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The Uniting Church's marriage conundrum

  • 27 August 2018


In July 2018, six months after the Commonwealth Parliament redefined marriage as a relationship between 'two people' rather than 'a man and a woman', the national Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia gave its ministers and marriage celebrants the 'freedom to decide whether the minister's or celebrant's religious beliefs allow the minister or celebrant to accept requests to celebrate marriages as authorised under the Marriage Act'.

Support for marriage equality might seem an obvious consequence of the Uniting Church's commitment to human rights, social justice, and the full equality of men and women. But those very commitments made the decision difficult.

In the 21st century the issues that divide churches are less those of theology, the nature of God, than of ecclesiology, the nature of the church. Unlike the other mainstream churches in Australia the Uniting Church is neither congregational nor episcopal. Instead it organises itself in a series of inter-related councils of which the Assembly, the national body, has determining responsibility for matters of doctrine, worship, government and discipline.

All councils seek to include men and women, ordained and lay people, members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), members from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, and young people, as equal participants, each with a voice and a vote.

When questions of the membership, ministry, and marriage of people in same-gender relationships have been raised, LGBTIQ people have been part of the discussion. The church has never been able to pretend that it can discuss issues of sexuality in the absence of the people most immediately affected.

While the membership of LGBTIQ people in church councils prompted issues of sexuality to be raised, the membership of UAICC and CALD people complicated the discussion. At its 1997 meeting the Assembly was asked to affirm the full membership of gay and lesbian people in the church, and to authorise the blessing of same-gender relationships and the ordination of gay and lesbian people. For a few exciting, or terrifying, days it seemed that the Assembly would accept those proposals. Then the UAICC spoke.

The leadership of the UAICC told the Assembly that the very discussion of homosexuality was contributing to the continuing destruction of Indigenous culture. Rev. Djinyini Gondarra, the UAICC Chairperson, told the Assembly: 'It is another hurt to our spirituality. It is another invasion of our life as original people of this land'. The UAICC called on the Assembly to stop talking