Pilgrim Uniting Church is part of the Uniting Church in Australia, (UCA) an amalgamation of the Methodist, Congregational and most Presbyterian Churches. This year we celebrate our twentieth birthday. Importantly, at the National Assembly to be held in Perth, Western Australia in July this year, the Church will discuss a commissioned report on Sexuality. This is the result of many years of review, a Year of Listening, focus groups and interim report which was disseminated last year for comment.
This report has a significant impact on the lives of Christians within the Church especially those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered (GLBT). For the first time in our Church, the multiple issues which encompass us as sexual beings have been explored, and a document produced which asks some of the 'difficult' questions.
The interim report caused intense expression of feelings, attitudes have been sorely challenged and congregations divided over one small, but significant aspect of the report. That is, homosexual Christians who wish to be visible and actively recognised for our skills and talents that we bring to the life and soul of the church. There have been several individuals who have felt called to serve the Lord in ministry. As a result of their honesty, this opportunity has been denied them.
We gay people within the UCA are no longer content to be silent about the treatment we have and continue to receive at the hands of fellow 'Christians'. I must add that the processes of the Report have certainly done a lot to challenge many within the church that have never had to face the issues, let alone be asked to discuss them.
As a result of the first 'Daring to Live' Conference, the first National gathering of GLBT Christians hosted by the UCA held in Adelaide - June1994, we delegates were challenged to 'come out' to our congregations. I thought long and hard about whether I could take the risk, being that I live in Tasmania, where until late last month it was still illegal to be a sexually active gay male. (There were no laws against lesbians). As a prominent community based healthcare worker, I had to weigh up the odds of the possible damage my 'confession' might cause.
I discussed the idea with my partner of 14 years David and then approached my minister, John McRae who was supportive if a little unsure of what might happen. The opportunity arose in that I was transferring my membership from my hometown in rural South Australia, to my adopted home here in Tasmania. My parents were to come to Tasmania for a visit, and it was thought that it might be a good idea to have my parents and I interviewed on homosexuality and being a Christian family, in lieu of the usual sermon. The Parish Elders duly interviewed me, a nerve-racking experience where many questions were asked. My parents were absolutely wonderful, especially my mother whose eloquence astonished me, as my father had always been the main spokesperson in their relationship. The Elders, following lengthy discussion supported my transfer of membership under my terms (i.e. being open about my sexuality).
The allotted Sunday came and it was with trepidation in my heart that I went along. I had asked many friends along for moral and spiritual support, many of which were from other Christian denominations. I needed to be able to see friendly faces whilst the interview was in progress. The process of transfer of membership went smoothly as there was nothing out of the ordinary in the movement of a baptised Christian from one congregation to another.
When it was time for the message, John asked my parents and I to come and join him out in the front of the church. For the next 20 to 25 minutes, individually and as a family we shared our experiences. Me of being a gay Christian son, and my parents of having three gay children, two of whom are active Christians within the UCA.
I prayed for help and guidance, knowing that I could make or break it for the other silent gay Christians in our church. Once I began to speak, the words flowed and I was passionate about my life as a closet gay Christian and how I could no longer tolerate the double standards. I had for years given to the life of the church as a teacher of children, musician and choir member, all whilst pretending to be someone I wasn't.
There was of course some fall out, it wasn't all peaches and cream. Two families threatened to leave the congregation, and John to his credit, allowed them to go to other congregations which better suited their style of Christianity.
The process has been a long and narrow road with many people who two years later, still will not speak, but just nod. The love and compassion of many that have dared to be open and ask questions have blessed me. My biggest challenge has come from the young married couples with children. Despite the facade of friendliness, I see the ever watching eyes vigilant for the expected paedophile in me to appear. I am very sad for these people, as I love children in a wholesome way having been a midwife and involved in the care and nurture of my friend's children. I have not been included in the childcare roster despite offering. I have however been allowed to clean, provide flowers, sing with the choir, read the Scriptures and participate in the working bees in the church grounds. I must learn to be patient - for a little longer.
One of the positive outcomes of this process was the formation of a Bible study group looking into the issues of sexuality. The group involves GLB people and friends. Stated sexual preference is not an issue for the members. We have met fortnightly for over two years working through various studies and the interim report on Sexuality. The group responds to letters in the local newspaper and submitted a formal response to the Working Party on Sexuality & the UCA.
The phrase - we're here, we're queer and we won't go away is one that probably sums us up. The second, 'Daring to Live, Daring to Move On' conference in Melbourne, Victoria, last year talked of we GLBT Christians as having a revolutionary patience, which the Church must acknowledge and more importantly act upon.
Another outcome was a support group for parents of GLBT children. This was a tenuous group in its infancy & it is slowly evolving into a Launceston based P-FLAG.
As part of a group of Christians here in Australia I sincerely ask for your prayers and support as we approach this milestone in the life and times of the UCA. It will have an impact on the other denominations within Australia, as they all wait to see whether our church will be split asunder into fragments.
We live in the hope that our journey may mirror that of our brothers and sisters in Canada and that God's love which is unconditional will prevail in this very important phase of the worldwide church. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in our right to be ourselves.