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The Uniting Church's marriage conundrum



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'.

LGBTIQ Members and Friends of the Uniting Church banner reads 'Some Christians are gay ... thank god!'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 about homosexuality, and said that if the Assembly accepted the proposals on homosexuality the UAICC would reconsider its place in the Church.


"It is probably no coincidence that most of the CALD members of the Assembly who spoke in favour of the proposal were women."


This intervention of the UAICC was decisive. The discussion of sexuality stopped; the proposals were not voted on; and over the subsequent 21 years the church's folk wisdom has been that in matters of sexuality it is divided between its LGBTIQ members, and its UAICC and CALD members.

At the recent Assembly that story was challenged. The UAICC acknowledged that its members were not all of one mind on the question of same-gender marriage. It said that any member of the UAICC who spoke on the issue would be speaking as an individual. 

CALD members of the Assembly spoke both for and against the proposal, showing that attitudes to issues of sexuality among culturally and linguistically diverse members are as diverse as attitudes among the church's culturally-dominant Anglo-Celts.

It is probably no coincidence that most of the CALD members of the Assembly who spoke in favour of the proposal were women. Usually the UAICC and CALD communities have spoken to the Assembly through male leaders. When CALD and UAICC women spoke they challenged the Church's dominant narratives and embraced LGBTIQ members.

The final vote was held by secret ballot. According to the president the results 'clearly exceeded' the necessary two-thirds majority. The Church now holds two different understandings of marriage: that it is between a man and a woman; and that it is between two people. Ministers and celebrants, and the church councils that determine what happens in church buildings, may act on either of those definitions.

Just as important for the life of the church, the narrative that the sexuality debate pits LGBTIQ members of the church against UAICC and CALD members has been revealed for the 'fake news' that it has always been.



Avril Hannah-JonesAvril Hannah-Jones' PhD was on 'The Sexuality Debate in the Uniting Church, 1977-2000'. This article is her personal opinion and does not reflect the view of the Uniting Church.

Topic tags: Avril Hannah-Jones, same-sex marriage, Aboriginal Australians, Uniting Church



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Existing comments

As a supporter of LGBTI rights and rites i see this as probably a necessary bit of real-politics. Thank you UCA Assembly

John Cranmer | 27 August 2018  

Now that surely is a sensible and sensitive outcome.

Gingere Meggs | 27 August 2018  

The Uniting Church, in my experience, has an identity problem. The UC is using contextual theology in relation to the same-sex marriage question and contextual theology does not begin with a clean slate. Those in charge of the theological agenda in the past have largely been white males. Thus a sort of battleground ensues between the past and the present. The crucial issue is whom one listens to, whose views we trust, and who we privilege in conversation. In society, and much more so in the church, those on the margins such as LGBTI people and women, fight exhausting battles. It is never easy for the powerful in society and the church to give up control. For those with a difficult experience of church there may be more of a need of sanctuary than battleground.

Pam | 27 August 2018  

Thank you Avril for this piece and the Uniting Church is to be congratulated on this hard work. Meanwhile, in the Catholic tradition, recently in Ireland there was a meeting on families that only recognised the man/woman couples. It seems the Catholic Church has a long way to go in this regard.

Tom Kingston | 28 August 2018  

A beautifully written and instructive article. Thank you Avril. As a Catholic Christian I believe it is most helpful to understand how fellow Christians have to grapple with issues that are signs of the times that we all need to face. Reading your article has increased the respect that I have had for many years for those in other Christian denominations which was founded by my attendance at the biennial conference of the Australian Council of Churches in Adelaide way back in 1976.

Ern Azzopardi | 28 August 2018  

I am reminded in reading this dilemma of an incident related in N.T. Wright's new book Paul a Biography. Wright recounts the drama of the earliest work of Paul at Antioch when the relationship between Jews who were now following Jesus/Messiah, and Gentiles who were attracted to the new community in their battle over whether Gentiles who wanted to join the community needed to submit to circumcision. Wright says: "It was a point of theological principle." (98) And the principle was "freedom". What Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James worked out was a modus vivendi. Both groups were offered the freedom to retain their cultural identity markers and still remain members of a common community. This dilemma for the Uniting Church, just as in Paul's day, points to the sometimes "overwhelming complexities and challenges" that sometimes confront a Christian community which fortunately can be solved not only by referring to the principle of freedom but also to care and compassion which lie at the heart of the Jesus message.

Michael Bowden | 28 August 2018  

'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'. Well here is the crux of the matter. The Catholic Church operates on the basis that all its members, both clerical and lay, share the same core beliefs, including beliefs in relation to the nature of marriage. What attitude we take to ecclesial communities who operate on a different basis (ie allowing for a variety of beliefs on core issues) is a moot point. Coming from a non Catholic background and working closely over at least the past 30 years with Christians from other traditions I'm honestly not sure where I do stand. But I do know that I would be very sad indeed to see The Catholic Church abandon its belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.And that's in spite of having voted YES in the postal plebiscite.

margaret | 28 August 2018  

What Margaret needs here to consolidate her commendable support for the Catholic view of Marriage is something more than Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones's appeal to ecclesiology rather than theology to resolve the Uniting Church's perennial struggle with and capitulation to spasmodic emotionalism. The crux of the matter lies in the Catholic tradition of the Natural Law, which underpins almost all of its base positions on not just reproductive and other medical controversies but also, as is my conviction, its equally unassailable teaching on social justice. Granted that we are to be unreservedly loving towards all persons, whether gay or not, especially those who feel called to love another of the same sex intimately and exclusively, there is flimsy evidence indeed on my highly attuned gay radar - and I speak as a same-sex attracted person - of fidelitous, long-term gay relationships that meet all of the requirements that Christian marriage commands. I also speak as one who voted 'Yes' in the recent plebiscite. What, in Heaven's name, is wrong with celibacy and where does the Uniting Church teach its fractious members of the importance of self-discipline and sacrificial giving both within as well as outside the special calling of marriage?

Dr Michael Furtado | 29 August 2018  

Thanks Avril for this focus on the necessary journey chosen by our UCA across these decades. As a retired minister and mostly retired clinical psychologist I embrace the contextual (as mentioned by Pam) and place it in the larger theological realm of God's Grace. I am both challenged and nourished more by an unashamedly Wesleyan doctrine of Grace than by the fruits of ecclesiology. Travelling light when compared with some of the more confessional or episcopal stances mentioned here? Definitely. Within the stewardship of God's grace, I am humbled to test my values and actions against the understandings of scripture, tradition, reason and experience offered to me by the whole church - not just my own denomination and certainly not by the loudest voices. We in the UCA are addressing a positive pastoral challenge here. Please uphold us prayer and fraternal curiosity as we seek to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus?

Rev. Dr Wayne Sanderson | 29 August 2018  

Michael I speak of the Catholic view of marriage as an observer not a participant. Having married (well over 50 years ago now) an non Christian in an Anglican ceremony, the Catholic view of marriage simply does not have direct personal meaning for me even though I have been a practising (?) Catholic for almost 40 years. Reduced to (numerous) Facebook arguments last year I repeatedly posed the question of the extent to which more diverse Christian views of the purpose of marriage could be applied to same sex couples. I certainly believe they can. But when UCA argues that two different views of marriage can co exist I would simply say that I don't believe that could or should be expected of the Catholic Church. Until very late in the debate last year I was committed to voting NO on the basis that we needed 'another word' for legal recognition of same sex relationships (hey if we had been truly magnanimous we could, as others did suggest, have used the word 'matrimony' to describe 'traditional' marriage). Why not two forms of recognition/affirmation/celebration within churches? Said by a veteran of many discussions with (ordained) UCA friends on the nature of ordained ministry! Never too sure if my ordained Anglican great grandfather would agree with me!!

margaret | 29 August 2018  

I share your dilemma, Margaret, and am not averse to your solutions. However, notwithstanding the fundamentalist proposition that homosexual acts are an abomination (and with which I know enough about Scripture to disagree) I have never encountered a Catholic, Anglican or Uniting Church friend, whether in the ordained ministry or not, who has withheld their support, love and affection for me. Whereas, try as I may, even in terms of being open to the possibility of homosexual love within a Christian context in my own life, I have yet to encounter an experience of it being whole as well as holy in a way that my experience of heterosexual marriage bestows. (And, yes, I was married, but broken, for twenty years). My fear is that some in the Christian Churches are too fixed on changing the rules to make those who don't fit feel better. The critical question here is: have they actually conducted any empirical research among their same-sex attracted members to see what they think?

Michael Furtado | 29 August 2018  

"My fear is that some in the Christian Churches are too fixed on changing the rules to make those who don't fit feel better." My fear too Michael.And btw it happens to heterosexual relationships too .Very tired of being told I fit the model for marriage even when I clearly don't and my husband even more clearly doesn't. And don't even start me off on my partnered children. Rules are not made to be broken. Just made to be of limited significance. Peace in your journey A fellow pilgrim

margaret | 30 August 2018  

This article well sums up the working compromise that the Uniting Church has achieved in regard to celebrating, or not celebrating, same sex marriage depending on the beliefs of the minister concerned. The Rev. Avril Hannah-Jones also made clear this was possible because of the way that her Church makes decisions on these matters. She also mentioned this sort of working compromise may not be possible in Churches with a different structure and the resultant different decision making processes. Dr Michael Furtado's explanation on why the Catholic Church takes the very different stand it does on SSM was incisive. He also raised the problem of someone who is same sex attracted living a celibate life. This is also a problem for people who are unmarried and opposite sex attracted in his and similar Churches, such as Eastern Orthodoxy. I would imagine those who belong to Pentecostal or the new Evangelical Churches would be expected to live the same way. He pulled us down to earth with this one. There is no facile answer to this. I believe it requires the same sort of deep, comprehensive approach the Catholic Church takes to other serious issues. It is a real life problem. Endless talk about individual personal opinions will just take us round and round in circles.

Anonymous | 30 August 2018  

The ability to distinguish issues is important, the more so where emotions dominate, as in the Church. "Reconciliation", or the striking of compromises is not that path. I accept the Assembly must handle questions of doctrine but civil law is one matter and that of the church another, where compassion and continuity rule. Same-sex union is different, and needs toleration, not the church changing its definition of "marriage". "Union" of two same-sex adults is needed -- "two persons" is not the right expression.

Peter LINAKER | 04 September 2018  

I wish to add to what I have said. The Uniting Church may celebrate with its blessing a commitment in Adult Union, names and ownership agreed on. Bigamy, adultery and divorce would apply. This will leave marriage exactly where it is.

Peter LINAKER | 05 September 2018  

Many of the negative comments seem to have a "winner takes all" approach to morality on this issue - ignoring that fact that GAY PEOPLE EXIST and celibacy is no more an option for gay people than it is for heterosexuals. Wake up, people! This is simply "reality theology" - not ecclesiology!

AURELIUS | 08 September 2018  

Unfortunately the decision to change the understanding and doctrine of SSM was taken without prior discussion by UCA church councils and congregations and was implemented by a comparative handful of presbytery members who as far as I can tell, generally (at least in my church) did not canvass the views of those they supposedly represented - or acted on assumption. Congregations were not invited to consider how this squared with the authority of scripture or any ecumenical implications. In my view, this was an imperfect and dangerous way for a church to drastically change an understanding and doctrine of human sexuality held for 2000 years.

Adeodatus | 24 September 2018  

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