Friday, 14 September 2018

Mutual Affirmation: A Theological Reflection on Marriage and Same Gender Relationships

Written by Rev Dr Ji Zhang
Rev Dr Ji Zhang and his wife Xixi Li share a Chinese scroll that reads "God is Love" with their friend Rachael Gore Rev Dr Ji Zhang and his wife Xixi Li share a Chinese scroll that reads "God is Love" with their friend Rachael Gore

In July, the Fifteenth Assembly resolved to honour the diversity of Christian belief among our members by holding two equal and distinct statements of belief on marriage. This decision will now allow Ministers and celebrants authorised by the Uniting Church the freedom to conduct, or to refuse to conduct, same-gender marriages. Church Councils also have the right to determine whether marriage services take place on their premises.

I have been listening to many different voices across the life of the UCA, both in the lead-up to the Assembly and since. For many people this is a good decision that reflects the openness of UCA and allows our diversity to exist within our communities. I have also engaged various UCA communities and leaders, including CALD leaders and Chinese communities. For many of them, the Assembly decision is pastorally difficult.

As I have listened, one question has kept emerging. How do we hold together two equal and distinct statements of belief? It is like holding a family together through difficult times – not easy.

First of all, the existing statement of belief has been retained.

“Marriage for Christians is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life”.

An additional statement of belief has also been adopted.

“Marriage for Christians is the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of two people to live together for life”.

With these two statements, the members of our Assembly have decided not to have a unity of sameness in which everyone agrees on a single statement. The decision essentially allows our diversity to coexist. At the heart of this decision is to uphold and celebrate who we are as the Uniting Church, namely unity in diversity.

Two key words underline the relationship between the two statements: Equal and Distinct.

“Equal” means the same amount in number or size, with the same importance and deserving the same treatment. The two statements are equally valid as they have both been affirmed by the Assembly to honour the diversity of Christian belief among our members. Therefore, the first statement cannot overwrite the second, nor can the second be held superior to the first.

“Distinct” denotes that they are not the same in kind. Each one has the right to exist with noticeable difference.  Neither one should be viewed by the other as incomplete. The Assembly decision has fully recognised the distinctive nature of the two statements, and the two are irreducible to each other.

Unity of two equal and distinct statements is not about “Yes” or “No”. Political concepts like “liberal” and “conservative” are irrelevant and unhelpful. In fact, the two statements speak to a collective unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, with the Spirit of God moving the UCA to fully encounter a spectrum of views. Our congregations will discern their response to the same gender marriage decision in and through many and varied pastoral circumstances. This discernment is based on freedom of decision, and the need for careful listening it requires. These conversations are real stories of diversity within our uniting identity. And we honour these stories.

Theologically this is not the first time two distinct natures have been held as equal by the church. Christian theology first exposed the limits of reason when two natures of Christ were debated. According to Greek philosophy, unity is associated with oneness, and unity is believed to be a numerical singularity like the indivisible “1”. However, a succession of Councils rejected this numerical unity  and affirmed Christ as fully human and fully divine through faith. This hypostatic union of two natures is in one person of Christ. Within the unity of Christ, humanity and divinity mutually affirm and transform each other.

What holds this unity of mutual affirmation together is not a law of sameness, but rather the person of Christ and his saving works.

Where is Christ in the midst of us living with this decision?

The Basis of Union says: The Uniting Church acknowledges that the faith and unity of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church are built upon the one Lord Jesus Christ. All members of the UCA are called to confess this Lord, so “the Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father”. (Paragraph 3)

The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are parts of “the risen crucified One”. As Paul said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. (Gal 3:28) In Christ we are one and equal, set free by Christ, yet wear his cross as our identity. I do not think the Assembly decision can be understood in terms of logical antithesis – Yes or No, For or Against. It is a time to rediscover the living Christ who is silently listening to us in the post-Assembly conversation – by holding us together with his cross.

I believe this is a moment when the creative dynamic of the Holy Spirit is at work in the Uniting Church. In this post-Assembly conversation, our diverse cultures and identities should not be understood as blockages for meaningful conversation. Cultures can actually help us to discern ways to hold two distinct statements in creative tension.

Looking into my Chinese cultural context, I discover the concepts of Yin and Yang – the two relational forces which shape the universe into being - a helpful metaphor. Their unity holds a dialectic tension between the two forces. The key to this unity is a mutual indwelling, at the heart of Yin is Yang whereas the centre of the white is the black.

A unity of mutual affirmation is fundamentally indeterminate. It is this kind of space of openness in which we can broaden our horizon – in a Christian context to see “the risen crucified One”. In this space we see the crucified One who was rejected by the world, yet his cross marks a new beginning of God’s new creation. In this space we see the cosmic Christ who stretches his arms from horizon to horizon marking his Cross on the heart of each believer. In this space we see God’s abundant grace allowing us to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 4:2).

I believe a unity of mutual affirmation is at the heart of our Uniting Church’s post-denominational identity. We are on the journey towards unity while our diversity is upheld.

A unity of mutual affirmation is of course challenging. It challenges the assumption of multiculturalism itself. As a person living in the CALD community, I live in a false unity of togetherness. We are together, but we can exist have nothing to do with each other. That’s even before we are reduced to caricatures and stereotypes by the othering forces in society.

The marriage conversation is an opportunity for mutual dialogue and mutual discovery about what really holds us together as a church. This is a pastoral conversation and we need to offer careful listening to the challenges within the CALD communities, and the real impact upon their members. It takes empathy to journey with people about how the marriage conversation has stretched their congregations in difficult circumstances.

The cross that they bear in this conversation needs to be fully understood by the wider church. This is particularly so when two congregations use the same building. A dialogue over shared arrangements between a Church Council and another group or faith community is an opportunity to listen deeply to each other, and to discern what Christ has called us to witness in this society. If we are to stand true to the mission of God calling the UCA – reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation – we must also stand true to this opportunity for better and deeper sharing together.

We must love and affirm each other, not fear, mistrust or shun one another. Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”. (John 13:34) It is because of this Christian faith, I am able to look back into my culture and be reminded of some wisdom.

“Why is the ocean the greatest?” the Daoist sage Laozi asked his pupils. No-one knew the answer. The sage then answered: “the ocean takes the lowest position… The ocean does not act, but nothing is left undone”. By humbling itself, the ocean draws all forms of living water into its emptiness.

I believe, today the church is called to be that ocean. For this we have to take the risk of emptying ourselves - for the diversity of living waters to flow into the UCA. Paul also speaks the secret to being in the same mind of Christ in terms of the self-emptying nature of Christ. “Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself … God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name”. (Phil 2: 6-9)

The self-emptying act of Christ proceeds God’s salvation - the rising of the fallen. I believe the church is called to witness the self-emptying love of Christ for each other, and the world.

 Rev Dr Ji Zhang 张骥 is the Assembly theologian in residence.