I recently spent a week with colleagues in Adelaide as part of the Uniting Church in Australia’s three yearly national Assembly. We did a lot of listening, hearing the voices of indigenous people affected by the Stronger Futures intervention in the Northern Territory, and learning from the work done by agencies such as UnitingCare, UnitingJustice, UnitingWorld. One of the significant conversations we had was to do with marriage, specifically same-gender marriage. The Uniting Church is one of the few denominations where open and respectful learning and conversation is expected rather than squashed or avoided. And so we came to take a look at where we are at with regard to the groundswell of support for equal marriage rights, finally coming to a consensus decision to acknowledge our most recent statement on marriage, and develop resources for a respectful dialogue on theology of marriage in the Uniting Church in Australia. What might an exploration of theology of marriage in the Uniting Church include? Read on…
The 13th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia at its meeting in Adelaide agreed to the following:
1. To acknowledge that the current position on marriage is set out in Assembly Minute 97.31.12 (See Below)
2. Noting the desire for respectful conversation within the diverse community of the Church, and the current public debate about same-gender marriage, to ask the Doctrine Working Group, after appropriate consultation across the Church and with ongoing liaison with the Standing Committee
* to prepare a discussion paper on the theology of marriage within the Uniting Church, and explore its implications for public covenants for same-gender relationships
* to circulate the paper widely, and specifically to UAICC National Committee, synods, Chairpersons of National Conferences, presbyteries, UAICC Regions, Uniting Network, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, congregations, agencies and institutions of the Uniting Church, requesting responses to the Working Group by a date to be determined by the Standing Committee; and
* to summarize responses and bring recommendations to the Standing Committee by November 2014, to enable the Standing Committee to bring a report to the 14th Assembly in 2015.
In my speech to the Assembly I said that the conversation is here, whether we like it or not. What we have some influence over is the quality of dialogue. We need resources that help us include many people, so that we can all reflect on how our stories, our understandings of God and the world, our perspectives on the gospel, our cultural contexts, are shared, shaped or challenged by others.
I quoted from American Catholic theologian David Tracy, who in his 1994 book Plurality and Ambiguity has the the following to say:
“Conversation is a game with some hard rules. Say only what you mean. Say it as accurately as you can. Listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other. Be willing to correct or defend your opinions, if challenged by the conversation partner. Be willing to argue if necessary to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.”
If we are to have that level of dialogue, we need to allocate time and resources, not be rushed into quick one-dimensional or two-dimensional discussion points.
Here’s what I’d be hoping for in the coming years in the Uniting Church…
An exploration of marriage in the Old and New Testaments, including the second creation story in Genesis, the wide range of approaches to marriage found in narratives throughout the Old Testament, the reflections of Jesus on marriage and remarriage, Paul’s use marriage as a metaphor to explore the church’s relationship with Christ. How do we interpret these?
We need some reflection on the existing statements on marriage, divorce and remarriage sanctioned by the Uniting Church in Australia. How did we get there? Are there principles that we need to be listening to? Is there room for flexibility?
Here’s the statement from the UCA Assembly in 1997:
Marriage for Christians is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life. It is intended to be the mutually faithful lifelong union of a woman and a man expressed in every part of their life together.
In marriage the man and woman seek to encourage and enrich each other through love and companionship.
In the marriage service the woman and man make a public covenant with each other and with God, in the company of family and friends. The couple affirm their trust in each other and in God. The Church affirms the sanctity of marriage and nurtures those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage and calls upon all people to support, uphold and nurture those who pledge themselves to each other in marriage.
Where sexual union takes place, the partners seek to express mutual delight, pleasure and tenderness, thus strengthening the union of their lives together. In marriage, children may be born and are to be brought up in love and security, thus providing a firm foundation for society.
2. Separation, Divorce and Re-marriage
An inability to sustain the marriage relationship breaks the commitment to be together for life and may be painful for the couple, the children in their care, as well as for parents, friends and the Church community. In cases of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, the Church acknowledges that divorce may be the only creative and life giving direction to take.
The Church has a responsibility to:
(a) care for people, including children, through the trauma of the ending of a marriage;
(b) help people where appropriate to grieve, repent, grow in self-understanding, receive affirmation, grace and forgiveness;
(c) support them as they hear God’s call for new life.
The grace and healing of God are available to people who are divorced, which may free them to marry again.
A study of the history of the institution of marriage as it has evolved over many years in different contexts around the world. Marriage as we know it today in Australia recognizes the equal standing of both members of the marriage relationship, in contrast to legal and cultural practices that have treated the woman as the property of her father to be “given away” to her husband.
We need to take a look at the role of the Christian church in providing legally recognized celebrants for state-recognised marriages. How did we get there? Do we want to stay there?
Sociology and Culture
Reflection on the sociological and cultural understandings of marriage found in Australian society, connected with global movements promoting human rights associated with gender identity and sexual orientation. What do we make of the move towards legal and societal recognition of “civil unions” for heterosexual and homosexual couples? What role could and should the Uniting Church and its members have in the blessing and/or recognition of civil unions? How was the current understanding of marriage as being between a man and woman developed? What else is connected to our cultural practices relating to weddings, marriage, divorce and remarriage?
We need to listen to the stories of people in relation to marriage, including heterosexual and homosexual, recognising that our own personal understanding of marriage is shaped by our own experience over many years, including our own family of origin.
What else would you explore? What kind of resources might be helpful? How might a theology of marriage be connected with our understanding of incarnation (God’s loving engagement with every part of our lives), gospel (God’s loving engagement with every part of our lives calling us as persons in community to respond with trust and integrity), and future hope?