Over the last few weeks I have been watching yet another church engage in the painful and difficult process of disagreeing publically about matters that are held strongly by the various proponents involved, with the inevitable trajectory of increasing rancour and ultimate schism becoming clearer each day.
We have already seen the slow-burn amongst Methodists over recent years that has led to the formation of the so-called Global Methodist Church earlier this year. The GMC was launched as a sectarian schismatic movement, splitting from the United Methodist Church, on the basis of—you guessed it—sexuality.
See my earlier post on this:
I’ve already discussed the attempts over many years to do the same within the Uniting Church in Australia—from the early efforts of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) through the Reforming Alliance (RA) and on into the self-styled Assembly of Confessing Churches (ACC). Each of these conservative splinter groups sought to enforce their narrow and retrograde understanding of matters pertaining sexuality on the whole UCA—with persistent, and increasing, failure.
My posts on these various groups are at
As I’ve explored these two church contexts, one in Australia and the other in the USA, I have noticed how the proponents of the conservative theological perspective buttress their claims with a particular way of reading scripture, and with a particular mode of theological argumentation that slots well into the field called Apologetics.
That’s the name given to a way of arguing that sets out a collection of beliefs that are held by a certain group and advocates that this cluster of beliefs represents right doctrine, the true faith, what Bible-believing Christians hold to, or some other catchphrase that revolves around being right—and others, holding different viewpoints, being wrong. It’s a style of speaking and writing that often, in these kinds of situations, takes on a hard edge—moving from assertions about beliefs, to a much more aggressive manner of apologetic argumentation.
(I should indicate that I have nothing against Apologetics; done well, it can be a helpful process, and indeed, being able to engage apologetically ought to be a basic skill for anyone undertaking a missional engagement with people in society. And I should confess that the research that I did, many years ago, for my PhD thesis, was focussed on a set of ancient documents that are often described as being apologetic—including the writings of Flavius Josephus, and the two books in the New Testament attributed to Luke, namely, the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles—two fundamental apologetic works in the Christian canon.)
In recent weeks, I’ve been an interested observer “from the sidelines”, watching an aggressively dogmatic style of apologetic argumentation that has been taking place within the Anglican Communion. The holding of the recent Lambeth Conference in the UK was the focus for the surfacing in the public arena of this aggressive argumentative apologetics (which we know was always active under the surface).
Episcopal leaders from Anglican churches around the globe gathered (or, at least, were expected to gather—not all of them came) in Lambeth, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to discuss designated matters and to issue “Calls” to the Anglican Church around the world, relating to these topics.
Sexuality, of course, was the most contentious area to be discussed; and so it transpired, with some bishops refusing to attend, some bishops decrying the stance of other bishops, and some bishops seeking to find a way forward that all could hold to. It was a fraught, and ultimately failed, enterprise. The battle-lines, drawn so strongly before Lambeth 2022, remained in place; so much so that, this week, the head of the breakaway schismatics in Australia, GAFCON Australia, has announced the formation of a new Diocese, “an Anglican home for those who feel they need to leave their current Dioceses”. Doctrinal Apologetics are, in my mind, clearly driving this development.
I’m not making further substantive comment on the trench-warfare of my brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion—I am most grateful to friends and colleagues who have posted numerous articles, commentaries, statements, and analyses, of what has happened before, during, and now after the Lambeth Conference. Nothing, it seems, was clarified, other than perpetual disagreement will continue.
The best that those of us outside that denomination can do is to offer prayerful and personal support to those who continue to press for a compassionate and relevant approach to matters of gender and sexual identity.
It is worth noting that there has been a local manifestation of this issue within Australia—it has, of course, been “alive and well” for many years, and has recently come strongly to the surface in the wake of the recent General Synod of the Anglican Church in Australia (ACA), and the formation of the Southern Cross Diocese, an action that has created, de facto, a new denomination in Australia, outside the formal structures of the ACA.
However, as the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia has said in his statement about this development, “in a tragically divided world God’s call and therefore the church’s role includes showing how to live together with difference. Not merely showing tolerance but receiving the other as a gift from God.” See https://adelaideguardian.com/2022/08/18/a-statement-on-the-launch-of-the-company-the-diocese-of-the-southern-cross/
Alongside the experience of watching Anglicans agitate and argue about sexuality, I’m engaged in a parallel, but rather different, process, within my own denomination. It’s a process that also arises out of consideration of sexuality—well, both gender identity and sexual attraction and behaviour, to be perfectly clear. It is characterised, not by a process of apologetic argumentation, but rather by a process of listening, engaging in conversations, and developing resources that will be fit for a specific purpose.
I am referring to the fact that, within the Uniting Church, there is currently a Task Group which has been established by the Assembly Standing Committee, to prepare for the offering of an Apology to members of the LGBTIQA+ people in Australia.
A proposal to offer such an apology was presented to the National Assembly in 2018, as a result of which the Task Group was established, with a view to having a final report to give to the Assembly when it meets in 2024. (Yes, things move slowly in this church, as in other churches!) The Apology, it is envisaged, will apologise for the church’s role in the silence, rejection, discrimination and stereotyping of LGBTIQ people, couples and families.
The Task Group is currently engaged in a series of listening encounters with members of the LGBTIQA+ community within the Uniting Church, to hear the views of such people about the proposed apology. I was present earlier this week as three members of the Task Group met with members of the Rainbow Christian Alliance, which meets monthly at Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Canberra, a congregation which is an open and affirming church.
The work of the Task Group was explained, and there was opportunity for LGBTIQA+ people who were present in person and online to make comments about their experiences in the church, and their hopes for the process of formulating and delivering the apology.
The conversation was respectful, caring, and person-centred. There was an indication that the Uniting Church had recognised how words and actions from many church people over many years have caused hurt, grief, and despair. There was a recognition that we need to demonstrate that we see, hear, acknowledge, value, and honour LGBTIQA+ people in their own right, as they are, without reservation, and certainly without in any way pressuring them to change.
It struck me during this time of conversation how different the two approaches are; those who take an aggressively apologetic stance towards people who hold a different point of view, and seek to prosecute their case through debate and argumentation, are presenting a very different model of church to that offered by the process of listening to LGBTIQA+ people in order to develop an apology to them.
(I’m not saying that we in the Uniting Church have got this right—not at all—just that we are aware of the need to take care in our stance, and to shape a careful and compassionate path; and that we are trying to do this with good intentions and in partnership with LGBTIQA+ people.)
Given all the negativity that currently exists in society in relation to “the church”, I think it is important that we carefully consider how we present ourselves to people in that wider society. A posture of compassionate listening and respectful conversation, and the offering of a deeply-felt apology, is surely what we need for our times.
The ecumenical group Equal Voices has prepared an Apology for consideration by people of all denominations; see https://equalvoices.org.au/apologise/
Australian Catholics for Equality have prepared a liturgy for making an apology to LGBTIQ people, at https://australiancatholicsforequality.org/prayer-reflections/order-of-service-for-lament-and-apology-liturgy-to-lgbtiq/
On the 2016 comments of Pope Francis about the need to apologise “to gays and others who have been offended or exploited by the church”, see https://edition.cnn.com/2016/06/26/world/pope-apologize-gays/index.html
On the Apology that was subsequently offered by one Roman Catholic Church in Sydney, see https://www.starobserver.com.au/news/sydneys-catholics-apology-to-lgbti-people/151997
For the 2019 apology from the Adelaide Anglican Diocese, see https://adelaideanglicans.com/safe-ministry/apology-to-lgbtiq-communities/
For the 2017 apology from the Perth Anglican Diocese, see https://equal-eyes.org/database/2017/10/14/australia-perths-anglican-church-offers-heartfelt-apology-to-lgbt-community
On the symbolic action undertaken in 2014 to signal an apology by a local Anglican Church in Melbourne, see https://www.stmarksfitzroy.com/lgbti-community