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Marriage Clearly a Vital Matter for the Whole Uniting Church

A distant rumble over a vital matter

Former President of the UCA Assembly Dr Andrew Dutney has been very busy lately. At the 15th Assembly he moved the motion to change the Church’s doctrine and practise of marriage to allow same gender couples to be married in Uniting Churches and by Uniting ministers. Now that such a change has been agreed to by the Assembly, Dr Dutney is at work assuring a very large number of Uniting members, ministers and congregations who are deeply distressed by this unbiblical innovation that there is really nothing they can do about it, and that their time and energy would be better spent accepting the new situation and getting on with their Christian lives.

In his blog “Matters vital to the life of the Church”, Andrew deals with the question of the Assembly seeking concurrence from Synods, Presbyteries and Congregations for the controversial decision. He (rightly) points out that it is the Assembly itself that decides if a matter is ‘vital’ to the life of the Church and therefore needing the concurrence of the other councils. The 15th Assembly, he reports, considered seeking concurrence and decided that the matter wasn’t vital. (A two thirds majority is required to decide that a matter is vital). If enough Presbyteries or Synods request a review of the decision, then the Assembly is obliged to look at it again. But the Assembly is not obliged to change the decision, and Dr Dutney triumphantly informs us that “in the end it still remains the Assembly’s decision. Moreover, if the Assembly decided not to vary its original decision on marriage, that would be the end of the matter.”

Some Synod leaders, delighted with Dr Dutney’s hosing down of the troops, are publishing and circulating his account of ‘matters vital to the life of the Church’. By contrast, Rev. Robert Griffith has offered the following on behalf of many:

I feel compelled to offer the following four observations to this blog:

1. I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the same person who presented Proposal 8 to the Assembly, which called for the removal of “man and woman” completely from our Marriage doctrine, would now be discouraging those who may choose to accept the invitation of Clause 39 (b)(i) of our Constitution to offer THEIR OPINION as to whether this issue is vital to the life of the Church.

2. Many Presbyteries will now be meeting to determine if, IN THEIR OPINION, this issue constitutes a matter vital to the life of the Church and whether, IN THEIR OPINION, the level of consultation and engagement with the whole Church was sufficient for a decision of this importance. Nobody has the right to tell the members of the Church what their opinion should be or why their opinion is invalid before it is even expressed. With all due respect to our former President, if our people believe this issue is vital to the life of the Church, then Clause 39 (b)(i) invites them to offer that opinion without interference or judgement.

3. I am absolutely stunned to learn that one of our Church’s most respected leaders actually believes that defending 2,000 years of Christian belief and tens of thousands of years of cultural understanding of marriage is now nothing but a “culture war carried into the life of the Church by its members.”

4. Surely the best way to determine if something is vital to the life of the Church is to ASK THE CHURCH. Why else was Clause 39 (b)(i) even written? So, can we PLEASE allow the members of the Church to speak, if they so choose?

Rev. Trevor Faggotter also has commented:

Apart from this mechanism (concurrence) being allowed to function, the notion of being governed by inter-related councils just gives way to a form of church, where the Assembly, (advised by the change-proposing President), functions more like a pre-Reformation Pope.

Anticipating the possibility of what has now happened, I wrote an open letter to the leaders of the Uniting Church earlier this year, and said the following:

If the Assembly were to make the momentous decision to radically change the Church’s doctrine of marriage and determine either that it was not vital to the life of the Church, and therefore did not need to be referred, or that concurrence had been sought through previous discussions, that would indicate a far greater problem for the Uniting Church than the issue of marriage. Having refused to refer a vital matter in 2003, if the Assembly did so again with all that is at stake… then all UCA members would know that their congregations, along with their property and their future, were in the hands of a popish, dictatorial, and unrepresentative Assembly that had no intention, now or in the future, of sharing vital decision-making with the Church as a whole, even if the Church’s governing documents mandated it. The loss of trust would destroy the Church, and everyone would ‘do what seemed good in their own eyes’.

This prophecy, sadly, now seems to have come to pass.

As Dr Dutney correctly pointed out, the Assembly has all the power. And the Assembly, because of its small size and unrepresentative constituency, has been making decisions for years that reflect its liberal theology. There are hundreds of congregations that would have left the Uniting Church years ago if they could take their property with them. However, their property, which they have built, paid for and maintained, is legally owned by the Synod which has all the power over it. So, all these congregations are unwilling prisoners of a denomination whose theology and practice are alien to them. Some, whose property is of minimal significance to them, may be willing to pay the price of freedom and leave their property behind. But for others (e.g. the large evangelical congregations), the congregation cannot exist without the property that contains it.

With Andrew’s idea of natural justice, he and other Assembly leaders must feel very pleased that they have all the bases covered.

But, as Trevor Faggotter has noted, ‘There is a Rumble in the distance. It is the gathering discontent of thousands of UCA members, who can read for themselves the words of the Basis of Union, and of the Bible’. Hopefully, that rumble is the sound of an approaching reformation in which a significant number of reformed/evangelical congregations can link together and strike out in ‘sole loyalty to Jesus Christ’ as the Basis of Union commits them to do. Let us earnestly seek the Lord that He might make ‘the valley of Achor (trouble) a door of hope’ (Hosea 2:15).

Rev. Rod James is a Minister of the Word in South Australia

August 2018