Finding grace amid difference of marriage equality opinion

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I once held a school chaplaincy position where I nearly got sacked in my first week on the job. I was employed by the Council for Christian Education in Schools (now known as ACCESS Ministries). In the lead up to my appointment there was some disquiet.

Stone heart with purple flowerThe school wanted me but the parent representatives on the chaplaincy committee were not convinced — I had not shown enough evangelical orthodoxy during the interview process. In January 2000, by the end of the first week of term, I was in the midst of a furore.

On the first Thursday of term the monthly meeting of the chaplaincy committee was held in a private home of one of the parents; this group was charged with fundraising and support of the chaplain. I was expected to attend but the welcome was muted — there was an awkwardness in the room. When it was indicated that the committee would like me to pray at the close of the meeting it felt like a test.

At home I had been praying the words of a Miriam Therese Winter blessing song with my nine-year-old daughter at bedtime. Winter was one of the Medical Mission Sisters — in the 60s, their song 'Joy is Like the Rain' was a signature tune in guitar-playing Christian circles. Thinking to offer the blessing as a benediction, I was brought up short when I remembered it referred to the Spirit in the feminine. That would certainly stoke the fires of discontent — I mentally scrolled through prayers I knew by heart and selected an alternative.

When the moment came to pray, I opened my mouth and found myself speaking the familiar words of the blessing song: 'May the Blessing of God go before you. May Her grace and peace abound. May Her Spirit live within you. May Her love wrap you round. May Her blessing remain with you always. May you walk on holy ground.'

When I finished, the air in the lounge room was thick with reproach. Heads lifted and eyes met. Within a couple of heartbeats voices rose in fiery protest. One man distinguished himself by the immediacy of his objections and the forcefulness of his challenges. He declared himself to be a fundamentalist, and, astonishingly to my ears, a creationist.

In the initial outcry, he was the one who spoke up and stared me down, asking if I was planning to teach children that God is a woman and if I believed that homosexuality was acceptable. I responded that I had quoted the words of a Christian songwriter; then I added that I understood God as being beyond gender; finally I stuttered that the Hebrew word 'ruach' for Spirit was in the feminine. No one looked convinced. I left the house and drove away with a thumping heart.

The following week the chairperson of the committee resigned when I was not sacked and the self-avowed fundamentalist stepped up as chair. I was dismayed by this. We now had roles with intersecting responsibilities. With our beliefs so at odds, I didn't know how we would ever be able to work together. But something transpired that seems remarkable to me to this day.

 

"I'm telling this story because there was a time when two people deeply divided by their beliefs had the grace to trust one another and to live side-by-side in their difference."

 

I discovered that the fierce fundamentalist was a man gentle in prayer. Unlike the flaring moments in the lounge room, when I invited him to talk and pray with me in my chaplain's office his voice was low and measured. The silences between the words allowed our prayers to resonate where words could not reach. The language of lordship that he used was familiar from my childhood as a daughter of a Baptist minister.

Over time we realised we did have something in common — a care for the school community. At the committee meetings there was never prolonged questioning or micro-management about funds needed to support families struggling to pay for school books or class camps. In time we grew to trust one another and to cooperate in numerous events that built the possibilities for kindness in the school community.

Neither of us tried to persuade the other to our beliefs, nor did I spell it out that for me, this care for the school included affirming young people struggling with sexual orientation. I felt I owed the students my loyalty in their vulnerability.

Several years into my time as school chaplain, a journalist asked for my opinion in relation to the taboos long held by Christians regarding homosexuality. I knew my views would be regarded as a betrayal by some of the parents and I put a call through to the gentle-fierce man. I did not want to unravel the remarkable friendship we had built, but neither did I want to remain silent on this issue. When I explained the dilemma, he said something I have never forgotten. 'Julie, you know I believe that homosexuality is an abomination before God. But you have your own integrity. Tell them what you think.'

In 2006 I left the school having seen hundreds of teenagers grow up and begin finding their way in the world. Some of them thanked me in that hugely generous way young people do — 'You saved my life.' One student contacted me from university. I recalled him in his schooldays as both lost and courageous in the face of homophobic bullying. 'Thank you', he wrote, 'for telling me I was okay, that there was nothing wrong with me.'

Recently I rang my fundamentalist friend. I wanted to ask him if he remembered that pivotal conversation as I did. 'Yes Julie,' he replied, 'That is what I said.' He gave me permission to quote him and went on to remark that the friendship we had formed was still a source of wonder to him — 'God's love goes beyond doctrine.'

In the postal vote about marriage equality my fundamentalist friend will vote no and I will vote yes. Our differences have not been erased. But I'm telling this story because there was a time when two people deeply divided by their beliefs had the grace to trust one another and to live side-by-side in their difference.

 


 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, marriage equality


 

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Yours was an excellent article. There were times when I read it that I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry because it seems light years away from my educational experience and the chaplaincy there. It may be difficult for you and readers to believe I am talking about the mid 1960s but there you are. My school was founded in the late 1850s by the then Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, who, as an Old Harrovian and Cambridge graduate, wished to reproduce his own education in the colonies as much as possible. You would think it would be some sort of ultrataditionalist reactionary place but it kept turning out people like the late Manning Clarke and the very much alive Barry Humphries who were considerable iconoclasts. Religion was very broad mainstream Anglicanism with worship very much based on the Book of Common Prayer, the Authorised Version of the Bible and Hymns Ancient and Modern. We had three Chaplains: one High; one Broad Church and One Evangelical. All were extremely well educated. It was accepted that certain boys were homosexual and nobody persecuted or derided them. None was ever suicidal. Most of them have gone on to successful careers and are happily partnered. As I say, when I read your article I felt I was on another planet. Amazing that this nonsense goes on today.
Edward Fido | 25 September 2017


There is nothing gentle about the words of your colleague, Julie, and this story might have been better left untold. I don't think any homosexual people reading would want to see the 'a' word written about themselves - a word the Catholic Church too used until it decided that the nearly as offensive "disordered" was better.
Brenda Fearon | 26 September 2017


This is really beautiful. What a great article.
Georgie | 26 September 2017


Thanks for writing this Julie and for getting back in touch with your friend so we can hear his words reaffirmed. I would have loved everyone to read this and the first part of Benjamin Law's essay before they voted. For me more important than our culturally formed opinions is our job to protect the young of our community.
Anne Gleeson | 26 September 2017


Lovely story. God's tolerance and kindness became part of either of you. There was trust involved on both sides. There should be more of that in the polarisation of this debate.
Reinder Zeilstra | 26 September 2017


A timely piece. Respecting those with whom we disagree is an uncommon virtue. It's one that politicians have to develop if they genuinely want to achieve something rather than just score political points or bring down their enemies. Interesting to read this in conjunction with Frank Brennan's essay on "the vote" and the conservative Catholic politicians in NZ who have learned to live with same-sex marriage.
Catherine Watson | 26 September 2017


Thank you Julie for this parable demonstrating the true meaning of Christianity. I wish it had been possible to acknowledge a difference between the two relationships by naming them differently it would have enriched our language which is constantly being diminished.
Margaret McDonald | 26 September 2017


This is such a beautiful, inspiring and moving piece of writing dear Julie. It renews my hope in mankind. Thank you x
Jill Humann | 26 September 2017


A moving story, Julie. "God's love goes beyond doctrine" is a memorable insight. Your lovely story demonstrates genuine respect and trust in the integrity of each person.
Jo Jordan | 26 September 2017


Like all others - thank you.
Beth | 26 September 2017


A really wonderful story about two wonderful people who influenced some wonderful results. Seems to me that the trust, love, respect and patience, even tolerance, underpinned by being true to self is what it is all about. Thanks for sharing it. It made my day.
David | 26 September 2017


Beautiful story, Julie. Such respect between faithful Christians of differing views could (should) be the norm.
Name Ruth Hoadley | 26 September 2017


Lovely Julie, Thank you. I was close to tears throughout. Such admirable mutual respect and courage to go on together despite difference.
Ilka White | 26 September 2017


And another thing. The example that these two people lived out in the school community. They showed students and parents that two people with very different beliefs could respect one another and work together harmoniously with a shared vision for the school. A powerful witness to a God who is above all.
Joanna Elliott | 26 September 2017


The Bible likens God to a mother hen with concern for her chicks. Rembrandt paints the father of the prodigal with feminine and masculine hands. But Jesus tells us to call God ‘Abba’. He should know. God is Father with maternal instincts. That doesn’t make Him a Her. “….this care for the school included affirming young people struggling with sexual orientation.” By affirming the struggle or by affirming the orientation? “'Thank you', he wrote, 'for telling me I was okay, that there was nothing wrong with me.'” Actually, the Christian concept of loving a sinner means that you’re OK even though there is plenty wrong with you. Now, if only we could know what the gentle-fierce guy would have done were he chaplain.
Roy Chen Yee | 26 September 2017


Grace indeed! So glad you shared this lived experience...it gives me hope. Reminds of the poem: “Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” ? Jalaluddin Rumi
Trish Watts | 27 September 2017


Thank you to everyone who has taken time to read and respond to this story. Along with the many who have found a grace in it, I want to acknowledge the people who have done battle with it. Stories can be deceptive in their neatness; the conversation is not over, it will never be over whilst language persists that defines same sex love as dysfunctional or disordered. Among those who have opened the conversation for me are Biblical scholar Robyn Whittaker https://theconversation.com/to-christians-arguing-no-on-marriage-equality-the-bible-is-not-decisive-82498 Baptist Minister Simon Holt http://www.smh.com.au/comment/im-a-baptist-minister-and-ill-be-voting-yes-for-samesex-marriage-20170819-gxzzik.html And Tiernan Brady – campaigner for marriage equality http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/marriage/8033356
Julie Perrin | 27 September 2017


Thank you Julie....I think of you often when these matters arise...and am so glad to have your wise words and perspective...this current debate is so upsetting for so many people.xx
julie hutchison | 27 September 2017


Thanks for sharing and having the courage to be true to yourself and your beliefs
Jenny | 28 September 2017


Lovely story. It illustrates what is sadly lacking in the current debate over Same Sex Marriage., Both Julie and her fundamentalist chairperson could agree to disagree because they shared a common goal - the survival and flourishing of the school community. Most Catholics can distinguish between Marriage as a civil/secular institution and as a sacrament. I would hope they have moved on from St Paul's stricture: "To the unmarried and widows I say that it is well for them that they remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practising self-control they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (1 Corinthians 7:8-9) Paul was not a Romantic where marriage was concerned. He was a realist. He was writing to a pretty wild group of converts living in a tough Greek port city. Paul recognised that marriage was an institution that societies created to circumscribe the sexual instinct of human beings. Laws and customs evolved which protected any offspring and any property that resulted from the union. After two thousand years surely Christians can accept that same sex attracted people exist and that it is natural that they should want to marry.
Uncle Pat | 28 September 2017


Thank you Julie for this powerful story about having the courage, when under such pressure, not to betray others or yourself.
Sally Polmear | 01 October 2017


Such a heart felt story that you tell Julie, thank you. It is a valuable lesson to remind ourselves to find where we agree. "God's love goes beyond doctrine" is a beautiful image for me today.
Therese Gilfedder | 02 October 2017


I've only just read this article and was deeply moved by the possibility of this friendship forming, despite such profoundly different ways of seeing the world. I suspect it was possible precisely because you did not attempt to change each other's point of view but allowed space between you of co-existence and eventually respect for difference,despite the initial difficulties.I personally feel appalled by the idea that homosexuality is biblically "wrong" but my abhorrence of this idea changes nothing. I'm also grateful that there are so many principled people, such as yourself,supporting the community with openness, affirmation and respect. Thank you.
Jude Murphy | 15 October 2017


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