Flinders, looking south to Wilpena Pound November 2014

Seeking Healing for the church and ourselves

 To allies of LGBTIQ+ people: a theological exposition.

When the formation of a diocese unaffiliated with the Anglican Church in Australia appeared in my news feed in August 2022, I had some sympathy with friends who said, "Generate all over again." Yet the two situations are far different. We in the UCA are seeking to remain in communion with each other despite the terrible pain we cause each other. The existence of Generate Presbytery has the potential to be a great witness to the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. This is because it can witness to the Uniting Church striving for a culture which reflects the nature of God; that is, a culture which strives for the inclusion of all people and so reflects that God loves all people just the same... if we will be courageous and continue to seek to work with each other.

To emphasise the point: Generate Presbytery seeks to remain within the Uniting Church, and I suspect many of us underestimate what that may cost its leaders in criticism from some of its members, and from other presbyteries. By contrast, the newly formed Anglican Diocese seems to have walked some distance away from the vision of a God who loves and values all people equally.

This article is not intended as a critique of Generate Presbytery or of individual members. Although I disagree strongly with some of the sentiment I have heard from members of that presbytery, I am also indebted to some of the same people for alerting me to my personal shortcomings and for being channels of healing for me. All this before wondering what lessons I could have learned about mission and discipleship from those same colleagues, had I paid attention.

Rather, I wish to confront the shortcomings of both Generate Presbytery, and those of us who are LGBTIQ+ or are the allies of LGBTIQ+ folk. I am one such ally; I also identify myself as a non-binary person. I am a Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church.  In the past, I have been much less than charitable to brothers and sisters in the Generate presbytery. 

I wish to distinguish between Presbyteries and other bodies of the church, and the people who are within them. All church committees and support groups, like the church itself, are powers[1].  When we band together we become something greater than the sum of our parts, a body which has a certain existence independent of its individual members. Every institution (and its committees) has moments where it feels as though it has acted almost despite itself, and far short of the good to which it aspires. At the very least, we should remember that there are many Uniting Church members in South Australia (in all three presbyteries) who faithfully attempt to serve God, and to serve their congregation even though it has chosen a direction with which they disagree. And many who grieve some things their group has said or done despite its best intentions. Perhaps it is time to believe and trust each other when we say we are honestly seeking the best for each other and for the church, for I think this is true.

••••

Generate is a non-geographic presbytery of the Uniting Church in South Australia. It reveals its foundations on its web page where its reasons for existing are listed. (Accessed 18/8/2022)

1. Vigorously pursue the Great Commission
2. Strongly encourage effective mission and discipleship that leads to conversion growth, disciples being made, leaders being empowered, churches being planted and churches being renewed and growing.
3. Passionately stimulate Gospel renewal in the Uniting Church, starting with congregations, who are the embodiment in one place of One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
4. Hold the position that marriage is the covenantal relationship of one man and one woman.

Here is the Great Commission, which includes the Greatest Commandment:

8And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)

This is the Greatest Commandment:

29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ (Mark 12)

Conversion and renewal—indeed the Gospel itself, are nothing if they do not involve the active day to day living out of the Great Commandment. The making of disciples who are not deeply invested in loving one's neighbour as oneself is to convert them to a perversion of the Gospel. This bears upon the behaviour of all parts of the church in the debates about human sexuality, but also in all of our life as Christians and as church. If we do not strive to live this out, our evangelising and discipling is deeply compromised.

A presbytery or congregation which lives out the implication of the first three points above is in not of itself an enemy of LGBTIQ+ people. Indeed, it would be admirable if all congregations were much more intentional about these things!

But what is Point 4 saying? It seems incongruous alongside the other three points unless one remembers the genesis of the Presbytery as a body founded, in part, to enable folk to stay within the Uniting Church[2]. As such, Point 4 is purely an identity statement and rallying point. It serves no other practical purpose. No one can force a congregation to appoint an LBGTIQ+ minister, or indeed, a female minister, or a minister of a particular theological persuasion. The Uniting Church does not force celebrants to marry same sex couples. Congregations are not required to make LGBTIQ+ people or anyone else welcome, and to our shame, we often do not. As we have tolerated clergy who publicly opposed the full inclusion of women in the ministry of the church, so we now tolerate others who are hostile to varying degrees to LGBTIQ+ people. No one needed the statement in Point 4 in order to be the kind of congregation they wished to be.

Our immediate response as LGBTIQ+ folk or allies, may be to name Point 4 as homophobic.  While this is no doubt true of some members of Generate Presbytery, it is also true of some members of the other presbyteries.  The complex truth is that LGBTIQ+ folk can be more welcome in some Generate Congregations than in congregations which are not members of that presbytery.

I think our problem is not homophobia, but the violence which comes from the fear of losing control of our lives; that is, violence which seeks to maintain power at the expense of others. We can immediately see that homophobic behaviour is only one of many symptoms of such violence. Indeed, to the extent we are able to come to terms with our fear of losing control—ultimately a death fear, our racism, sexism, homophobia, and other less than admirable failings, lose much of their toxicity and become much more manageable for both us and others. If we are conscientised to such failings of our own they can serve to recall us to living more fully for the kingdom on those occasions we lapse back into them.

For this to occur we need to learn to face our fears, even if only to be conscious we are afraid; we need to rescue terms like racism and homophobia and abuse from being markers of shame and censure; in other words, from themselves being a tool of violence used to diminish people, or "cancel" them, and use them instead as descriptions of our shortcomings which can then allow us to grow. Not that this is any way an easy undertaking.

My father fought in the war against Japan, and through his work with Japanese prisoners was remarkably free of the prejudice sometimes acquired by soldiers of that war. We grew up knowing racism was wrong, and with strong examples to live by from our parents. My mum, ever the storyteller, regaled us with stories of her surprisingly multicultural upbringing, including living and working with Italian POWs. At university, I made friends with students from all over the world and had thoughts of marriage with a Chinese friend. I worked with First Nations folk whose hospitality and witness affects me to this day.

Then I came back to Adelaide for theological training, which involved subjects at Flinders University. At the time, there was a large group of students from an Italian background who used to meet in the part of the campus where I was studying. I found I had a deep, visceral, dislike of Italian people. I was shocked, and ashamed. And although I deliberately shop in Adelaide's "little Italy," and visit the best Italian dessert shop in the city, I still sometimes catch myself responding with prejudice. It appals me. I think what happened is that the regional seaport near my home town had Italian settlers off the ships who had become market gardeners out under the ranges.  We had no First Nations folk living locally who had survived us to pick on, so the go-to group to hate were the Italians. Not by my parents. They would have excoriated[3] me if I had expressed prejudice towards Italian folk. I had simply unconsciously imbibed the prejudice in the air with no awareness of doing it, and with no awareness that my being was partly built upon the inferiority and untrustworthiness of Italian folk.

Objectively, I am racist. It is one of my shortcomings, a part of my sinfulness. Accept this as simple fact, even gently point it out to me if I stumble, and yet still treat me with respect, and we have the potential to work together and be in communion with each other. You offer me a path to healing and growth as you remind me of my failure, and yet still love me. But shame and censure me, "cancel me," and our opportunity for communion is gone.  More than that, you visit upon me the violence that you see in my racism. In Romans 1:1-2:11, Paul makes this explicit.  In 2:1 he delivers the key point of that extended argument: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."

People use the text of Romans 1 as a weapon against LGBTIQ+ people. But if we reply with the same violence, it also condemns us.

The Uniting Church has been remarkable in its journey of acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people as people who are loved by God just the same as other people. And as people who do not need to somehow "repent" being the people God has made them to be.  There has been a conversation of some 40 years[4] where individuals, congregations, and presbyteries, have been able to contribute to the search for what God is saying to us.  And despite all the organisation of anti-LGBTIQ+ sentiment, the church has slowly moved to accept the full humanity of those of us who are LGBTQI+. Indeed, at the last meeting of the Presbytery of South Australia, where that Presbytery had a "casting vote" which could  have requested the national Assembly to reconsider its decision on same sex marriage, the motion to do that could not even raise a raw majority (ie more than 50%) let alone the majority the meeting had decided would trigger the request.

Forty years work listening and praying. It reminds me of words from Acts.

28For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.’
30 So they were sent off and went down to Antioch. When they gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. 31When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. (Acts 15)

Remember what leads to this text: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1,5) Circumcision was an identifying feature of Jewish identity and relationship with God. The new church overthrew one of its key understandings about being a faithful follower of the God of Jesus, and did not require Gentile converts to be circumcised,  a decision numbers of folk felt had no scriptural warrant and, instead, many arguments to the contrary.

We have done something similar. It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the Uniting Church—us—to impose on LGBTIQ+ people no further burden or responsibility than that carried by the rest of us, which is to abstain from idolatry. To be clear, fornication (vv29) is not a separate category over which we might quibble. Fornication is idolatry, for it is sexual behaviour which puts the self over others, and puts self before the Divine command to love others as ourselves. And the decisions taken by the Church over these forty years make it clear that it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to say that LGBTIQ+ sexual expression is, of itself, not fornication. (The word πορνείας[5] which is translated as fornication is "a generic term for sexual sin of any kind.")

If we take our claim that the Spirit is present in the gathered church seriously, it is Generate Presbytery which is out of step with the leading of the Spirit, not the wider Uniting Church, when it comes to arguments over sex and gender.

••••

Let us take a moment to consider some definitions.

Homophobia encompasses a range of negative attitudes and feelings toward homosexuality or people who are identified or perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). It has been defined as contempt, prejudice, aversion, hatred or antipathy, may be based on irrational fear and may also be related to religious beliefs. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homophobia)

Homophobia: irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or gay people. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homophobia)

I want to make an important distinction between these two definitions. Wikipedia is far more accurate when it says "may be based on irrational fear." The Merriam-Webster dictionary does not understand that if a person is deeply conservative—I sometimes tell people I used to be a card-carrying fundamentalist—then the fear of, and aversion to, LGBTIQ+ folk is not necessarily irrational. This is because from that position, accepting LGBTIQ+  folk as equal to yourself can upend your entire identity. In my own life, the realisation that my fundamentalism was unsustainable and just wrong—nothing to do with sexuality, as it happened—that realisation was terrifying. Everything had to change. I thought I might become insane. There is nothing irrational about that fear. (Of course, the issue is not the LGBTIQ+ person, but the finding of a new identity for the fearful person, which is no easy task.)

We should also note the structure of the Wikipedia description. Homophobia "encompasses a range of … attitudes." Some folk harbour deep hatred on LGBTIQ+ folk, others recognise their own prejudice toward them and struggle to overcome it. We judge ourselves by our response.

There is another word also laden with emotion. Can we disarm it?

A bigot is someone intolerant of others' differing ideas, races, genders, religions, politics, etc. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigot_(disambiguation)

Bigotry: obstinate or intolerant devotion to one's own opinions and prejudices: the state of mind of a bigot (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bigotry) [My emphasis]

As a fundamentalist, I was certainly a bigot. Not about race and gender, true, but certainly about religions and politics and other things.

Anyone can choose definitions to suit their own argument, so let me focus the point: Are we truly committed to the Way of Jesus mediated to us through the Holy Spirit and Uniting Church? Do we take seriously that the Spirit leads the church? Do we trust God? If we do, then Generate Presbytery is a body to some extent founded in homophobia and bigotry. By definition of the Uniting Church to which it belongs. And every time someone says to an LGBTIQ+ person in a committee meeting, "But I have to say, marriage is between a man and a woman...," they are being a bigot.

But it is difficult to separate the fact of bigotry or homophobia from the emotional freight and censure that is delivered with those words. I doubt we can ever disarm the word bigot. It would be as well not to use it. But the church has had a serious problem here—of which I am also guilty. Friends tell me they have been counselled, ordered, and threatened with consequences, for describing their treatment using terms like homophobia and bigotry by the same people who then do not challenge those who preface their remarks with, "But I have to say...," and such-like. Those people weaponise language against LGBTIQ+ people as though words that imply a person is a sinner hated by God, are somehow less violent, or more acceptable, than homophobia and bigot. As the wider church we have much to repent here for we are too often silent in the face of such abuse.

If the church is to be a safe place for all, and for any of us, we need to cease the theological virtue signalling which is homophobia. And if we refuse, then we should be called out for it, and not by LGBTIQ+ folk, but by their allies. For such statements are homophobic by definition, and they are intensely damaging to folk who have already borne too much in bringing us the Christ.[6]

We can do this. I remember a Synod meeting where someone stood up and made a racist statement in relation to First Nations people. They were immediately called out by members of the meeting from the floor, and were asked to stop speaking by the Moderator. The great irony is that in the same meeting we'd had long discussions about LGBTIQ+ issues, and not been able to afford ourselves the same respect—in either direction.

We have not been a safe place for LGBTIQ+ people. We have sent hate mail. Ministers have broken confidentiality and outed people. We have petitioned to have people removed from the positions to which we called them. We have screamed at them and abused them in meetings. We have driven them from their congregations. We have asked them to be silent, to be patient, and not to call out the things being said and done. We have destroyed people's health. We have taken their home away from them.

Like Paul's text in Romans 1, this is a list of outrages. And then he says: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." (Romans 2:1) This is a hard text, for it is a key abuse vector used against LGBTIQ+ people. It truly is a text of terror. But it is a text for all of us.

There is something more fundamental than a safe church, and that is an inclusive church. We can never be safe if we are not inclusive. Let me show you the fine distinction:  If I eject you because of your homophobia towards me, I am no different to you who are seeking to eject me because of my nonbinary identity, or because of my support of LGBTIQ+ folk. My calling is to absorb your abuse, if I can, so that you can remain in fellowship and be converted. This is what Jesus did for us. Church can never be safe whilst we eject[7] people. 

Our original sin as Homo sapiens, the reason we are not fully human[8], is that we eject people. We use violence to divide ourselves. We call ourselves right, and the others wrong. Our tribe builds up its strength by scapegoating those who are just like us but a little different. We make them the enemy and feed ourselves on our hatred and rejection of them. We push them out in order to avoid facing our own terrors and shortcomings. We are the antithesis of the inclusive harmony that is the Triune God. In ejecting the rest of the church, the "new" Anglican diocese is adopting "the world’s oldest religion"[9]  and seeking to eject the Christ[10] from among them. Whatever our failures in South Australia, this is a path we have avoided.

If as LGBTIQ+ folk and allies we force other folk out, we are no different to the Anglican diocese or the more extreme folk in Generate.

If we will not stand for inclusion even of those who abuse us and who wish us gone, then when we have ejected them, who are we? We are a people who still live by the violence of separation and exclusion rather than love. We live by the old pre-Christian theologies from which we claim freedom and healing. And so we will do it again. We will look to scapegoat to solve our phobias, and it still might be us who end up being the scapegoats.

May I plead for folk whose understanding of us injures us? I recognise a commonality in the discussions about sexuality, race, social justice, the ordination and ministry of women, and many other things right back to the wearing of hats in my childhood congregation. There has been a commonality of social and theological conservatism which, despite the often radical views of my parents, deeply affected me. It meant that as a young Christian I was soon seduced by a fundamentalism which promised to guarantee the grace of my salvation.

Despite the example of my parents, wonderful mentors, an excellent theological education, and an extraordinary partner, I will always be a recovering fundamentalist. The fear that accompanies the threat of losing the false fundamentalist promise of existential safety is immense for those who have been persuaded by that promise. And the work of re-making the world is daunting and lengthy. If I find this so, with all my life advantage, how hard it must be for those without that advantage.

I knew a child who was sexually abused by a teacher. In the ignorance of the time we all "knew" the teacher must be a homosexual. If the victim were lucky, they would have been left to suffer alone. More likely, they were blamed and further victimised, a further abuse. What if sixty years later they have found a measure of support and healing within a Generate affiliated congregation? How could I dare condemn them if I found their attitudes hurtful? How could I demand they change, or leave? I sometimes can't even be at ease with an Italian Nonna next to me in the supermarket! If my old school contemporary can shift from fear and loathing of what they take me to be, to mere dislike, it could be argued that their healing is greater than mine. How dare I reject them?

How then shall we live, as a Synod, and as LGBTIQ+ allies?

  1. We could talk more to each other instead of silo-ing ourselves within our presbyteries. And, preaching to myself, people like me who arguably have much less to lose, could lead the way.

  2. We could strengthen our desire to be a safe church. Let's name abuse for what it is, from all sides. Let's practice the separation of naming racism, misogyny, and homophobia from the implication that a person's shortcomings here mean they are a bad person. I know for myself that I am far less likely to respond to you at a visceral level when you greet me without condemnation, and I have been both shamed and warmed by such personal respect by key leaders within Generate. There is theological name for this: It is to practise love. We have no right to expect LGBTIQ+ folk to lead the way here. They have already borne too much for us. It is time for their allies in name to be allies in fact and deed. LGBT?IQ+ folk should not have to defend themselves.

  3. Those of us who seek to be allies could do a lot more listening to LGBTIQ+ friends and support them more.

  4. We could also risk the church; that is, we could also trust God a little more radically. I think the truth is that there are two kinds of folk in Generate and the other presbyteries. Some are here because the Uniting Church is their home, and will remain their home despite their despair at its failures, and the hurt it has done them. I am in one such group. But I suspect others have remained with us because to leave would cost them their building. (I doubt that this is restricted to Generate.) How can you leave a denomination if suddenly you have nowhere to meet?

    What if we let people leave? Would we not be better off freeing those who do not, and will not, share the vision of a uniting church?  What if we found a way to allow people to buy their building, or lease it, instead of binding us all into an unhappy marriage that can only hurt both sides?  It is a failure of Christian love if we eject people. But I think it is equally a failure if we force people to stay because it will cost us money.

Andrew Prior (Oct 2022)

 

[1] Ephesians 6:12.

[2] This purpose was expressed during Synod debates which led to the formation of our three current presbyteries.

[3] (I still remember the incandescent blast from my Methodist mother when I said something derogatory about a couple of Josephite nuns as they walked down from the convent, pre Vatican 2!)

[4] https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/PDF/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf

[5] https://www.billmounce.com/greek-dictionary/porneia

[6] This is the implication of Matthew 25:31-46

[7] There is nuance to this: It seemed at one time that my congregation might be joined by a known sex offender.  After consultation with the elders, it was apparent that we could not keep people safe with this person present, so I prepared to tell them they could not attend. But I planned to do that as a confession of failure, as apology, and claiming no righteousness in the situation at all. In the event, they decided not to be a part of us, but I counselled people that this was not any form of success, or lucky escape, but that we must see it as a failure.

[8] Walter Wink Just Jesus: My Struggle to become Human pp 102 says

"God is HUMAN … It is the great error of humanity to believe that it is human. We are only fragmentarily human, fleetingly human, brokenly human. We see glimpses of our humanness, we can only dream of what a more human existence and political order would be like, but we have not yet arrived at true humanness. Only God is human, and we are made in God’s image and likeness — which is to say, we are capable of becoming human."

[9] See https://www.onemansweb.org/the-theology-of-scot-morrison.html

[10] Matthew 25.31-46 makes it clear that the Christ comes to us in the ones we typically reject.


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