ACC 15th Assembly Blog
Game of Churches
A Post-15th Assembly Reflection
I was going to use the title Game of Thrones for this reflection. This TV show is apparently the most popular legally and illegally downloaded program in the world. From what I have read the program is really about politics, with an interesting debate going on at present as to the outcome (who will win the battle and sit on the Iron Throne). There is a growing idea that there will be two equal and distinct rulers. I think anyone who understands politics knows that this is of course a fantasy, and achievable only in a fantasy world.
The 15th Assembly was a game in the sense of a political game. Yes, there is worship and many features of a Christian meeting, but if you believe that politics is not at the centre of a major decision like the one on marriage then you are clearly with the group at the centre of power. Numbers are very important, and any keen person would have known basic numbers ‘for and against’ revising marriage, as most members would have been reasonably identifiable. The community working groups would have also provided an ongoing running tabulation to help see where the lay of the land was, particularly to know if there was enough overall support (75%) for a move to go to formal decision-making. The examination of support for key proposals is a normal process in the meeting and the group reporting back (through the facilitation committee) enables further consideration to amalgamate or tweak proposals that may have more of a chance of success. Another way of gauging support is by members showing cards, and in the initial presentation of all the proposals on marriage, the President noted the warmth toward Proposal 8 (the ASC proposal to revise marriage). This comment was not made after any of the proposals seeking to retain the orthodox position on marriage.
It was always going to be difficult to hold up the revision of marriage when the Assembly base is oriented to liberal members being elected. I know some people start to have convulsions when this is mentioned, but please take a reality check for once and just admit that is the case – after all, even liberal members I have discussed this with privately agree and had concerns about the Assembly making a decision at this time, at least when the wider church membership was not ‘fully prepared’. The Assembly is simply more representative of the small group of liberals in the Uniting Church, than the overall conservative and orthodox membership.
Many of you will know that I did not provide a blog, or Facebook updates during the 15th Assembly. I had been given an ultimatum by the Manager for the Assembly Media and Communications regarding communication arrangements. For myself, this meant that I was welcome to be present as a member of the church (as a visitor), but not in any ‘reporting’ capacity as this would be deemed ‘media’ and I would then be excluded. Visitors were kept in a separate room and watched proceedings (as available) on a video link.
The reason given for the communication arrangements was to protect the discernment process of the Assembly by ensuring that there was no ‘parallel reporting’. I understand this arrangement applied to anyone seeking to ‘report’ and so I chose to not ‘report’, but to observe.
I am not sure of the arrangements for the oversight of social media, but from my casual observation, this did tend to be a bit of a free-for all, and in my view, any experienced journalist following this and the material available could have had a reasonable idea of what was going on during this time in any case.
Even the new version of Proposal 8; Proposal 61, was available publicly on the Assembly App until it disappeared, though no further proposals on marriage appeared publicly until the final (and very similar) Proposal 64 (and ultimate resolution) was officially released well after the decision.
In hindsight, if isolation from ‘outside influence’ was the Assembly base, it may have been better to have a sequestered jury approach, or even a conclave.
After the 15th Assembly meeting I decided that it would not be as helpful to provide an overall report as such, but to consider the major matter of the meeting (marriage) in the light of questions that I have been receiving since the decision. While the latter sessions on marriage were in private sitting (closed session of members only), the initial introduction of the proposals (and a reporting back from community groups) and one discussion night, provided quite a good context to understand the dynamics of the meeting. I believe that most went into the meeting with one outcome in mind. There are liberal fundamentalists who would disagree that Mary had a little lamb if it was proposed as an orthodox statement!
I could not see any evangelical orthodox members voting for change. There would have been a small group of moderates, probably genuinely perplexed about how to vote until they saw the final proposal, but they would have leant toward the personal dynamics of change and the idea that a proposal having two equal and valid statements could help the church stay together in the context of diversity.
Why did we get to where we are in terms of marriage?
My now slightly older articles on the Uniting Views website provide an overview of the liberalisation of the church and sexuality matters. There are historical factors here including the liberal dominance in Victoria and this is where the direction for change has come from. For this 15th Assembly, the immediate catalyst was the change in the Marriage Act in Australia. If this change has not been made the focus at the 15th Assembly may have been on a service of blessing?
Another critical reason for a focus on revising marriage is the elevation of personal experience within the Uniting Church, culminating in the enshrinement of personal story as the contemporary story on which decisions are based.
Why did the 15th Assembly decided to push the decision through by formal procedures instead of consensus?
The simple answer is, the 15th Assembly would never have been able to achieve consensus or consensus by agreement with this matter. The bottom line is that the 15th Assembly wanted a decision and outcome and the only way was the formal decision-making process. That was the end game.
Why did the 15th Assembly want a decision at this 15th Assembly meeting?
Bearing in mind it was only seven months after the marriage plebiscite, and no other major denomination in Australia was moving toward a change, it is worth considering why there was no deferral to the 16th Assembly and to have a period of broader consultation and discussion. While sexuality issues have been on the agenda for many years, the specific issue of marriage and a recommendation to change has only been within the wider church for a comparatively short time.
The specific report that outlined change (Report on Marriage and same-gender relationships) had only been out since the end of April, and from anecdotal reports, and the limited coverage in Synod newspapers and preparing of congregations, probably a good number of members (especially without social media connections) would not have even been aware of the matter for discussion, or at least the issues.
There has been in liberal circles a conflation of the whole sexuality debate. For many liberals, there was no need for further discussion because the next logical step was marriage if the Assembly was to continue down the path it was on. There was simply no reason to wait another three years.
Why did the 15th Assembly not refer the decision for concurrence?
Well basically the 15th Assembly can make up its own mind as to what is vital to the life of the church. There is no automatic referral for concurrence so essentially the power is in the hands of the 15th Assembly. Other members on the ACC website have commented about how this matter is vital, and certainly I think most liberal members thought it was a vital matter otherwise it would not have been acted upon with such passion and urgency, so why did the 15th Assembly not consider this matter vital after the decision had been made? As a long observer of church meetings, one theme is prominent: Never make a major decision unless you know the outcome, and once you have made the decision, don’t unmake it at the same meeting.
Some thoughts about why the move for concurrence failed are below:
- Overall, there was the dominant mantra abounding that highlighted the Assembly as its own council/counsel. Did this unwittingly lead to an arrogant position that simply thought it did not need the opinions of other councils of the church?
- There was an undeniable sense of urgency to make the decision now. People wanted to get on with being married and marrying their friends and members in a Uniting Church.
- Some people wanted the Uniting Church to claim the mantle of first (major) church to introduce same-gender marriage. They believe the Uniting Church had to lead the way (and not only on this matter).
- There was no mood for what would be considered compromise, namely referral.
- Any referral to other councils raises more issues and questions, including a delay in the implementation of a decision.
- Unpredictability of the outcome, especially if congregations were included (NCLS statistics on same-sex marriage seem to indicate that it would be unlikely that the needed concurrence of congregations would have been achieved)
One could say the Assembly was at least consistent in its approach. In 2003, Resolution 84 was not considered vital and yet we know what the impact on the wider church was. Déjà vu?
Overall, the numbers for an orthodox no-decision (to prevent a decision being made to revise marriage) were simply not there. It is very difficult for evangelical members to present a positive case in a church meeting when they are perceived as the pharisees of today. I know there are some members of the Assembly who have genuine and tolerant attitudes to those who are orthodox on the matter of marriage and would not think this, but there are other members who would probably throw up if the church had maintained its orthodox position on marriage.
I had wondered at the start whether some of the moderate members may have swung to ‘no-decision’. However, even the practical issue of the catastrophic impact on the wider church, especially in CALD and indigenous communities, did not carry as much weight as the focus on helping people achieve their personal goals of marrying and helping others marry in the church. The personal focus coupled with the idea that diversity is the cornerstone of the Uniting Church produced a winner.
Winter may have come, but evangelical and orthodox congregations will not simply live with the decision to revise marriage. The 15th Assembly will however have to live with the practical consequences of not declaring marriage to be a matter vital to the life of the church, as they were the ones that initiated the divorce.
Peter Bentley is the National Director of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations
29 July 2018
 Note: I am not suggesting readers watch this TV show, though one could not be unaware of the impact of TV on culture today, and there is an increasing amount of academic study about this show, and other significant cultural leaders like The Walking Dead. I am interested in how moral decision-making is made in a world where these shows and reality TV dominate and provide the immediate context for many people making decisions today, and this is personal and situational ethics.
Friday July 13, 2018
Dear ACC Members,
Yes, the decision about marriage and same-gender relationships can be reported. After another closed session tonight (Friday13th July), an official tweet emerged at approximately 8.44 pm, announcing:
"The 15th Assembly meeting of the Uniting Church in Australia has resolved to allow its ministers the freedom to conduct or refuse to conduct same-gender marriages."
The full official news report from the Uniting Church Assembly can be found here
Various verses came to my mind when hearing the result, though John 11: 35 was the most prominent. No doubt many members will have a verse, or several, and I encourage you to share these with one another over the coming days.
The ACC will provide a statement for members and congregations for Sunday 15th July.
I draw your attention to extracts from the ACC Pastoral Letter (3 April 2018) about what to do Post Assembly July 2018:
Stand Firm: please stand firm; do not make any hasty decisions; do not act alone. We call on all our members and congregations to make a stand and say, “We are not permitted to do this. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God”.
Wait: Please wait for an ACC pastoral letter and encourage others to wait and to stand firm. Noting that the ACC is committed to maintaining our current course: remaining faithful and committed to our confession that Jesus Christ alone is the living head of the Church, and adherence to the Basis of Union that commits us to the authority of Scripture.
Commit: We encourage you to commit to attending the 2018 ACC National Conference to be held at Wesley Mission in Sydney 17-19 September 2018. At this conference we will make clear from the Basis of Union and our ecumenical partners what it means to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
Important Update about the proposed ACC Blog: 8 July 2018
Dear ACC Members
I am sorry to inform you that I will not be able to provide a daily blog and update with a focus on the Marriage Proposals during the 15th Assembly meeting. I have been informed by the Manager for the Assembly Media and Communications Matt Pulford, of a decision regarding communication arrangements. For myself, this means that I am welcome to be present as a member of the church (as a visitor), but not in any ‘reporting’ capacity as this will be deemed ‘media’. The reason given is to protect the discernment process of the Assembly by ensuring that there is no ‘parallel reporting’. I understand this arrangement will apply to anyone seeking to ‘report’. A link to the official Assembly news is provided here, so you can check for information and news as it is provided.
Assembly members themselves have some social media capability. Further information about this is provided on the Assembly Website Social Media Guidelines.
As a past Assembly staff-person (observing the 1994 and 1997 Assembly meetings), Presbytery observer (2000 Assembly), a member of the 2003 Assembly and observer at the last four Assembly meetings for the RA/ACC, I am of course keen to observe the proceedings of the 2018 Assembly meeting and will thus be present as a visitor. I will be able to prepare a report and analysis following the Assembly meeting.
With appreciation for your understanding, grace and peace
Dear ACC Members
The first day of the Assembly July 8 (from Sunday afternoon) will be given over to procedural and business matters, members will spend time in their Community Working Groups and then on Sunday night, the installation of the new President, Dr Deidre Palmer.
Monday July 9 will see the start of the marriage debate. From 2 pm the eight proposals that have now been confirmed will be presented in order of their receipt. This session will continue until 3.30 pm. It is purely a presentation and information session and given the number of proposals will certainly take up this time.
The Assembly Standing Committee proposals to revise the ecumenical and biblical understanding of marriage (Proposal 8) will be first and then:
Proposal 20 – Presbytery of Yarra Yarra (Victoria) – seeks to affirm the change to the Marriage Act and allow UCA ministers to celebrate marriages of same-sex couples.
Proposal 25 - Inclusive changes to the definition of Marriage. Two members seek to amend the definition in line with the ASC proposals.
Proposal 27 – Doctrine and Practice of Marriage - from two SA members. This proposes that any changes to marriage be considered of vital importance to the life of the church and thus referred for concurrence of the other councils (Synods, Presbyteries and Congregations)
Proposal 31 is the proposal from Rev Dr Hedley Fihaki and Rev Lu Senituli and seeks to affirm the UCA understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman and with reference to the response provided by Rev Professor James Haire highlights the problems with the ASC proposals (8).
Proposal 46 – Presbytery of Port Phillip East (Victoria) – a clear message of support for the ASC proposals that propose to revise marriage
Proposal 53 – Korean Presbytery. Proposing adherence to the current definition of marriage, or maintaining the UCA position.
Proposal 57 - from Rev David de Kock (WA Synod General Secretary) and Peter Armstrong, seeks a deferral of any proposals until the 16th Assembly and a review with a Task Group to report with detailed consideration to:
- Potential ecumenical and legal impact
- Diverse biblical and theological perspectives
- Concerns and hopes of, and impact on congregations and presbyteries.
It will be a full start to this UCA Assembly meeting, and I hope we will all join in prayer for the Community Working Groups as they begin to work through these proposals on Monday from 4pm – 5.30 pm, and for the reporting back process (Facilitation Group Feedback) – this will be Tuesday morning July 10).
Sunday 8 July