A Question of Historiography

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Recently Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) minister, and church historian, Rev. Dr. Avril Hannah-Jones published an article about the decision of the UCA’s 15th Assembly in regards to marriage. Much of this article was incisive, and provided necessary clarity around an issue that has been plagued by miscommunication and a general lack of clarity. Rev. Dr. Hannah-Jones should be commended for her contribution to the recorded history of the UCA’s sexuality debates (the topic of her PhD).

 

Nevertheless, without setting aside the strengths of Hannah-Jones’ article, there are a few concerns I feel it is appropriate to raise. These concerns don’t so much focus on the history of the events recounted (“what happened?”), but on questions of historiography: how do we understand what happened, and tell that story? I am conscious that any account of history, especially such recent history, is itself participant in the ongoing implications the very story the account purports to tell. My intention here is to raise a few brief questions about Hannah-Jones’ account.

 

One of the first questions concerns what in fact the fuss is all about. Hannah-Jones suggests that contemporary issues within churches “are less those of theology, the nature of God, than of ecclesiology, the nature of the church.” While it is true that for many the key issue is whether theological diversity has a legitimate place in the church, this does not tell the whole story. Many of the conservative voices at the Assembly, and beyond it, reject the place of diversity not because of their understanding of the church per se, but because of their understanding of the nature of God, and God’s revelation in Scripture. The nature of the church is derivative of one’s understanding of God and the Bible. This is not a trivial point. Part of the significant angst of conservatives, reflected in comments suggesting leaving the church, is the fear that the UCA has made itself an idol and given up its commitment to God and the Bible. Reducing issues of sexuality to ecclesiology, as distinct from theology proper, reinforces precisely the reification of the church to which conservatives voiced objection.

 

The second question I might ask is whether it is in fact true that it was mostly Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) and Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) women who spoke in favour of the proposal. While it is true that there is often an under-representation of women in leadership within UAICC and CALD communities of the UCA, it’s not entirely clear that this was reflected in the decision-making of the Assembly. The only CALD member of the Working Group on doctrine, which brought the main proposal in favour of changing the definition of marriage, was a male. The proposal I seconded, on behalf of my Presbytery, was brought by a Tongan man. And other CALD men spoke in favour of the decision throughout the Assembly. This is not to suggest that CALD women, speaking against a perceived majority within their respective cultures, did not do so in the face of more difficult opposition. But it’s not entirely clear that it was issues of gender that were decisive. The approach to issues of sexuality, for example, are quite different if one comes from a Korean background, rather than a Samoan; and a Samoan, rather than a Tongan background. Moreover, there is a distinct difference between migrant-ethnic congregations, and second generation (or 1.5 gen) migrant communities within the church. Perhaps we might encourage a more elaborate account of gender and specific culture and a few other things beside.

 

The final question I might ask is how we better tell the story of white conservatives within the context of the Assembly. Much of Hannah-Jones’ article focuses on the relationship between UAICC and CALD members on the one hand, and LGBTIQ members on the other. Hannah-Jones is seeking to undermine a particularly prevalent binary in doing this, which is understandable. What this approach is at risk of doing, however, is obscuring the place of conservative white members. By obscuring the significant conservative voice from within the dominant white cultural group of the UCA there is a risk of perpetuating the same binary Hannah-Jones is rightly challenging. This also obscures the many more subtle aspects of this discussion within the UCA: the effect of different polity structures across Synods (i.e. the single Presbytery-Synod model of South Australia and Western Australia), the propagation of diverse understandings of Biblical / theological ethics across the geography of the UCA, the role of demographics in shaping broader attitudes across the church, etc. It is possibly a bit reductionist to suggest that the pace of discussions of sexuality within the UCA has been determined by deference to CALD and UAICC members.

 

Rev. Dr. Avril Hannah-Jones article has contributed to the difficult task of creating public accounts of the important history of the UCA and its grappling with issues of sexuality. We all owe a significant debt of gratitude for this contribution. What, hopefully, it engenders is even more accounts of this history that help to map the more subtle contours of the theological landscape of the UCA. In doing this the history of the UCA might better resource its future.