Church votes for gay clergyJuly 18 2003 - After 21 years of agonising, followed by four days of passionate argument, the decision took a mere 15 seconds.
Uniting Church of Australia president Dean Drayton put proposal 84 to the national assembly, and some 90 per cent of the 267 delegates raised orange (affirmative) cards.
The vote made it explicit that the Uniting Church approves gay and lesbian clergy. This either formally ratified existing practice, as the leadership insisted, or created new doctrine, as opponents claimed.
In any event, it is the only mainstream church in Australia to do so, in a day when passions ran high, and the tension left several delegates in tears.
"I'm proud at being part of a very brave church,"said lesbian minister Dorothy McRae-McMahon after the vote.
But evangelical spokeswoman Mary Hawkes warned that the church was "horribly close"to a full split.
The Anglican diocese of Sydney expressed grave concern, and a New South Wales MP and former Uniting minister Fred Nile accused the church of "abysmal moral standards".
Bishop Peter Tasker said the Uniting Church decision came two days after the assembly voted to move toward closer ties with the Anglicans.
"It is painful to us now to have to point out to the Uniting Church that today's decision raises important questions for biblically minded Anglicans,"he said.
Tensions ran high yesterday as the assembly, which came within seconds of approving gay ministers on Wednesday, resumed with debate on whether they should have a vote at all, or just leave the status quo for another three years.
"Everyone knows the eyes of Australia are on the assembly,"Peter Somerville of the gay advocacy group Uniting Network told the assembly.
"Many of my peers and colleagues think it is no longer ethical or rational to exclude gay and lesbian people. We should send a message to the community and the church in line with gospel values of love, justice and inclusion."
Assembly general secretary Terence Corkin pleaded with the delegates not to think of the consequences for the church, "based on the misrepresentation and mischief"of the media and others.
"There is nothing new in proposal 84. The reason there has been such a furore is that people are catching up with the reality of our church,"he said.
Queensland delegate Harold Tyler argued that approving gay clergy would be the church's own Tampa incident. "We will create refugees in the Uniting Church, forcing people out of their spiritual and denominational heritage,"he said.
Evangelical Walter Abetz warned that he had legal advice that proposal 84, by allowing two official standards on sexuality, would end the church's protection from anti-discrimination lawsuits.
"We want to lift the veil of deception that rests over this assembly,"he said. "There is a possibility of persecution, not from the church but from outside by the law."
But several leaders replied that the church had alternative advice that ruled this out.
After 90 minutes of debate, the assembly resolved narrowly not to adjourn the proposal but to vote then. Seconds later, Dr Drayton adjourned for lunch, the proposal overwhelmingly endorsed.
But in the afternoon opponents sought to have the proposal referred back to the "councils of the church", which could be the state synods, the presbyteries or individual congregations.
The evangelicals believed that if they could send it to congregations the proposal might be overturned. They said 85 per cent of 8000 responses to an earlier report on sexuality had opposed affirming homosexuality.
The assembly, unwilling to reignite the debate within the churches, rejected this. Ms McRae-McMahon said the church had grown up. "It sees that not to know all the answers is OK. We can go on in a mature fashion to seek the truth."
She told The Age that the Uniting Church at present had 18 homosexual clergy. "Most of them have already shared who they are with the people to whom they minister, but some will feel free to be open,"she said.
She said it would encourage people to join the church. She hoped people would not leave, "but if you are a refugee from the church there will be lots of places to go because we are the lead church on this issue".
Mrs Hawkes said: "I'm not devastated. God is greater than this. I'm concerned."
She said she knew 3000 people in one state alone who would consider leaving.
"There is a possibility we will split off and seek a new place to go,"she said.
A new network of churches was possible.
Uniting Church president Dean Drayton said the vote sought to maintain the unity of the church by acknowledging its diversity.
"In 1997 we made the decision to live in the 'messy middle' - that people have different understandings of Scripture and sexual expression, and that decision has been formalised today,"he said.
He emphasised that the proposal allowed churches to choose case by case.
No blanket statements had been made, no rule imposed.
Dr Drayton will send a pastoral letter to every Uniting Church congregation in Australia explaining the decision.
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By Barney Zwartz
Religious Affairs Writer
The Synod of Victoria and Tasmania is the statewide body of the Uniting Church in Australia in the states of Victoria and Tasmania, Australia. This web site provides information about the Synod, its people, places of worship, programs and a variety of other information
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