Another step in the story of evangelical fundamentalism in the Uniting Church has come to a close. The Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) has recently decided to close. It brings to an end a long process of various evangelical organisations within the life of the Uniting Church which have attempted to “correct” the theology and practice of the Uniting Church, since it was established in 1977. They said they were evangelical; I heard little of the Gospel in their words and saw only dogmatic fundamentalism in what they did.
The ACC has existed as an entity within the UCA since 2006. It took its name from the Confessing Church that formed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s—a name that has also been adopted by other conservative groups around the world, staking their claim for “the true Gospel”. Of course, looking back to the 1930s and 1940s, we can see that the German Confessing Church in Hitler’s Germany did, indeed, hold fast to the principles of the Gospel. For other movements that later took that name, making their stand over other issues does not appear to be as clear cut. At least, that is my take on them.
The ACC is the child of the Reforming Alliance (RA), which had been formed in 2003—the RA was a relatively short-lived entity, as it soon morphed into the ACC in 2006. RA itself was a child of the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU), making the ACC the grandchild of EMU. EMU had been formed early in the life of the Uniting Church.
Each of these conservative splinter groups sought to enforce their narrow and retrograde understanding of matters pertaining particularly to sexuality on the whole UCA—with persistent, and increasing, failure. They each, in turn, failed in that enterprise.
The proponents of the conservative theological perspective articulated by these splinter organisations buttressed 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.
Apologetics at its best the craft of arguing your case, putting forward your point of view, in a way that engages constructively with the listener. It can be done in an irenic and reasoned way. But the way the ACC and its precursors argued was anything but irenic and reasoned. The implication from much of what they said has been that those who hold different viewpoints to the one they are proposing are just plain 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. We can see that throughout the years that these groups were in existence.
Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church started as Evangelical Ministers of the Uniting Church, formed in South Australia out of a concern about the so-called “liberal” tendencies dominant in the newly-formed Uniting Church. Over time, the SA group grew with branches formed in other Synods, and then a national organisation emerged.
In the early years of the church, various evangelical members and ministers had opposed the church’s commitment to equality and mutuality, specifically arguing against female ministers. In my first parish, for instance, in 1981–1983, I worked hard to engage with members of my own parish, as well as members of other nearby UCA congregations, who held to that retrograde view and argued that the UCA was doing the wrong thing by ordaining women. They argued apologetically against me, and others. I think their apologetics were misguided.
I was a member of a Synod working group later in the 1980s that produced resources addressing the issue of mutuality in ministry, and the ordination of women, in direct response to evangelical members pushing the counter position. I know that women in ministry in the UCA have continued to experience discrimination and marginalisation into the 21st century. I have both heard from others, and witnessed for myself, some horror stories, unfortunately.
EMU was strongly focused on the issue of biblical authority. (This stance has been used to undergird the claim that the Bible does not support the ordination of women). The doctrinal statement crafted by EMU had strong resonances with the general conservative evangelical assertion that the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and completely authoritative, even though the founding documents of the UCA had explicitly not included such terminology. It’s almost fundamentalist, I think.
For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by EMU, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/emusite/All%20About%20emu/Doctrinal%20Statement.pdf
Already in the 1980s the Assembly had established a Task Group on Sexuality, exploring the issues raised by EMU and then RA. There is a good summary of the work of this group, and the ensuing two decades of discussion of sexuality, at https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/PDF/SexualityandLeadership_DocumentingtheHistory.pdf
The Reforming Alliance was established in response to the 10th Assembly’s decision in 2003, not to make a statement opposing the ordination of people who are in a same-gender relationship.
RA had fought against the reasoned articulation of “an informed faith” in relation to scripture and sexuality. Its apologetic line was to advocate a conservative, perhaps even fundamentalist, approach to scripture, which although it had been the dominant paradigm in some denominations, had never been the way that the UCA had approached biblical interpretation.
The push by RA to have a ban placed on ordaining candidates who expressed an attraction to people of the same gender, whether or not they were in an active relationship of not, has failed spectacularly—there are now scores of ordained people who live in same gender relationships and, since 2019, have been married to a person of the same gender.
For a summary of the doctrinal position taken by the Reforming Alliance, see http://www.confessingcongregations.com/resources/reforming-alliance/
After the decision of the Assembly in 2003, there was a resurgence in rhetoric warning that the church would die, that this latest decision would mark the end of the Uniting Church. The rhetoric was steadily inflated. The apologetic took on an angry, aggressive tone. The strategy seemed to be to induce guilt about the future of the church, with the hope that this would result in an overturning of the decision. It did not. Some people left the UCA. Some congregations split. Ministry and Mission continued apace. The UCA continued on.
After the 11th Assembly in 2006, a special summit of the remnants of EMU and the relatively new Reforming Alliance met, to establish a new organisation, the Assembly of Confessing Congregations (ACC) within the Uniting Church. The marriage was purely on the basis of sex—or, at least, on a common negative view of sexuality and a shared desire to combat anything that was perceived to be accepting of same-gender attracted people in ministry, and accepting also of same-gender relationships.
The battle waged by the ACC has continued into the present time. The appologetic rhetoric has continued, and intensified, as the obvious lack of impact in the strategy became more evident. The focus became narrower and narrower; more discriminatory, more homophobic. The furious attempts to generate guilt and build opposition was magnified, but to no avail. The move,ent began to dwindle. Meanwhile, the Uniting Church has continued on the path it has set years ago: a path of welcome and inclusion, and the valuing of all people.
So, what we have seen in recent years is playing out the four decades of the UCA where disenchanted conservative evangelical pietistic fundamentalists have resisted the moves towards “an informed faith” which thinking Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians all saw as a key commitment within the Uniting Church. The ACC has been waging an ongoing battle against this position for 15 years, but the majority of the UCA has always been engaged with the processes of critical thinking and fresh words and deeds which the Basis of Union holds as a key value.
In the last few years, the ACC has swerved even more to the hard right; it spoke in tones even harsher and unflinching, compared to RA and EMU. The extremes of the theological position of the ACC can be seen on their webpage at
and also in a statement expressing its hard line about sexuality, at
It has only been in recent days that the ACC has “seen the light” and realised that continuing this battle is futile. An attempt earlier this year (2023) to negotiate a way for ACC congregations to leave the Uniting Church, but maintain the use of the property they inhabited and continue to use the funds they had accumulated, got nowhere.
Because the Uniting Church was set up with a structure in which the property is legally owned by the legal entity, the UCA Property Trust, established by law in each state and territory, no local congregation has legal ownership of their property. Each congregation enjoys “beneficial stewardship” of the property—they can use it, and look after it, but they do not own it in the strict legal sense. That has been the case for all of the 46 years during which the Uniting Church has been in existence.
So, after the ACC pitch for an amenable parting of the ways got nowhere—and after some key leaders of the ACC had their recognition as Uniting Church Ministers removed—the ACC national executive saw the writing on the wall, prepared a proposal to close the organisation, and then last week the national membership of the ACC voted to close.
It has been a sad and sorry saga; not because we have come to a sad end result (on the contrary!), but because of the turmoil caused and the damage inflicted by rabid members of the ACC and their predecessors over the last four decades. The constant badgering of councils of the church to address matters which they saw as of primary importance—but which did not figure in most people’s view as warranting that amount of attention—has been frustrating, annoying, and counter-productive. The Gospel has actually been hindered by these tactics.
The regular antagonism, the growing negativity in rhetoric, and the incidences of specific vitriolic attacks on individuals within the church—undertaken by members of the ACC and their predecessors, and targeted largely at gay, lesbian, and transgender people—has been utterly shameful. I don’t know how many times I have heard people from within the LGBTIQA+ community recount how terribly they have been treated within church circles—including, but not limited to, the Uniting Church. And as far as I can tell, any ACC leader who was called to account for such behaviour failed to acknowledge any remorse, or show any compassion over such behaviour.
The regular response I have heard and read is that they are “standing up for the Gospel”, “declaring the truth to an apostate church”, and suchlike. There is no compassion, no empathy, no understanding—simply an aggressive prosecution of a rigid dogmatic line. I know this to be the case across the board; I know it especially since Elizabeth and I have each been targeted by a rogue ACC member, who is completely without understanding and completely without compassion in the way he goes about things. I don’t think he is an exception; I have heard and seen other instances of the same behaviour.
It is a well-known fact that members of the LGBTIQA+ community are much more likely to have suicidal ideation and at times to act on that, and also to develop other negative coping mechanisms that impinge upon their mental and physical health—simply because of the way that they are treated, the terrible negative comments and brutal attacks that they have to endure, simply because of who they are. That is completely unacceptable. The words and deeds of the ACC have fed into this dynamic; ACC leaders have fostered this negativity, persecution, and even irrational hatred. It is completely unChristian.
So that is why this has been a sad and sorry saga. I rejoice at the conclusion of the ACC. I lament that it did not come years early. I am sad that there was ever felt a need to create EMU, or RA, or ACC. I rejoice that the Uniting Church is committed to providing safe spaces for members of the LGBTIQA+ community, just as much as for straight people. We are all welcome, all included, all valued, and all honoured for being faithful followers of Jesus, across a wonderfully varied spectrum of identities.
Today is a good day to reflect on these matters. Today is the Trans Day of Visibility—an annual international celebration of trans pride and awareness, recognising trans- and gender-diverse experiences and achievements. Gender diverse people right around Australia gather on this day to share stories, engaged in conversations, and attend trans-focusses events.
Trans Day of Visibility was started by activist Rachel Crandall in 2009 as a reaction to the lack of recognition of trans people, noting that the only well known gender-diversity centered day at that time was the Trans Day of Mourning, a day of mourning, on 20 November. So the j was created as a counterpoint to this; a day to acknowledge and celebrate living members of the transgender community. International Transgender Day of Visibility has been held on March 31 ever since.
In our current context in society, when trans people are the object of vitriolic verbal abuse as well as physical assault—simply for identifying as transgender—it is important for people of goodwill to speak out in support of trans people. Undergoing that journey in your life is a significant and challenging process; adding verbal and physical negativity on top of the challenges of the process is most unfair.
I have been blessed in recent years to get to know a number of trans people personally. In each case, they are people of integrity, who have quite a story to tell, who are committed to expressing in public “who they feel they really are, deep down”. It’s a journey and a commitment that I feel I have no right to criticise—I feel I should only be honouring them for their chosen pathway in life. Indeed, being true to yourself has been a virtue since the classical period of Greece and Rome, millennia ago.
We should honour and value those people in our midst who, facing a large challenge, knowing that they are walking into the active dislike and fear that other people have, still choose to walk the way of absolute inner integrity and complete honesty. That’s what this day offers us: we see trans people, we hear them, we honour them. They are valued.
My previous posts on the various evangelical/fundamentalist groups in the UCA are at
See also my post on the United Methodist Church at
For the various affirmations that the Assembly has made that led the church to agree to the marriage of people of the same gender, see