to reflect the Gospel we preach? If that means losing rent, so be it. If that means saying no to people, so be it.

I wonder if we open our doors too readily as a sign of our hospitality without doing due diligence on the groups. Surely we should be asking the question if the group, secular or faith, does not reflect the Gospel we preach and the values we claim, should they be in our churches?

What are we saying to the wider community when we accept the fee from a group that appears to be opposed to what we claim to represent?

Perhaps the time has come to make some difficult decisions based on the expression and understanding of our faith rather than an open door policy to all potential church hirers.

Rev Claire Dawe is a Uniting Church Minister and chair of Synod Ethics Committee. Claire is interested in intergenerational worship and communities of faith, and supporting opportunities for people to link theological reflection with lived experience.

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