Editorial note: the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) has clarified that while they have promoted some of the prominent negative responses to the Working Group on Doctrine (WGD) Report on Marriage, these responses are not official responses by the ACC. The link in the first main paragraph does still link to their helpful collation of many of these responses, and I hope people will take the time to read some of them.
I am aware that literally no one asked for this. Nevertheless, I am a member of the upcoming Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) Assembly - that council tasked with discernment and decision on issues of doctrine within the Uniting Church. I thought it would be helpful to lay out the issues that I see framing the issue of marriage within the Uniting Church, as a way of resourcing the discernment that the Assembly is to undertake. The issue in question is whether the Uniting Church in Australia should change its law to allow ministers to conduct same-gender marriages if they so wish -- but not to compel any minister, or any congregation to conduct or condone any such marriages if they do not wish to do so.
In order to resource the Assembly’s reflections on the issue of same-gender marriage, the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) requested the Working Group on Doctrine (WGD) to prepare a report on the issue. This was report was prepared and released, and is available here. There have been many responses to this detailed report, both positive and negative. The most prominent negative responses have been released by the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC), and can be found here. My intention here is not to rehash these debates, nor to refer overly to either the WGD Report or the various responses to it. I simply want to highlight what I see as the four key issues that frame the ongoing discussion of marriage, and try and outline how I am thinking through these issues, in the hopes that this might stimulate more reflection. The four key issues or questions I’ve noticed popping up in various discussions are:
What is the basis and place of legitimate diversity in the church?
Is marriage of “the substance of the faith”?
What does it mean to be faithful to Scripture?
What are the criteria for reforming the church’s law?
1. The legitimate basis and place of diversity in the Uniting Church in Australia
Proposal (c)(i) offered by the WGD Report on marriage proposes to the Assembly:
“To affirm that Ministers and celebrants authorised by the Uniting Church in Australia may exercise freedom of conscience with regards to accepting requests to celebrate marriages, including same-gender marriages, according to the rites of the Uniting Church in Australia”
This proposal affirms the legitimacy of diverse views of conscience held by ministers, and enshrines ministers’ abilities to exercise freedom in regards to their diverse views. The question arises whether or not diversity of views in regards to marriage is appropriate, or whether the church should mandate a uniform practice of marriage on the basis of a uniform doctrine of marriage.
Two considerations shape my thinking about this framing issue.
First, the founding theological document of the UCA - the Basis of Union (BoU) - does not envision this new church to be a new denomination alongside others. Rather, the coming together of Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian traditions stands “in fellowship with the whole Church Catholic, and seek[s] to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and will for the Church.” The vision of the UCA offered by the Basis of Union “look[s] for a continuing renewal in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people.” The point, in other words, is that the UCA is not a church tied to drawing sharp dividing lines about its distinctive identity, but rather a church committed to continuing (hence Unit-ing) renewal across the denominational boundaries of the Church Catholic. Uniformity, for me, should thus not be the default assumption of doctrinal issues within the UCA.
Second, while uniformity is not the default assumption of the UCA, the BoU is clear that a necessary requirement for ministers, elders, deaconesses, and lay preachers within the church is that they “adhere to the Basis of Union.” This adherence constitutes a level of uniformity in the practice and doctrine of the UCA. What this adherence means is therefore critical if we want to understand the legitimacy of diverse practices and understanding of marriage within the UCA. Put simply: does adherence to the Basis of Union necessitate a uniform practice and doctrine of marriage in the UCA?
The BoU defines adherence to the Basis of Union as:
“willingness to live and work within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as that way is described in this Basis. Such adherence allows for difference of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith.”
The legitimate diversity that uniform adherence to the Basis of Union allows is related to issues “which do not enter into the substance of the faith.” The question of diverse practices and understandings of marriage within the UCA thus seem to hinge on whether or not marriage is a matter which enters into the substance of the faith.
2. Marriage and “the Substance of the Faith”
The first point to be made about whether or not marriage is of the substance of the faith is that the Basis of Union itself does not mention marriage. Adherence to the Basis of Union means a willingness to live and work within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church “as that way is described in the Basis.” The Basis of Union does not include marriage in its description of this way.
Second, the Basis of Union does point to the creeds of the church, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Neither of these creeds make reference to marriage.
Third, the Basis of Union points to the witness of the Reformers, and in particular the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Savoy Declaration (1658); as well as the Forty-Four Sermons (1793) of John Wesley.
The Heidelberg Catechism mentions marriage only to say that “all unchastity is cursed by God … both within and outside of holy marriage.”
John Wesley’s Sermon XVVIII mentions marriage to say that marriage should not be “a pretence for giving a loose to our desires,” and affirms that adultery is the only legitimate cause of divorce.
Only the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Savoy Declaration of that same confession, mention marriage as explicitly “between one man and one woman.” The Westminster Confession also includes prohibitions against marriages between Reformed Protestants and non-Christians, Catholics, idolaters, people who are wicked, or heretics. Adultery is also restated as the only legitimate grounds for divorce.
Fourth, the WGD Report surveys the historical practices and understandings of marriage throughout church history. The report highlights that the earliest “detailed account of a Christian wedding” comes from the 9th century, in the 12th century priests become involved in the ceremony, and in the 13th century the Western church declared marriage to be one of the seven sacraments of the church - Luther and Calvin both rejected this sacramental understanding of marriage at the Reformation. This historical survey suggests that there has not been a uniform or stable set of practices or doctrines related to marriage throughout church history.
These four considerations make it difficult for me to accept that marriage is of the substance of the faith, and therefore lead me to say that marriage is an issue which allows for legitimate diversity within adherence to the Basis of Union.
3. Faithfulness to Scripture
The very broad question of what faithfulness to Scripture means is far beyond the scope of this hopefully short reflection. What I want to focus on are 3 sub-issues that I think characterise the disagreements over the issue of marriage in the church.
a) The role of scripture in the life of the church
The WGD Report on Marriage notes that Basis of Union paragraph 5 orders the role of Scripture within the economy of God’s revelation in Christ:
“The Word of God … is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church …”
Because the Word of God is heard from Scripture, Scripture itself is thus not understood as ‘the Word of God’: “Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of the God who acquits …” Christ (the Word) is present in preaching, and heard in Scripture; Scripture itself is rightly situated within worship (which includes preaching). The import is that Scripture supports the work of making Christ present, but Christ is not present in Scripture per se, but Christ is made present in preaching which is “controlled by the Biblical witnesses.” The point is that our faithfulness to Scripture is secondary to our faithfulness to Christ: Scripture helps us to be faithful to Christ, but faithfulness to Scripture cannot be a replacement to the more important faithfulness to Christ. Also important is the claim that our interpretation of Scripture is related to Scripture’s place within the church’s ministry and worship.
b) The nature of scripture: univocal or multivocal?
The Basis of Union states that Scripture is a “unique prophetic and apostolic testimony,” which it refers to in the plural as “Biblical witnesses.” At one level this points to an empirical reality: the Bible is not one book, but a collection of many books, written by many people, over many years. At another level it prompts a question: do all of these voices agree with each other, or are there tensions and potential disagreements within Scripture?
One way of very briefly framing two answers to this question is to look at two patterns of understanding the overarching Biblical narrative:
Narrative #1: First Creation → Salvation offered in Christ → Return to First Creation
Narrative #2: First Creation → Salvation offered in Christ → Move to New Creation
These narratives aren't so much about a literal account of history, but rather about how the texts spread across the Biblical canon hold together. We might sketch the differences with reference to a few key themes and questions from Scripture:
Jesus as the new Adam.
Is Jesus a repetition of Adam: a prototypical human that gets it right instead of wrong? Or does Jesus show us something new about humanity, or rise beyond being a prototype of obedient humanity?
Babel and Pentecost.
The story of Babel is an account of the fallout of the fall of humanity, where God punishes humanity for disobedience by confusing humanity and making them speak different languages. At Pentecost when the Spirit comes, does the Spirit reverse Babel (making everyone speak the same language)? Or does the Spirit sanctify Babel (making the diversity of language now a good part of God’s reconciled people)?
Eden and Revelation.
Does the book of Revelation point us to a return back to the paradise of Eden, or does Revelation point to a new vision of reconciled humanity with God dwelling in a new creation?
Genesis as foundation or hope.
Is Genesis an account of the theological foundation of the word, or a vision of an ordered creation to which the Jewish people mired in persecution and suffering aspire to?
Jesus and Messianic expectation.
Does Jesus take on the mantle of Messiah by simply fulfilling the Messianic expectations of Israel, or does Jesus take on the mantle of Messiah by offering a counter-vision of what the Messiah is?
In each of these examples there are grounds for reasonable disagreement, and shades of grey and nuance every which way. The point is a fundamental question of whether Christianity stands in full continuity with antecedent Judaism and its social and cultural values and assumptions, or whether Christianity offers a counter-vision that draws into question some of these social and cultural values. This is not a simple set of issues, nor are they black and white, and reasonable disagreement could be had about them.
What I hope this highlights is that the framework within which we read Scripture might lead us to different possible conclusions. Both of the narratives offered above agree on the fundamentals of Christian faith: humanity receives necessary salvation in Christ. And yet they disagree on how that movement towards salvation happens, and what it looks.
We can see both of these expressed in Jesus’ two explicit references to marriage:
In Mark 10 Jesus refers back to Genesis as the appropriate norm for marriage, and the basis for rules around divorce.
In Mark 12 Jesus draws into question the assumptions of the Sadducees about marriage and the law, because of the implications of the reality of resurrection. (My more extended thoughts on this passage can be found here.)
Discerning how we make sense of these understandings of the narrative of Scripture are not easy, and will require significant reflection by the Assembly.
c) Doctrine and Scripture
There is perhaps a tendency to think that because theology is a systematic account of Scripture and the world, and not simply a collection of isolated propositions, that every theological or doctrinal issues is of the substance of the faith. All of our doctrine should be in faithfulness to Christ, Scripture should control our proclamation of Christ, and therefore all doctrine should flow from Scripture. My hope is that this section has highlighted how faithfulness to Christ, through reflection on Scripture, opens up a complex task that doesn’t necessarily imply uniformity, given the difficult interpretive task Scripture sets before us. The centrality of Scripture cannot be set aside in the primary task of remaining faithful to Christ, but we must also remember that remaining faithful to Christ in our worship and witness is the end to which Scripture must be understood.
This leads me to re-affirm the fact that marriage is an issue that is not of the substance of the faith, even though it is an issue that we must engage through discerning interpretation of Scripture. This further validates the legitimate diversity of views on marriage. I am also led to suggest that one can affirm same-gender marriage in faithfulness to Scripture, on the basis that it is possible to read the New Testament as critiquing the taken for granted social and cultural assumptions of Jewish, and broader ancient near Eastern societies. (When we say that Christianity is counter-cultural this leaves open the difficult question of which culture Christianity is counter to.)
The legitimacy of diversity granted, the importance of being faithful to Christ, through a discerning interpretation of Scripture cannot be ignored, and must be underlined.
4. Reforming the Church’s Law
With the caveat of the need for the church to be faithful to Christ (the Word of God), as witnessed to in Scripture, we can finally turn to the question of reforming the church’s law. It is notable that in the many discussions on the issue of marriage the question of paragraph 17 of the Basis of Union scarcely comes up, despite its direct relationship to questions of church law, and the revision of church law. This despite the fact that the issue of marriage is most certainly a question of the revision of church law.
Paragraph 17 of the Basis of Union states:
“The Uniting Church will keep its law under constant review so that its life may increasingly be directed to the service of God and humanity, and its worship to a true and faithful setting for of, and response to, the Gospel of Christ."
The point should be clear that the revision of church law is mandated by the Basis of Union. It should also be clear that the primary aim of this revision is the service of God and service of humanity. While considerations of the church’s relationship to other churches may be part of this service to God and humanity, such unity is secondary to this primary service. (This should be no surprise in a Reformed church, that came into existence in protest against the church, on behalf of an attempt to remain faithful to God and the Gospel.)
The Assembly must focus its discernment and decisions on the question of whether or not any of the proposals on marriage first and foremost serve God and humanity, the question of ecumenical partners while important is secondary to this mandate from the Basis of Union.
As the Assembly prepares to meet next week (8/7/18), I hope that this reflection helps to resource those who read it in the discernment process. This is in no way definitive, but I hope it traces well the issues at hand in the discussion of marriage.
To be clear:
I think that diverse practices and understandings of marriage constitute legitimate diversity envisioned by the Basis of Union, maintaining adherence to the Basis of Union and the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as described in the Basis.
I think that marriage does not constitute the substance of the faith, due to its wide absence in the authoritative creedal and confessional documents of the church; and the lack of uniform or stable practices and understandings of marriage throughout the history of the church.
I think that we must undertake a discerning interpretation of Scripture as a key part of our discernment on the issue of marriage, and also believe it is possible to remain faithful to Scripture while affirming the legitimacy of same-gender marriage.
I think that revising the church’s law to give voice to the legitimate diversity around marriage, and allowing same-gender marriage both serves God and serves the world.
I hope the Assembly will reflect, discern, and decide a way forward together.