Apologetics and apologising: two ways of being church

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

and

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/

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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.

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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

IDAHoBiT – the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia

May 17 is IDAHoBiT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. IDAHoBiT is a day to draw attention to the discrimination experienced by LGBTQI+ people internationally.

The day is marked worldwide in over 130 countries, including 37 countries where same-sex acts are still illegal. The first day was held in 2004 to raise awareness of the violence and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including all people who have diverse gender identities or sexual expressions.

The date of 17 May was chosen for IDAHoBiT as this was the date in 1990 when the World Health Organisation finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses. Despite this, LGBTQI+ people across the world continue to face hate, discrimination and violence.

The theme for IDAHoBiT 2022, adopted after consultation with LGBTQI+ organisations worldwide, is Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Rights.

The theme claims the rights of sexually- and gender-diverse people to live their sexual identity and to express their gender freely. It also signals a desire for such people to be free from physical violence, free from conversion practices (mislabelled as “therapies”), able to access transition services for Trans people, and free from the forced sterilisation of Intersex people.

The website for this day (https://may17.org/) states that the theme provides a reminder that “many of us around the world live LGBTQI-phobias in their very flesh every day and that our bodies are being abused, ruining our lives. Our bodies are our lives. And we have a right to live free and in dignity!”

For myself, I do not identify with any of the letters in the LGBTIQA+ acronym. I have lived my life as a male who is heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender) and cis-gender (the gender assigned to me at my birth correlates with my sense of personal identity and gender)—in short, I am what is referred to as heteronormative. And, as a white male in the Western world, my life experience has certainly been privileged and sheltered from internal or external disturbances and challenges related to my sexuality or gender identity.

So I have no personal experience of the gender dysmorphia that others experience in their lives; nor have I had any experience of the prejudice or persecution experienced by people identifying as a member of the LGBTIQA+ community. My understanding of what such people have experienced has come through relationships, conversations, readings, and personal thinking through of the issues. It has required empathy and understanding, and I think that it’s clear that I haven’t done this perfectly; but hopefully I have done so at least adequately.

I’m also a person of faith, and thus embedded within a community that, sadly, has demonstrated a collection of failures in the way that sexually and gender diverse people have been seen and treated. The Christian Church has shown a persistent lack of understanding, a continual marginalising (or “othering”), an aggressive assertion about the sinfulness of the particular identity or lifestyle, and undertaking attempts to “change the protestation” or “reverse the gender” of some people. All of these attitudes and actions have been unloving, uncaring, and indeed (in my view) unChristian.

Recent events in a number of churches have indicated that these attitudes and actions remain, tragically, alive and well in churches today. The United Methodist Church has become the Untied Methodist Church, as the so-called Global Methodist Church splits off in schismatic separation from the UMC because of differences of opinion about sexuality issues.

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, this week, has been debating the definition of marriage, and has shown a continuing need by many within its ranks to condemn (once again) all manner of people living outside the narrow norms that are set up, by some, as being “biblical” requirements.

My own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia, has struggled with these issues over decades; more intensely, and intentionally, in the last decade, addressing matters relating to gender identity and sexual attraction. Recently the National Assembly agreed to a proposal “that sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts (SOGICE) are harmful to people’s mental health and wellbeing”. The proposal cited the Uniting Church Statement, Dignity in Humanity, which states that “every person is precious and entitled to live with dignity because they are God’s children”.

See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/human-rights/uca-statements/item/484-dignity-in-humanity-a-uniting-church-statement-on-human-rights

How are privileged, cis-gender heterosexual people like myself to respond to a day like IDAHoBiT? I think we need to cultivate empathy and develop understanding. I think we need to seek out and develop respectful relationships in which we can hear stories, learn of experiences, articulate our own inadequacies and sorrow for how we have acted or interacted with people in the past. Most importantly, I believe we need to learn ways by which we can support survivors of gender identity change efforts and help prevent harm from the ideology and practices of such gender identity change efforts.

Underlying this is my own firm commitment to an understanding of human beings as intentionally created by God, exactly as we are, to be exactly who we are, without qualification or change. The “doctrine of sin” that the church has promulgated has impressed on us that we are all “fall short of the glory of God”, that we all do wrong things—and who would argue with that?

But this doctrine has also been used to identify and persecute specific sinfulness on the part of identifiable minority groups—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intersex, and transgender people in particular—not recognising the nuances of differences that actually do exist across the spectrum of humanity. That’s a misuse of the doctrine, in my opinion. It should not be used to persecute someone on the basis of differences that are perceived.

What gender a person believes that they are, and what attraction an individual has to other people, is built into the very DNA of them as a person, wanting to force change in either of those matters is, to my mind, one of the greatest sins. I think it’s important for “allies” such as myself to remind others of this truth, and to stand in solidarity with “rainbow people” each and every day.

On this International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, let us ensure that each and every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual, or otherwise identifying people knows that we accept them, value them, and love them, exactly as they are!

And let us be strong in calling out any sign of homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia, when we hear it expressed or see it enacted.

For information about IDAHoBiT in Australia, go to https://www.idahobit.org.au/

I close with a short prayer written by the Rev. Josephine Inkpin, for IDAHoBiT Day

Splitting a church, maintaining a prejudice: the sad case of the (un)United Methodist Church

A new church was formed this month. The so-called Global Methodist Church (GNC) was launched as a new denomination—in effect, a sectarian schismatic movement, splitting from the United Methodist Church (UMC)—on the basis of, you guessed it, sexuality.

The GMC has placed to the fore a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, and clergy must adhere to this in their ministry. This has been a point of persistent debate, dissension, and division in the UMC for decades. Many efforts have been made to hold the different points of view together under the one umbrella of the UMC. That fragile union cracked with a decision last year, and now the moment has been seized by the breakaway group, acting unilaterally, to set up its own structures.

Rev. Keith Boyette, chairman of the new denomination’s Transitional Leadership Council and until now a United Methodist minister in Virginia, complained that “some bishops are intentionally blocking churches from using certain processes for exiting the denomination”—a reference to the fact that the UMC’s Council of Bishops has twice delayed holding a General Conference that would enable a friendly parting of the church.

The COVID pandemic had been the reason for delaying the General Conference first set for 2020, and then for 2021; this year, the delay has been credited to the delays being experienced in the US of the processing of visa applications. The United Methodist Church currently claims 6.3 million members in the U.S. and 6.5 million overseas, so half the representatives would have been travelling into the US and would have needed visas.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who recently became the President of the UMC Council of Bishops, said that the continuing United Methodist Church was “not interested in continuing sexism, racism, homophobia, irrelevancy and decline … what we are interested in is a discovery of what God has in mind for us on the horizon as the next expression of who we are as United Methodists.”

I have taken this information from an article at https://www.columbian.com/news/2022/apr/30/united-methodist-church-split-official-as-of-today/. It’s important to note that the trigger words used here—sexism, racism, homophobia—are Bishop Bickerton’s words; I am simply quoting him.

Sadly, it seems to me that this is just another instance of people within a Christian church perpetuating actions that will impinge in negative ways on people in society—and, indeed, within the church. The discriminatory actions of the new schismatic denomination will have a negative impact on a small, but significant, minority group within society.

It’s simply a fact that the majority of the population identify as heterosexual (experiencing sexual attraction to people of the opposite gender) and cis-gender (the gender assigned to them at birth correlates with their sense of personal identity and gender). LGBTIQA+ people do not identify as either cis-gender, or as heterosexual, or as both. So whilst it is true that they are a minority in society, that should not affect the way that they are treated in society, and by churches.

However, the key plank in the formation of the GMC is a perpetuation of a discriminatory attitude towards same-gender attracted people who are seeking to be married in a service of Christian marriage. The GMC will not allow its ministers to marry such people. There are many denominations around the world who, sadly, share that attitude.

Up until 2018, my own denomination, the Uniting Church in Australia was one. All of this changed with a decision taken by the National Assembly in 2018, which meant that ministers now do have discretion to marry people of the same gender. That is part of a continuing trajectory within the Uniting Church, affirming and valuing the place of LGBTIQA+ people within the life of the church, and, indeed, within society.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/07/31/a-diversity-of-religious-beliefs-and-ethical-understandings/ and the various links included in that blogpost.

For the various affirmations that the Assembly has made that have led the church to this latest decision, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/10/20/seven-affirmations/

It’s my hope that we can continue along that trajectory, continue to marry people regardless of their gender identity, and hopefully in due course issue an Apology to LGBTIQA+ people for how the church has treated such people in past years.

See also

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For an exploration of the forces that worked for so long against this, and earlier, enlightened moves relating to sexuality within the UCA, see my series of posts that are linked below.

For my series of blogs on the failed strategy of conservatives in the Uniting Church over the decades, see