Can there be ‘space for grace’ in challenging conversations?

The Assembly Standing Committee for the Uniting Church in Australia has submitted a report (which will be taken to the next Assembly in July), recommending that the Uniting Church “offer the rites of marriage to opposite-gender and same-gender couples, while allowing Ministers and Uniting Church authorised celebrants freedom of conscience to perform marriages or not.” This is obviously closely linked with recent changes to marriage legislation in Australia to include same-sex couples, and is the first taste of similar conversations that will be happening across many Christian denominations over the next few years

In one sense this is a big deal (even though it hasn’t, at the time of writing, been discussed and voted on at Assembly). Having said that, it has not risen out of nowhere. The Uniting Church has been committed to having these sorts of conversations for a long time now, even though they are often not easy conversations to have.

This particular report rests on the foundation of years of detailed work from the Working Group on Doctrine, and the process has included input from groups representing Indigenous peoples, people from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, members of the LGBTIQ community, and people and groups from across the Uniting Church’s broad theological spectrum. You can find more information about the report (and the context around it) here.

Whatever one concludes about the report’s specific recommendation, it seems impressive to me, firstly, that the Uniting Church has been and continues to be committed to having difficult but necessary conversations (even when they hurt) and, secondly, that the whole process has been framed around the idea of ‘space for grace’. You can read more about the ‘space for grace’ framework here.

One of the Uniting Church’s core commitments is that there is a deeper unity that binds the church together (even in all of its diversity), and this unity is found in God’s work in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. As important as all these conversations are — and they are very important, to be sure — they don’t override that deeper unity. This commitment, then, provides the context for difficult conversations, as it helps bring into perspective the fact that the things that bind the church together are far greater than the points of disagreement. It’s this commitment that allows ‘space for grace’ when there are difficult conversations to be had.

It’s a generous and beautiful foundation, and I find myself strongly drawn to it.

At the same time, if I’m honest, I am currently finding it much harder to find that space for grace when it comes to other ‘conversations’ not connected to this one.

Currently, there is a bit of a storm brewing, once again, around differing views on the role of women in the church (and the home, and the workplace). Though these discussions largely happened 20-odd years ago in my denomination (and, in true Baptist fashion, it was largely left to local churches to decide for themselves), it seems that the issues are coming back on the agenda (in my denomination and others). I am deeply disappointed that this is the case.

I am convinced that the best readings of the New Testament texts point to the full equality of men and women in the church, in the home, and in the workplace. I’m also convinced that, for far too long, patriarchal systems and attitudes in the Church (and broader society) have gone largely unchallenged, and that this has been and continues to be far less than God’s ideal.

At the same time, I know for a fact that there are many Christians — seeking, just like me, to read the biblical texts faithfully — who come to vastly different conclusions (some of whom I know well and respect deeply).

Now, in light of how I began this post, I guess the answer should be pretty easy: I must focus on the deeper unity that we have in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, maintaining the space for grace in which my commitment is to truly listen to those with whom I disagree (passionately), and to present my views gently and respectfully.

I know this.

Having said that, I’m convinced that ‘complementarianism’ (the view that men and women are ‘equal but different,’ and that some roles in the church/home/workplace might only be for men) is harmful to both women and men. I’m convinced that, though it’s sometimes articulated with seeming gentleness and respect, the complementation position is fundamentally oppressive.

(I know that these are strong words, but I don’t know how to express the points any more gently.)

And I am coming to the point where I feel that the position needs not be graciously discussed once again but instead rebuked — à la the Apostle Paul to the Apostle Peter in Galatians 2:11-13.

In that text, it seems, for Paul, that Peter’s actions were not just hypocritical, they were also (and more importantly) a kind of denial of the gospel. God was bringing the Gentiles in as full members of the family of God, through Jesus, and those who would deny this were effectively standing in God’s way (this is the conclusion that Peter comes to himself in Acts 10-11). Through Peter’s actions in Antioch, he was opposing God’s work.

In the same way, I think it is clear (both in the New Testament texts and the work of the Spirit in the lives of women) that God does not place any restrictions on women in the church, the home, or the workplace simply because they are women! To oppose this, it seems to me, is to try to stand in God’s way.

Obviously, I realise that this is emotive language. Nevertheless, of it I am fully convinced.

And this leaves me in a predicament: how am I to maintain ‘space for grace’ in my own participation in these conversations?

To be perfectly honest with you, at this point I don’t know the answer.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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