The Age (Australia), 12 July 2003

Church poised for gay clergy

By Barney Zwartz
Religious Affairs Writer

 

The Uniting Church, Australia's third largest denomination, is poised to become the first mainstream church to allow practising homosexuals to be ordained.

After a decade of difficult debate, the church's triennial assembly, opening in Melbourne tonight, is expected to approve a proposal that allows individual presbyteries - regional groups of churches - to decide such ordinations case by case.

The assembly's general secretary, Terence Corkin, said the proposal by the assembly's standing committee was a compromise intended to preserve unity.

It recognises that two mutually exclusive positions are strongly held within the church. One advocates celibacy outside marriage; the other approves faithful gay relationships.

As unanimity is impossible, the church should allow room for individual conscience and judgement while preserving unity, the proposal states.

This means presbyteries could accept practising homosexuals as ministers or candidates, but no rule will be imposed on presbyteries that object.

Mr Corkin said the assemblies in 1997 and 2000 had failed to agree, but the new proposal's strength was that it made space for individual conscience.

Homosexual issues have threatened to split the Anglican church in the past month. A Canadian bishop approved gay "marriages"; an American priest who left his family for his gay lover was elected Bishop of New Hampshire (which must be ratified this month); and a homosexual was appointed Bishop of Reading in England.

The latter, Canon Jeffrey John, withdrew this week under enormous pressure. The Anglican Church allows gay priests, but they must be celibate.

The Uniting Church's media spokesman, Kim Cain, said the proposal would be introduced on Monday, then sent to working groups whose recommendations would be debated by the 250 delegates on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Uniting Church -- which was formed in 1977 by a merger of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches -- is divided on the issue between liberals and conservatives.

The church already has some clergy who are practising homosexuals: the Reverend Dorothy MacRae-McMahon "outed" herself at the 1997 synod. But at present it operates like most denominations -- don't ask, don't tell.

Ms MacRae-McMahon, who will represent a coalition of gay and lesbian church members at the assembly, said last night she thought the proposal would pass.

"I think the church will find that we have lived with this and we can live with it into the future. It affirms what is happening and makes it more formal. It's respectful of sincerely held views, but frees us to take our place in the church," she said.

Former Uniting Church president John Mavor, who will make the proposal at the assembly, said last night approval was not a foregone conclusion.

"In 1997 the church faced a split if we went one way or the other. We decided to stay together and live with diversity," he said.

"I believe this is the way forward. If we can live with the tension we can stay together. After all, the central thing is our faith in Jesus Christ."

The spokeswoman for the conservative Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church, Mary Hawkes, declined to comment.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/07/11/1057783356208.html