(Assembly Task Group on Sexuality, Uniting Church in Australia, 1996)
I like the Uniting Church. (For non-Australians: a denomination formed in 1977 from Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches). They are the best example in Australia of a church which tries to bring the evangelical, holiness, reformed and catholic streams into confluence. Their clergy and churches range across all spectrums – charismatic, evangelical, liberal, radical, ecumenical, mystical… They have some brilliant scholars; but some of their parish clergy aren’t reading anything. (My wife, an ‘ordained’ Baptist pastor, took a funeral recently in a Uniting Church for a non-church-going relative. Jan did all the pastoral work, but the UC clergyman read a few Scriptures and pocketed the $100 clergy-fee).
I preach regularly in Uniting churches, and speak sometimes at their clergy conferences. (There I play a little game with myself, trying to pick the ex-Methodists and ex- Presbyterians: I’m usually right). The clergy evaluations always vary from ‘We gotta get him again’ to ‘Never again…!’ Oh well. As a member of the Australian Baptist/ Uniting Church ‘Conversation’ group, I’ve recently re-read their Basis of Union, and I like it. As a Baptist, it’s difficult for me to grasp how a Christian denomination can describe themselves as ‘People of God on the Way’. We Baptists _know_ what we believe and practise. We’re uneasy dialoguing with people who answer tough questions differently, and co-exist better with ambiguity. (Can you imagine Baptists or Pentecostals sponsoring a ‘Year of Listening’ or appointing someone to dialogue with – as distinct from ‘evangelise’ – aboriginal people?)
The Uniting Church has published three of my books. In one of them (Grow: Meditations and Prayers for New Christians, Melbourne: JBCE, 1993) I included a chapter on the Sacraments. My views on baptism are acceptable to all the Uniting Church clergy I’ve spoken to, and a minority of Baptist clergy. But, that aside, you won’t find Baptists publishing a Uniting Churchperson’s views on baptism. (As a friend-cynic put it: Now abides faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is baptism)…
So I read the Interim Report on Sexuality with both appreciation and ambivalence. I agree with most of its recommendations, but I have some serious questions about its assumptions and methodology. First, let’s not forget this is an _interim_ report. It is meant to provide a basis for discussion. The back cover states its purpose: ‘[This report] is a further attempt to engage the church in dialogue. It shares information that the Assembly Task Group on Sexuality has gathered, but it is more than information. It seeks to present a framework to assist the church and its members to make faithful decisions with regard to sexuality… [It] is not the final word.’ The task group, writes chairperson Alistair Macrae in the preface, comprised clergy and non-clergy, met for four years, represents a cross-section of the Uniting Church’s views, and consulted with sister churches around the world. Its agenda is not a ‘softening-up’ process ‘for policies already in the pipeline.’ ‘This whole issue,’ he writes, ‘will test the maturity of the church…’
It sure will: probably the #1 polarizing issue in churches around the world in the 1990’s is Homosexuality. Now this is a report about _Sexuality_. The section on ‘Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People’ occupies three of its 58 pages. Those three pages will be the main focus of this all-too-brief response: as they are in the media and in the churches…
First, the facts: * Every major denomination has separated, divorced, homosexual, adulterous etc. people in their churches. * Probably (and here I speak as a counselor-of- clergy) most if not all major denominations have (mostly undeclared) homosexual or bisexual people among their pastors. * Every denomination will have to face two difficult questions on the homosexuality issue: what do we do with homosexual people who are or are not active sexually, in terms of church membership (the easier question) and what about when they apply for positions of pastoral leadership?
The so-called mainline denominations are facing these issues first: the so-called fundamentalist churches either toss them into the too-hard basket or make absolutist pronouncements…
Another way of putting it: churches and Christian people range across a broad spectrum, from ‘conservative legalism’ at one end to ‘theological liberalism’ at the other. My thesis is that groups at both extremes have lost the plot in terms of biblical interpretation and authority. The legalists major on law rather than love; the liberals vice versa. Legalists are very definitive about beliefs and behaviours (usually more definitive than the Bible is). Liberals are so woolly about beliefs and behaviours that it seems you can get away with almost anything, so long as you ‘feel’ it’s right, and ‘God will forgive’: that’s God’s business, (and ours). Legalists and liberals begin from a different starting-point. If you don’t define ‘sin’ clearly people will be confused, say the legalists. But if you don’t love the sinner, you’re not like Jesus, say the liberals. But Jesus did not come to do away with the law, the legalists retort. Ah, but he fulfilled the spirit of the law, loving those who were marginalised by their law-breaking, the liberals respond. But where do you draw the line in terms of the Bible’s pronouncements on morals? ask the legalists. Oh, that requires careful cultural and hermeneutical analysis say the liberals… And so the debate rages. Legalists occupy the safe ground of ‘simplicity this side of complexity’, liberals wallow in ‘complexity the other side of simplicity’. (I believe it’s more mature to move through simplicity and complexity to ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity!’). A wise church leader was asked: ‘Are you conservative or liberal?’ He replied: ‘In things I don’t know about I’m conservative. I things I know about I’m liberal!’
So legalists worry about ‘authority’; liberals, ‘ambiguity’. Liberals will never understand how a Psalmist can ‘love the law of the Lord, and meditate therein day and night.’ Legalists resort to ‘Thou shalt nots’; liberals to a form of soft and sophisticated permissiveness. Both options are too easy…
The secular media enjoy reporting Christian legalists and liberals fighting. For example, a clergyman offered a prayer to open this year’s January session of the Kansas legislature, inveighing against the erosion of moral absolutes. The prayer was repeated in Colorado. It provoked some to walk out. In the prayer he said, among other things: ‘Heavenly Father, we know your word says “Woe to those who call evil good,” but that’s exactly what we’ve done. We have… inverted our values. We have endorsed perversion and called it alternative lifestyle…’
And so on. Talk about a cat among the pigeons!!! The media loved it. In Australia they phone Rev. Fred Nile of the Festival of Light, who gives them a five- minute ‘grab’ about homosexuality and declining moral values…
(Re the issue of ‘policies in the pipeline’. Liberal mainline denominations are driven inexorably by their logic in one direction only, I believe. On May 15 this year an Episcopal Church Court in America declared that there is nothing in Episcopal doctrine to bar noncelibate homosexuals from becoming deacons or priests. So there are now two U.S. mainline denominations officially OK’ing practising homosexuals becoming ordained clergy – the other is the United Church of Christ. Christian Century, May 22, 1996, p. 566).
Back to the report. It’s strong on loving acceptance, weak on biblical authority. How you can discuss ‘Divorce and Remarriage’ (pp. 36-37), for example, without addressing Moses’ Jesus’ and Paul’s injunctions on the subject, beats me. These Scriptures are very confusing to people-in-the- pews, and need to be exegeted carefully. If you believe God’s Word is revealed to us in Scripture, you’ve got to say the consensus of the biblical prophets and other inspired writers is that sexual activity with someone of the same sex is a distortion of that which the Creator intended. That’s clear, it seems to me. But what do you do with sinners and their sins? For legalists, repentance precedes acceptance; with liberals (and Jesus, by the way) it was the other way around. (So if you _have_ to make the tough choice, be liberal rather than legalistic). But is there a ‘via media’? I believe there is. Here I can’t go into the complexities of the homosexuality debate (email me for my ‘Interview with Jesus’ on that subject).
Briefly, the key questions: Did homosexuals choose to be that way? ‘No’, respond 95%-plus. Do they think the church/Christians love/accept them? No, 95%-plus tell us. Did Jesus honour/love marginalized people? Yes. So Christians aren’t behaving like Jesus? Right on. But what are we asking homosexuals to do? The evangelical Tony Campolo responds well to this one: ‘There _must_ be good news for homosexuals. In the likelihood that most of them will still have their basic sexual orientations regardless of their efforts to change, we must do more than simply bid them be celibate. We must find ways for them to have fulfilling, loving experiences so that they might have their humanity affirmed and their incorporation into the Body of Christ assured. Homosexuals _are_ our brothers and sisters and must be treated that way. To do less is sin.’ (20 Hot Potatoes, Word, 1988, pp. 118- 119).
Does that mean struggling sinners – whatever their sin – are invited to join the church and partake at the Lord’s Table? Yes. Does it mean they should be invited to be pastoral leaders before their sin is dealt with? Depends on the category of sinning; here we have to face tougher issues, I believe. Pastors/clergy are bound by biblical, ethical and moral constraints of a higher order than for others in Christ’s church. They are ‘examples to the flock’. The recidivism among clergy- adulterers and practising homosexuals is well-known. Such ‘social sins’, in my view, debar such people from entering ministries of pastoral leadership.
What about ‘sins of the spirit’ you ask? Jesus regarded them as greater evils. So are we to be rigorous about both social and spiritual sins? For clergy, yes. How will you know? By a process of thorough spiritual formation and direction in the years of theological training (the seminaries don’t do those things well). Re practising homosexuals/adulterers in the church membership. What should be done? They should be invited to join a support/recovery group with others who are struggling with the issue, and _be loved as they change and grow into wholeness_.
Now back to legalists/liberals. Because liberals are searching for ‘lowest common denominators’, mainline denominations are merging… Evangelicals/fundamentalists, because they split with one another in the search for simpler answers to tough questions, are fragmenting. (There are now 26,000 Christian denominations around the world, according to World Christian Encyclopedist David Barrett. There are 14 kinds of evangelicalism according to the latest ‘Handbook of Denominations in the U.S.’) Fundamentalists elevate words above loving actions. They are uneasy about St Francis’ famous advice about evangelism: ‘Preach the gospel, always; if necessary, use words.’ But all the mainline liberal denominations around the world are numerically static or declining. Why? It’s complex, but folks who want the trumpet to issue a ‘certain sound’ will leave the army if the trumpeter doesn’t know the notes to play… A plague on both their houses.
Rowland Croucher ….
(Originally written in the 1980s. My stance has moved since then – to more Progressive convictions. SeeÂ http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/28630.htm ).