Saturday, October 20, 2018

Synod Speech on Conversion Therapy

Motion 24: Melbourne Synod, 20 October 2018
Conversion Therapy 

That Synod 
a)  acknowledges that all people are made in the image of God, regardless of sexuality or gender identity 
b)  acknowledges the position of the Australian Psychological Society that “strongly opposes any approach to psychological practice or research that treats lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people as disordered, and any approach that attempts to change an individual's sexual orientation” 
c)  calls upon Church members to be sensitive to, and to listen to, diverse expressions of sexuality and gender identity, to accept, validate, support, and encourage those in our churches who are seeking to live in accordance with biblical teaching and to live out their identity in union with Christ and his calling, and to not recommend “Conversion Therapy" to anyone; and 
d)  calls on the state government—through the Healthcare Complaints Commissioner (HCC) Inquiry into Conversion Therapy/Practices in Victoria—to ban the practice of “Conversion Therapy”

Mr President, members of synod, I rise in support of the motion standing in my name. Craig D’Alton, St Mary’s North Melbourne and Archdeacon of Melbourne.

I was a very lucky sixteen year old. At that age I began regularly attending a church where I felt spiritually fed, and fully welcomed, even though I was a slightly awkward, rather intense young man. I was even luckier when, at the age of seventeen, I found myself staring in a mirror and admitting that I was gay. I was lucky, because the church group that had become my primary friendship network outside of school included a number of gay men. There was, from the very first, no conflict whatever between me discerning my sexual orientation, and me discerning my Christian vocation. Indeed, as I have said more than once, if I were not gay, then I doubt I would ever have become an Anglican priest.

I was very lucky. Some other young men and women in the church have been less so.

Last Friday I was privileged to attend the launch of this report – Preventing harm, promoting justice. Responding to LGBT conversion therapy in Australia.You may have seen references to it in the press.

The launch was held in a city centre church – not an Anglican one by the way – and was a private, invitation only event. The reason for this was the fragility of the state of many of those who attended, including several of those whose stories had informed the research backing the report. Several of the incredibly brave people who attended this launch reminded me of nothing so much as those whom I have met over the years who are survivors of sexual abuse or sexual assault. As the report documents, survivors of LGBT conversion therapy suffer major psychological and spiritual trauma. These traumas are very often severe. All the subjects in the report suffered suicidal ideation as they struggled to resolve conflicts between their faith and their LGBT identities. All of them. It is not going too far to say that these so-called “therapies” can kill people.

This report was launched in a church. It needs to be stated clearly, that neither it nor its authors are anti-Christian, but seek to assist the church to reform harmful practices that are still current.

So what is the “gay conversion therapy”, more accurately “LGBT conversion therapy”, of which this motion speaks? To quote the report:

“Conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe attempts to ‘convert’ people from diverse sexual and gender identities to an exclusively heterosexual and cisgender identity.” The therapies thus described range from isolated cases of medical malpractice, through to programme approaches such as the “ex-gay movement”, through to much more common pastoral counselling and prayer-driven therapies designed to “heal” what has been labelled a “disordered” or “broken” state of being.

Such therapies, especially of the last sort, are far from dead in Australia, even though there is overwhelming evidence that sexual reorientation “therapies” never work, and always harm. 

In 2012 the ex-gay movement was rocked when one of the leading groups, Exodus International in the USA, admitted that sexual reorientation through religious conversion therapy is not possible, and briefly shifted their focus instead to encouraging homosexual people to “manage their desires.” A year later, Exodus issued an apology to the gay community for “years of undue suffering and judgement,” and closed down entirely.

Notwithstanding the subsequent decline in the ex-gay movement internationally, several of those whose stories are narrated in this report have experienced conversion therapy in Australia in very recent years. The movement is less visible than it once was, but there are still those who, formally or informally, are committed to “praying the gay away.” There is clear evidence that this is still happening in some Anglican churches. 

The extent to which such therapies are now discredited is underlined by the fact that all Australian health authorities, including the Australian Psychological Society, and the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia now “strongly oppose any form of mental health practice that treats homosexuality as a disorder, or seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation.” As a group of nine former leaders of the ex-gay movement said in a public apology in 2014, “We now stand united in our conviction that conversion therapy is not ‘therapy’ but is instead ineffectual and harmful.”

In this light, the motion before this synod does four things. It grounds the motion in an inclusive theology of creation. It acknowledges the medical science on the matter. It calls for improved, safe and appropriate pastoral care for LGBT people within the church, and it encourages the state government to legislate in the manner recommended in this report.

I commend this motion to synod.

Synod Speech on Blessing of Civil Marriages

Motion 13, Melbourne Synod 20 October 2018 
Form of Blessing for Civil Marriages 

That Synod 
a)  acknowledges the widespread national and local support for the recent changes to Australian marriage laws, to include same-sex couples; and 
b)  commends the pastoral value of the Archbishop authorising a revised Form of Blessing of a Civil Marriage, which may include marriages between two persons of the same sex, for optional use within the Diocese of Melbourne alongside, or in addition to, a wedding conducted by a civil celebrant. 

Mr President, members of synod, I rise in support of the motion standing in my name. Craig D’Alton, St Mary’s North Melbourne and Archdeacon of Melbourne.

I stand to move this motion very reluctantly, but for two reasons.

My first reason is that I believe that the church, and this synod, needs to acknowledge that society at large has made a clear decision in favour of marriage equality, and that that decision has now been legislatively enacted. Whether individual synod members support or oppose the opening of civil marriage to same-sex couples is, at one level, immaterial. The fact is that this change has happened, and that it impacts directly upon many members of our congregations and members of this synod, and indirectly upon very many more in the church. I think it is right that we not somehow pretend that it has not happened, and that nothing has changed.

Secondly, in the debate leading up to the equal marriage postal survey, and in the months since, there has not been one single official utterance from the church to which those of us who support our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters can point, to show that the church genuinely welcomes them in equal fellowship. I know people – you may know some too – who have endured the silence, and sometimes open hostility, for too long, and reached the point where they have given up on the church and walked away. This is a pastoral failure, and we as the church are at fault. 

Some clergy members of this synod have already been approached, usually by members of their congregations or by personal friends, to conduct weddings or services of blessing for same-sex couples. These are pastoral requests. I have members of my own congregation who have married under the new provisions. I was not able to offer them a service of blessing in church. That causes pastoral and emotional hurt. And it hurts me as well as them. This motion, then, is about saying one very tiny positive word to gay and lesbian members of our churches to the effect of “we don’t totally reject you.”

Two Sundays ago at St Mary’s we blessed dogs and other pets during the Sunday Eucharist, commemorating St Francis of Assisi. It was a happy occasion, and all very “Vicar of Dibley.” I was reminded, however, of the story of the Cananite woman in Matthew 15 who tells Jesus off because he would not grant her daughter healing. I found myself reflecting on how I am not allowed to pray God’s blessing upon two people who have publicly declared their love for one another, but I am allowed to bless a labradoodle. Even the dogs are allowed the crumbs of a blessing, but as things stand, it seems that in our churches gay couples are of less value than dogs.

I need to be clear about what is being proposed in this very conservatively drawn motion. First, this motion actually doesprecisely nothing. It merely acknowledges a fact to be true, and commends a pastoral course of action to the archbishop. It does not require, or even actually request, Mr President, that you should doanything, it just says that synod thinks it might be a good idea. And even if you did decide to act in the matter, the motion is clear that no-one should be compelled to make use of any new form of service, which would be entirely optional.

The second thing is that this motion is not about allowing same-sex weddings in Anglican churches. This is about blessing a couple who choose to marry in a civil ceremony. We already have provision for this for heterosexual couples. The existing service for this purpose is explicitly not “Christian marriage”, it is a service of blessing. That is all that is being spoken of here as well. The question of what constitutes “Christian Marriage” is a question for another time.

Nonetheless, it is true: this is the thin end of the wedge. Part of the reason I am reluctant to move this motion is that, as a gay man, it upsets me that I am suggesting a course of action that would still treat me and those like me as second-class Christians. If there is one thing that the struggle to ordain women to the ministry has taught us, however, it is that you need to start somewhere. If this change in society is of the Spirit, and the Spirit wishes also to change the mind of the church, then that will come, even if it takes decades. If it is not, then it will not. This motion simply says “let’s begin the conversation”, and it does so in a way that speaks one small positive word to gay and lesbian members of our churches, rather than kicking them away from the table without even a crumb.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Whoever is not against us is for us

A sermon at St Mary's North Melbourne
30 September 2018
Text: Mark 9:38-50

It is probably one of the most mis-quoted texts in the new Testament – “Whoever is not against us is for us.” How often have I heard instead, “Whoever is not for us is against us.”

The grammarians amongst you will understand that this is one of those occasions in English where word order matters. Let’s start with a secular example.

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that I am an indigenous politician, and I am arguing for a change in the law to improve the health outcomes for members of my community. I lobby, I give speeches, I get the matter in the public eye and on the national agenda. 

I discover that the people with a parliamentary vote on this question fall into a number of categories in response:
1) Those who stand to benefit directly from the success of such a policy are in favour. They are “for us.” There are two of them.
2) Those who have nothing to gain personally, but who actively believe in the justice of the policy are also “for us.” There are twenty of them.
3) Those who oppose the policy because they believe it would be a waste of taxpayer funds and achieve nothing are “against us.” There are twenty of them.
4) Those who oppose the policy because ingrained racism causes them to oppose anything that might be perceived as providing “special help” for indigenous people are also “against us.” There are two of them.
5) In the middle there is another group who are basically agnostic about the idea. It doesn’t affect them directly, and they are neither particularly in favour nor particularly against it on justice or any other grounds. Let’s say there are fifty of them.

The last group is the key one here.

Employing the maxim, “whoever is not against us is for us”, these fifty would vote in favour of the policy, because they are not actually against it. Thus I can expect a vote of 72 to 22 in favour of my new policy to improve indigenous health outcomes. Those against us are far outweighed by those who either support the policy, or at least do not actively oppose it, and are thus “for us.”

Employing the opposite maxim, that “whoever is not for us is against us” sees the opposite result – those in the middle ground default not to allowing change, but to opposing the policy simply because it involves change. The result is 72 vote against and only the rusted-on 22 supporters in favour. My plan is finished.

“Whoever is not for us is against us” is a conservative policy assumption, designed to ensure that the status quo is maintained, and that change only occurs in cases where there is an overwhelming desire to achieve it.

“Whoever is not against us is for us” is a permissive policy assumption, which provides the possibility that a group without an absolute majority on a question can still advance their policy, so long as a sufficient number of those who are not actively in favour do not actually object.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the latter rather than the former. The Jesus revealed to us in today’s Gospel is not a conservative. Today’s Jesus is permissive.

The permissiveness of Jesus’s teaching, however, has a sharp edge. It is reinforced by the other sayings grouped together with the one we have just analysed. The dramatic series of phrases about chopping off hands and feet and tearing out eyes is designed not to encourage us into self-mutilation every time we sin. It is designed instead to give us pause every time we place a stumbling block in front of another person in their journey to faith. Permissiveness must stand alongside responsibility. We are called not to construct an edifice of rules whereby everyone must live as we think they ought to live, but neither are we called to allow everyone – or ourselves – to do everything they or we want. Putting it bluntly – Jesus calls us to attend to our own faith journey and our own lives responsibly before we try to judge the faith journey and lives of others. We are called not to domination, but to be at peace with one another.

The implications of Jesus’ teaching, and its common reversal, extend well beyond the realm of secular politics.

For example. The idea that “those who are not for us are against us” is one reason why the Anglican Church of Australia has not, and at present probably cannot, move forward on changing the marriage service to allow same sex couples to marry. The church as it is presently structured and led is a conservative rather than a permissive institution. Whilst many are strongly in favour of such a change, many others are equally strongly against it. In the middle are those who “don’t really mind”. However instead of assuming that “those who are not against us are for us”, and thus allowing the change that would include a group that has been excluded from a major pastoral office of the church, the default has become to change nothing. The answer is “no” until such time as an overwhelming and vocal majority says “yes” in the synods of the Church.”

So much of this, however, depends on the assumptions behind the questions. When we ask the question “Should the Anglican Church change its definition of marriage to allow gay people be allowed to be married in the Anglican church?” I suspect that our synods would be divided, with some strongly in favour, others strongly opposed, and others with no strong view one way or the other. Such a question, however, assumes that “us” is the status quo, and so may well be at risk of failing, even if there was not an absolute majority opposed to the concept.
Were the question, however, to be “Should the Anglican Church continue to exclude gay couples from marrying in Anglican churches?” my suspicion is that the result would be much more strongly in favour of inclusion rather than exclusion, because the question has become about removing a stumbling block rather than defending the status quo. Many of those in the middle would decide that if they are not against gay and lesbian people getting married in churches, then perhaps they should vote for it. 

In a few weeks time I am moving two motions at the Melbourne Synod: one a fairly conservative motion concerning marriage equality, which encourages the archbishop to consider the pastoral value of authorizing a service of blessing for any couples, including gay ones, who have contracted a civil marriage; the other encouraging the Synod to oppose what is sometimes called “gay conversion therapy” – a discredited form of therapy designed to “correct” people’s sexuality, which has been defined by the proponents of that therapy as “disordered.” In both cases, my hope is that whoever is not against us will be for us. My fear, however, is that some on the floor of the synod will attempt to turn the questions around, and make combative attempts to preserve the status quo, arguing that “whoever is not for the status quo is against Jesus.” We will see how these questions land, but no matter what Jesus might or might not have thought above same-sex marriage or gay conversion therapy, I’m pretty sure that I understand how he would have played the politics around such questions. And my gut feeling is that he would be for us.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

An alternate statement on marriage equality, which could have been made by the Anglican bishops of Australia, but wasn't ...

“God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” 

These words from 1 John 4, which begin the marriage service in A Prayer Book for Australia, undergird the doctrine of marriage as it has been received by Anglicans.
We the bishops of the Anglican Church of Australia, affirm the following:
1) The injunction to love is the greatest of the commandments, and any discussion of marriage ought to begin with the principle that marriage is a sign of God’s love in the world.
2) All people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and other gender identifying people, are children of God, and created in God’s image.
3) The law of the Commonwealth of Australia has changed to allow the marriage of persons who previously could not marry one another, and this Church has not yet come to a clear view on how this change effects the doctrine of marriage of this Church, nor has it yet formulated a uniform liturgical response.
4) We are committed to working in depth on the theological, liturgical and pastoral questions raised by this change; to do so in ways that do not harm or vilify LGBTI people, and to engage in that work at both the national and the diocesan levels.
5) Until such time as this Church forms a view on the question of whether couples of the same sex may marry in Anglican churches, we advise all clergy that it is not possible to conduct lawful services of marriage for couples of the same sex.
6) In the interim, we accept that individual diocesan bishops may choose to authorize specific forms of service for the blessing of civil marriages, including those contracted between couples of the same sex. The clergy of those dioceses should adhere to those forms of service when conducting such blessings. In dioceses where the bishop does not chose to authorize a form of service, individual clergy should seek the advice of their diocesan bishop on a case-by-case basis when asked to conduct services of blessing for same sex couples.
7) Clergy and church workers who contract a civil marriage with a same-sex partner will be regarded to be in compliance with Faithfulness in Service, in the contexts in which that document uses the term “marriage”.
8) We look forward to the day when this church will be able to display unity and a degree of uniformity in our doctrine of marriage and in its liturgical application. Until that day, we recognize the need both to listen to the voices of differing opinions, and to act as conscience dictates within the Constitutions and Canons of this Church. ENDS