There is a big problem with the current discussion about Israel Folau and his comment that gay people would be going to hell unless they repent and turn back to God. That problem is ignorance - complete and unadulterated ignorance.
To be clear - I am not referring to Israel Folau's comment when I speak of ignorance - I am instead speaking of the the complete and utter ignorance of Christian doctrine and the clear biblical illiteracy of the media personalities writing and speaking about it.
I was shocked for example to see an article by Peter Van Onslelen in the Australian, in which he declared that the Bible doesn't in fact even directly mention Hell as a place where people could end up... This despite the fact that Jesus himself repeatedly warns about Hell... See for example Matthew 10:28, Matthew 25:41, Matthew 13:42, Mark 9:43.
The most consistent evidence for complete ignorance of Christian doctrine however is found in the repeated and continual references to Israel's comments as being 'anti gay' or 'homophobic' or 'bigoted'. Of course what this fails to understand is that had Israel Folou been asked 'What is God's plan for adulterers?' rather than gays, his answer would almost certainly have been the same. In fact had the question simply been - what is going to happen to all people when they die? Israel's response again would likely have been identical! Why? Because Christianity teaches that ALL human beings are sinners, and ALL human beings will end up suffering eternal separation from God (commonly called Hell) unless - you guessed it - they repent and turn back to God!
Israel was asked a question about what he believed the eternal destination of people who he understands to be non-repentant sinners would be - he answered in accordance with the basic teachings of his faith. Unless they repent and turn to God they will end up in Hell.
Sounds harsh? It would be but God gave humanity a simple way to be forgiven all of our sins and granted eternal life. How do we do that? First we repent - we do our best to identify the sin in our lives - all sin - and turn away from it (Repent literally means to 'turn around'). But above all we put our faith - our trust - in Jesus, and in what he did for us. You see the truth is all of us will fall short if we simply try to do it on our own. All of us will continue to make poor choices - to sin. It is part of our fallen human nature. However Jesus took the consequences for every sin we can ever commit on the cross - he took the consequence for us. He now holds it out as a gift for us - all we have to do is trust in what he has already done for us, through putting our faith in him.
Israel wasn't targeting gay people - he was asked (read baited) about gay people on an unrelated thread. He answered the question honestly, according to the tenets of his faith. Could Israel have taken more time and explained in more detail that what he was saying didn't only apply to homosexuals, but to ALL people? Yes he absolutely could have - and likely wishes he did. However the fact is he was simply expressing a theological viewpoint that has been integral to the Christian faith since its inception.
What is more troubling and I hope the inquiry into religious freedom is paying close attention, is that Israel, as a result of his answering this question about his faith honestly has now been broadly condemned, sponsors are threatening to withdraw (i.e. his livelihood is under threat because of his faith). and the media continually points to the ARU's inclusion policy and declares that Israel has breached it. Of course no one wants to acknowledge that all he did was express his religious belief when he was asked - and that in the inclusion policy itself it defines discrimination as including treating anyone unfavourably because of their religion.
The way this has been handled is yet more evidence that the warnings that came from the 'No' campaign in the Same Sex Marriage debate were in fact spot on. It seems that religious freedom, and freedom of speech and conscience are truly under direct threat. We have already seen governments begin investigating the removal of religious freedom exemptions, and now when a person of faith simply answers a question about a straightforward part of the Christian faith, we see hysteria in the media, and threats to his job,
I have seen people say in social media comments in the past few days things like - what if it was a Muslim, would you support freedom of speech and religion then? YES! What if it was a racist, would you support freedom of speech then? YES!
As far as I am concerned freedom of speech, freedom of religion... these are inalienable rights. Yes, even for those who I vehemently disagree with! Are there exceptions? Yes - but only in cases where someone is inciting violence or engaging other criminal activity (i.e. slander, libel, purjury etc.). Israel Folou simply answered a question about what he personally believed. He did not incite hatred, or violence, he did not lie, or slander anyone. He simply answered according to his own sincerely held religious beliefs.
The response has been a swathe ignorance, and bigotry from the very people who claim to be bastions of 'inclusion'.
During the debate about same sex marriage much was made of the threat to religious freedom. Those on the no side of the debate argued vigorously that the freedoms of individuals to freely practice their faith and to live their lives in accordance with their faith and conscience would be curtailed should the Yes campaign succeed. The Yes side of the debate argued consistently that the debate had nothing at all to do with religious freedom - that this was only about who was allowed to be married and nothing else would change.
Though I had realised the inevitability of same sex marriage being legalised in Australia I had argued strongly that significant protections would be needed for people to be able to exercise their religious freedom in a previous post on this blog. I did believe however that parliament should just get on and pass the Dean Smith Bill, and then deal with religious freedom as a separate issue.
I don't do this very often - and in writing too! ... I was wrong. Since the announcement of the result the same sex marriage survey the lobbying of LGBTI groups to remove religious protections currently in place has already begun.
In Western Australia the government has already launched an investigation into removing the right of religious schools to hire and fire people in accordance with their faith - all started because a baptist school decided it would no longer use the services of a casual teacher after he told them that he was gay and living in direct contravention to the faith and values statement he agreed to when he was offered employment. The response has been a demand from LGBTI lobbyists that the right of religious institutions to fire people who don't support their beliefs be removed. You can read about it here.
In WA Today former Democrat senator Brian Greig argues that the right of religious organisations to hire people who agree to their beliefs is a 'legal loophole' that must be closed. What does he primarily base his argument on? Well he makes all the usual baseless references to 'human rights' whilst seemingly oblivious to the fact that while same sex marriage has been repeatedly determined to NOT be a human right, religious freedom is universally recognised as such. However then the true colours begin to emerge when he says:
'Now that Australia is on the cusp of embracing marriage equality, we will be in the extraordinary position where LGBTI people in the private school system can legally get married under federal law, and then legally sacked the next day under state law.'
But of course this cannot possibly be right can it - that a prominent LGBTI lobbyist is now calling on government to remove religious freedom protections on the basis that same sex marriage has been legalised? This is surely a mistake - after all we were assured repeatedly over and over again that religious freedoms were a non issue in the debate over SSM. The No Campaign were merely bringing up red herrings we were told - religious freedom protections would not change... and yet here we have it, within weeks of the Yes vote governments are investigating removing religious freedom protections and LGBTI advocates are demanding they do so.
Also troubling and noted over at David Ould's blog is the fact that during the debate about the legislation, when members were arguing for or against amendments, Andrew Hastie sought leave to table a number of letters from major religious leaders around Australia. The letters were calling for strong protections and expressing concern the bill didn't offer enough of them. Leave to table the letters was not granted. Let that sink in for a moment, The tabling of letters from religious leaders which dealt specifically with the issue being debated in our parliament were deemed not worthy of even being tabled. As David notes in his piece, this is a clear attempt to silence those who have faith - to remove those of faith from public discourse. It has been noted by some that Scott Morrison managed to table these letters later - that does not change the fact that the natural instinct of those who supported SSM was to instantly say 'no' when the voices of religious leaders were seeking to be heard - not to impose anything, but simply to be heard.
Then of course we have the fact the Greens, in a spate of utter hypocrisy after declaring no amendments should be considered to the Smith bill, did in fact move a number of amendments in the house of representatives which sought to remove or water down the very limited protections that were included in the bill.
So I was wrong - I was naive - to believe that the best course of action was to simply pass the Smith bill and work out further religious protections over time. I thought in holding that view that the attack on religious freedoms would not happen immediately - I thought the LGBTI lobby would be happy with their victory and simply rejoice for a while in the fact that same sex couples could now legally marry. It seems though the removal of these religious freedom protections is the very next thing on the agenda and that there will be no respite. All opposition to the new orthodoxy it seems must be utterly and completely destroyed, and if that involves the removal of others human rights then so be it...
All we can hope now is that the current review of religious freedom headed by Philip Ruddock will make solid recommendations, (and that the parliament will heed them) which will lead to genuine religious protections being put in place in Australia - at a national level, which cannot be arbitrarily watered down by state and territory governments.
If this nation allows the erosion of religious freedom - the right of religious organisations and individuals to freely exercise and live out their faith - we will be walking a very dangerous path. Why? Because if you are prepared to remove one human right for one element of society, it won't be long before others fall as well... I leave you with Martin Niemöller's poem... purely as food for thought...
First They Came...
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
The latest article by Julia Baird and Hayley Gleeson on domestic abuse and the church is - again - harrowing reading. This is an issue that will not simply disappear. These women should have been loved, honoured, comforted and protected by the men they married. They should have been cherished. Those are the promises of a Christian marriage.
I wrote here earlier in the year about the church's failure to respond appropriately to victims of domestic abuse. To be now reading these stories about women who were abused not just by men who claimed to be Christians - but by men who had been ordained to leadership in the Church is absolutely heartbreaking.
The church cannot continue to bury its head in the sand, and I am thankful that the Anglican Church of Australia, made a formal apology to victims of abuse at its recent General Synod - and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney which features prominently in Julia and Hayley's article also made a formal apology at its own Synod. However an apology is only a first step.
Clergy who have been found to have abused their spouse should in my opinion, in addition to appropriate legal consequences, be deposed from Holy Orders. Domestic abuse must be seen as a serious offence - not just against the law of the state, but against God. They should never again be allowed to minister in the church in any capacity.
I also have to comment on the response of some prominent church leaders. The Rev Dr Michael Jensen wrote a response to the Baird and Gleeson article which I thought was good. Michael is listening - though I was disappointed he didn't really engage with and address a key issue raised in the article - the doctrine of male headship, which was repeatedly identified by victims as contributing to their abuse. Overall though Michael's response is encouraging.
What was less encouraging for me was a response I noted by one prominent priest and academic, who posted a comment on social media noting he preferred Michael's article because 'It stops appropriately short of giving the impression the church is fundamentally and endemically evil.' This is I would argue is the kind of attitude that leads to the cover ups and ignoring of victims that has been exposed first in the Royal Commission and now in these articles on Domestic Abuse.**
There is still ingrained in some this idea that the church's reputation needs to be protected, that we should uphold it as a holy institution - even when it is being far from Holy. This must change - it must stop. When the members of the church are behaving in an evil manner - say by abusing their spouse - that needs to be declared, the church must repent of any wrong doing and only then can it seek to call itself holy.
I said it after the first article and I re-iterate it now - if you or someone you love has been the victim of abuse and found that the church was complicit in making it worse. If you came looking for help only to be rebuffed, or ignored. If you came looking for hope and were given despair. I am sorry. So very very sorry. If you need help I will listen and do everything I can to get you the support you need. You will not be ignored, you WILL be believed.
If you don't want to talk to me though, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) and talk to trained professionals who can give you advice and support, and if you are in immediate danger please call 000.
Finally, if you are a perpetrator of domestic abuse, know this - you do not have God on your side - Christian marriage demands sacrificial love and service. Marriage does not mean your wife belongs to you, she is not a piece of property. She is made in the image of God and your role as husband is to love her, cherish her, honour her and protect her. Your role is to love her as Christ loves the church. If you aren't doing that and if you want help to stop - Please call the DV Connect Men’s Line (9 am - 12 midnight, 7 days a week) on 1800 600 636
**I am not suggesting the author of that post would ever be involved in such a cover up or dismissal. However I believe the attitude expressed is similar to those who have.
Today the ABS announced the results of the Australian Marriage Survey. The result is clear 61.7% of respondents said yes to changing the law to allow same sex couples to marry. With a turn out of just under 80% this result is clear and incontestable.
So what happens now? How should those of us who hold a conservative traditional view of marriage respond? How should we as Christians respond?
We should respond with grace.
We have lost the debate, the Australian people have spoken and we need to honour their will. We should not stand in the way of legislating this change. I noted several months ago - before the survey was announced - that as a pluralist I though that Same Sex Marriage was supported by the majority and as a result should be legislated.
In that previous post I also noted that religious, speech and conscience protections will need to be implemented to protect the freedoms of those who object to the change. However I want to be clear that I agree with Fr Frank Brennan that the most appropriate way forward from this point is to pass the bill (download) that has been proposed by Dean Smith which includes basic protections for churches and religious celebrants. This would allow the will of the Australian people to be respected quickly and allow the law change to be implemented by the end of the year.
Following the passage of that bill, I would argue then would be the time to look at strengthening the protections of religious freedom, conscience and speech - and I would argue the most appropriate way to do that would be through passing a formal bill of rights at the Commonwealth level.
Australia is a pluralist nation (not a secular one) which should be seeking to honour the outcome of this democratic process, while also seeking to ensure ALL Australians have their fundamental freedoms are protected. For me, though, this does not include the right of private businesses like a bakery, with no affiliation with a faith group, to deny service. However it would include the right of the proverbial 'baker' or other individuals to publicly express their religious views without fear for their job, and without fear of being dragged before the courts. It would also include the right of parents to withdraw their children from education programs that are contrary to their religious convictions, and for religious schools, charities etc to continue to promote their religious view on marriage without fear of losing funding or accreditation.
I want to finish by taking this opportunity to .ask those who like me voted no, to show grace in defeat. Today I have already seen comments from people trying to skew the results to say it wasn't a real majority because over 20% didn't cast a vote. This is not the way forward, and all it does is damage the credibility, not of the vote, but of those who put forward such an 'argument'. We lost it is now time to accept it and move on.
As a priest in the church of God, I will continue to teach that marriage, according to the Word of God, is something that can only happen between a man and a woman. I understand that this view will now be different to the legal understanding of marriage in Australia, and I accept that. The only thing I ask is that my right to continue to teach and uphold the traditional view be honoured, just as I will honour the newly established right of same sex couples to be married under law.
This week the government of Australia decided that it was going to ignore the cries for justice and reconciliation that are coming from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this nation.
Back in May, at the behest of the Government a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from all over the country gathered at Uluru to discuss recognition of Australia's first peoples in the constitution. The reason? Because the Government wanted to get recommendations from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about how best to give meaningful recognition in the constitution through a referendum.
Yes, the government was listening - they weren't going to just be imposing some change that the first peoples of our nation didn't want - they were consulting and would frame any proposed change based on the recommendations of the people. There would be no paternalism on this issue.
The gathering released a powerful statement:
.The key recommendations that were made included that any change should lead to the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, as well as establishing a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making (treaties) between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
These recommendations were based in the need for real acknowledgement of our history, the self empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this nation's first peoples. These are all matters of truth and of justice for the peoples who have had there land, waterways, culture, language and spirituality either completely destroyed or irreparably damaged since the arrival of Europeans to this land two centuries ago. This was a cry for justice and acknowledgement of truth from people who have suffered the loss of their children through racist policies and to this day suffer the results of colonialism through poor health, life expectancy and education outcomes. A plea for recognition from people who commit suicide at a rate 7 times the national average,
So on hearing this plea for justice and truth - this plea for genuine acknowledgement and reconciliation, how did our government respond?
There will be no referendum.
It seems the government is not interested in the voice of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this country after all. You see, we gave the wrong answer. What they actually wanted was for us to respond by saying we just want some nice words written in the constitution about how our peoples were here first - everyone would be happy with that... anything more we are told is an 'overreach'.
This week the progress of this nation towards genuine reconciliation and a focus on the truth of our history took a giant leap backwards. This week the government of Australia said to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people "don't ask for justice" and "don't ask for genuine reconciliation" this week the Australian government said "we have no respect for you and what you want".
This week, the real motive of the government was finally exposed for all to see - they want to make all the right noises and look like they care - but when it comes to the crunch, when they are asked to support changes that would give genuine self determination, genuine recognition and genuine acknowledgement - they walk away - you see anything that will bring genuine justice and reconciliation is an 'overreach' and we should just know our place and be 'grateful' they want to include us at all...
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has made a swathe of recommendations, however the one that is attracting the most interest in the media is the recommendation that clergy should be required to break the seal of the confessional and mandatorily report any confession of abuse of a child.
The Roman Catholic Church has responded through bishops and priests declaring that they will not break the seal of the confessional, even if the law is changed.
That to me is a heartbreaking response. We cannot put the spiritual welfare of the abuser above the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual welfare of their victim(s).
Thankfully in the Anglican Church we have already made moves to ensure priests are not bound by the confessional seal in the case of child sexual abuse. At the 2014 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia the canon regarding private confession was amended to allow for clergy to break the seal of confession in certain circumstances.
Under the amended canon, should a penitent make a confession of having committed a serious offence, then the priest is free to break the seal of confession if they are not satisfied that the penitent has reported the matter to the police and the director of professional standards (if they are a church worker or member of clergy).
The canon defines a serious offence as the following*:
“serious offence” means a criminal offence of the Commonwealth, of a State or of a Territory, or of another country which is equivalent to such a criminal offence of the Commonwealth, of a State or of a Territory:
(a) involving child abuse; or
(b) involving child exploitation material; or
(c) punishable by imprisonment for life or for a term of 5 years or more.
For me this is a common sense provision in the law of the church. It allows for the seal of confession to be maintained in all cases except where a major criminal offence has occurred and the penitent is refusing to go to the authorities.
My Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will continue to argue against this, because of their view that the seal of the confessional is an inviolable element of the sacrament - however I would argue that if a person approaches a priest and confesses a serious offence but has no intention of facing up to what they have done through reporting to the relevant authorities, then they are not genuinely repentant. If they are not genuinely penitent, then the sacrament is not valid and so their is no violation on behalf of the priest who reports the offence.
The simple truth is, If we as the body of Christ are to begin to regain the trust of society we must not fight against provisions such as this which are about protecting the most vulnerable in society. More importantly it is the right thing to do, both morally and theologically.
*Canon Concerning Confessions 1989
Today on the ABC a story was published about domestic violence, which highlighted how over many years the church in various guises and denominations has failed the victims of domestic violence. It makes for harrowing reading – to read of the abuse that women especially have endured because the church has failed to give them guidance, protection and support, and rather encouraged them to stay with their abuser lest they break their marriage covenant.
Firstly, let me be absolutely clear, if your spouse is abusing you, physically, sexually, emotionally or psychologically, then they have broken their marriage covenant with you. You are no longer bound to stay with them, and you should leave – immediately – and get somewhere where you and any children you may have will be safe. When they agreed to marry you your spouse promised, at least if you were married in a Christian wedding, to love, honour and comfort and protect you, and to live with you ‘according to God’s Word’ and the moment they begin to abuse you they have broken that commitment, and thus the marriage covenant.
So why is it that people get this so wrong? Because they rightly want to uphold marriage, as a lifelong commitment – a joining together of a man and a woman which Jesus upheld as something that couldn’t be dissolved except for sexual immorality. However Jesus was dealing with a very specific question about a practice which essentially allowed men to divorce their wives at will, with little justification. In a society where women were viewed as property, and who were reliant on the wealth and protection of either their husband or their father, getting divorced was a big deal – and it was being used as an abuse in itself. Jesus responds in this context and says this abuse of power isn’t allowed – he says unless your wife has committed adultery you have no real basis to throw her out on the street. Does that mean then that a woman must likewise stay with her husband if he is abusing her? Absolutely not! As I said, the moment your spouse is abusive they have broken their marriage covenant with you – you do NOT sin by divorcing an abusive spouse.
The article also deals with issues of patriarchy in the church which may influence how the church has responded to abuse victims. It specifically deals with the doctrine of male headship and how this doctrine espoused in some parts of the church has been twisted and the scriptures it is based on removed from their context and abused in order to justify appalling abuse of women.
I do not want to have a theological debate that will detract from this issue, but I think it is important to say I am an egalitarian, I believe that God sees men and women as equal in ability, talent and value. I believe that God calls both men and women to leadership – both in the home and in the church – based on their individual giftings, talents and abilities.
I understand the position that those who hold the opposite (complementarian) view – who believe that while men and women are equally loved and valued, that they are created by God with specific gender roles in mind, with men called to lead in the home and in the church. I understand how they interpret the scriptures to come to this conclusion, and I understand that their interpretation of those scriptures does not allow for abuse. However, the fact that this view is consistently being used to justify abuse must surely sound alarm bells. If we were to judge this doctrine by the fruit that it is bearing in the lives of men and women, as exposed in this and other articles and research papers, we must surely declare it fundamentally against the will of God. Now I will cop some flack for that statement, the key argument will likely be that it is the abuse of the doctrine that is the problem, not the doctrine itself. That is true – however if I was being facetious, I could equally say that communism isn’t the problem it is just the way it is interpreted and implemented…
As I said above though I am not going to get bogged down in a debate about theology, and I would ask readers to respect that and not seek to engage in the comments in a debate about complementarianism vs egalitarianism, to do so would be to miss the entire point of this very serious issue. Women are being abused, and the church through naivety, through misunderstanding, through incompetence, through misunderstanding marriage and divorce, and yes through the abuse of the doctrine of male headship has been complicit in enabling abuse to continue and even in the deaths of victims of abuse as one heart breaking example in the article pointed out.
We need to face that. We need to make changes to how clergy and other church workers are trained. We need to listen to victims, and we need to believe them. Those parts of the church who insist on holding to the complementarian view of male headship especially need to be taking time to fully explain the doctrine to clergy and to men and women in their churches, so that there can be no confusion and no doubt that headship does not include the right to be abusive and coercive.
I want to finish this by simply saying sorry. As a priest in the Church of God, I am truly and deeply sorry if you or anyone you love has been the victim of abuse and found the church complicit in making that abuse worse. If you are one of my parishioners, know that I will listen, I will believe you and I will not dismiss you. I will do everything I can to support you and I will never tell you to just go home and put up with it.
The debate about legalising same sex marriage in Australia is still continuing and distracting from other major issues facing our nation. As a priest in the Church of God, I uphold the church's doctrine that marriage is something that can only take place between a man and a woman, however I believe that the time has come for this issue to be settled. We who hold to a traditional understanding of what marriage is have lost the debate in the public square - through the past hateful and hurtful actions of our own churches, through the inability to uphold the values which we advocate and through an inability to convey our message to the people.
I have personally never supported discrimination against gay couples, and have long supported changes to legislation that would have allowed for civil unions or other legal recognition that was equal under law to marriage.
It is my view however, that the vast majority of the population now does support changing the legal definition of marriage to include adults of the same sex, and as somewhat of a libertarian I believe that in a modern pluralist democratic society legislation should reflect the will of the people. For this reason I don't believe that we should be focusing on opposing legislation that would see the Marriage Act changed to allow same sex marriage, however I don't think we should endorse it either. The truth is though it is coming - and we need to learn how to deal with that.
To be clear I believe that for Same Sex marriage to occur there needs to be very strong safeguards put in place - and we should absolutely be arguing for those - religious freedom is where our argument now needs to stand. This includes the right of people to decline to take part in the celebration of a same sex marriage because of religious conviction. I believe there also needs to be safeguards in place to protect the right of organisations which are owned or run by religious organisations to likewise decline to participate. Finally the right of Religious leaders and others to publicly state their traditional view of marriage in opposition to the newly changed legal definition without fear of being dragged through the courts for discrimination, or losing their jobs if they are employed outside of a religious context, must be protected.
My view is also that the only way that this change can be made before the next federal election is to have the plebiscite. The arguments which have been levelled against holding a national poll include that it is non-binding, that it is against the tradition of parliamentary democracy, and finally that it would be too harmful for LGBTI individuals to have a public debate in the lead up to the plebiscite due to the risk of extremist and bigoted views being put forward by the 'no' side.
Firstly, the argument that the plebiscite should be abandoned on the basis that it is not binding is flawed at its core. Whether the plebiscite is binding is irrelevent, because following the plebiscite members will be given a free vote in the parliament in response. Anyone who would reject the will of the people and vote no in such a vote is going to vote no in any vote whether there is a plebiscite or not - and here is the kicker - not only will their revolt against the will of the Australian people be rather risky for them politically, it simply will not change the outcome.
The second argument around Australia being a parliamentary democracy and plebiscites not being a part of that system is again flawed. Throughout the history of parliamentary democracy their have been many plebiscites - they are used generally when their is a contentious issue to be decided, and the parliament wants to properly gauge the will of the people they represent. I agree that having plebiscites on every major issue is a bad idea, however when we are talking about an issue as fundamental as what comprises the most important component of our society - the family unit - I think it was reasonable for the Government to propose the plebiscite as a way forward.
The final, very serious and heart breaking reason often put forward is the danger to LGBTI youth especially if the debate leading to a plebiscite leads to bigoted and hurtful comments and campaigns against the proposed change. Research shows that LGBTI individuals are already at a higher risk of mental illness and suicide, and it is argued this could be the thing that tips many over the edge. This is a major concern, and I share it to an extent. However the idea that we should not have a public debate about issues of major significance is fundamentally flawed.
I wonder for example if those who reject the plebiscite on same sex marriage due to possible harm, also reject having a referendum on recognition of Australia's first peoples in the constitution? There is no group in Australian society with higher suicide rates than our Indigenous population. Given that 11% of the population say that they support One Nation, and also given the racist remarks directed at me and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders pretty well daily on Social Media, and in the real world, it is beyond doubt there will be high levels of racist ranting against any form of recognition when the campaign starts. Given the high levels of mental health issues and the skyrocketing suicide rates in the community, if we follow the logic of same sex marriage advocates to abandon the plebiscite, then we should also abandon any attempt at a referendum on recognition.
However as an Aboriginal man, the grandson of a woman stolen from her parents, I say the referendum needs to happen (following the recommendations of the Uluru Statement from the Heart). I know that it will see an increase in hateful rhetoric, but I also know that those who speak in such a hateful way are a small minority, and the overwhelming majority of Australians can talk about it using common sense and decency - I believe the same of the debate about Same Sex Marriage.
I suspect however that one of two things is going to happen. Either the legalisation of same sex marriage will happen before the next election through a private members bill in which Liberal Party MP's and Senators cross the floor - first to have it debated, and then to have it passed. Or it will languish as an issue constantly moving on and off the political agenda and become a political football at the next election where there is the same likelihood of hurtful, misinformed and bigoted comments being made as in any plebiscite.
As I said it is my view that the plebiscite goes ahead, because it is a major issue of significance and because the Government was elected on the understanding that any change to the definition of marriage could only take place after such a vote. However, in the event that it is legalised without the plebiscite, either through members crossing the floor before the election or in a free vote after the election, I believe that it is a change that is coming and which I after much consideration and prayer, I do not oppose (to be clear not opposing something is not the same as endorsing it).
Provided there are real protections for individuals to exercise their religious freedom, speech and expression, I believe that this change will only serve to better reflect the plurality that exists in our nation - and that is one of the blessings of living in a liberal democracy such as ours.
As for Christians who hold to a traditional view of marriage, I would argue that the best way forward for us from here is to actually bear witness to the biblical ideals of marriage, and of the Gospel message of love, forgiveness, redemption and hope in our own lives and relationships - especially in our relationships with LGBTI members of the community.
Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion piece by Tosca Lloyd, the executive officer of the Rationalist Society of Australia, titled: The message in the Census: End Australia's Christian bias.
In the article Tosca argues that there is a Christian bias in government policy and funding decisions and that this should be ended on the basis of the census results which show that 29.6% of Australians now identify as having 'no religion'.
Tosca gives as evidence that there is a Christian bias the fact that the parliaments around Australia open with the Lord's Prayer, that catholic schools receive government funding, and that the majority of chaplains employed under the schools chaplaincy program are Christian.
Of course what Tosca fails to note is that no-one is forced to say the Lord's prayer, Parents who send their children to religious schools are tax payers who are just as entitled to government support for their children's education as any other parent - and lets not even get started on the HUGE cost to Government if they stopped funding private schools and all of a sudden the 34.6% of students (over 1.3 million!) who currently attend non-government schools all needed a place in the public system - the infrastructure costs alone would see the budget destroyed,
Then we have the fact that the chaplaincy program is open for any faith group to provide chaplains to schools - and the fact that most are Christian simply reflects that the majority of Australians still identify as Christian. It also fails to understand that schools have to apply for the funding to hire chaplains, and that it is done in consultation with the school community so they get a chaplain that best matches the demographics represented,
Tosca also notes that issues such as same sex marriage, euthanasia and abortion have struggled to get through our parliaments, and dismisses the possibility that there is a secular justification for this. She declares that it is due to what she sees as the Christian influence on the parliaments, saying:
"It is clear that our federal and state governments make decisions based on the perception that Christians make up the core of our society, but they need only look at the latest census results, as well as the results of polling, to correct this perception."
Firstly, given that more than half of the population still identifies as Christian, I think it is fair to say that Christians do in fact make up a core group of our society. Secondly, surely Tosca isn't suggesting that there be a religious test (or lack of religion test) to hold office in this country? Surely she isn't suggesting that anyone who wishes to hold public office be required to renounce their religious beliefs, and/or ignore their conscience when voting in parliament?
It appears that only the complete removal of religion - and Christianity in particular - from any public discourse, and the removal of all government funding for religiously affiliated organisations will do, and that is a rather scary position to take - to identify one section of society - one group of citizens and say to them you are no longer allowed to have a voice, you are no longer allowed to exercise any influence because you have a religious faith.
Then of course comes the gem - the claim that this secular utopia which bans its religious citizens from receiving government support, and refuses to allow them a voice in public policy decisions is not about enforcing its view on others - but is in fact tolerant!
France is probably the most secular democratic nation on the planet at the moment - lets examine shall we how tolerant France is towards those who are religious. Surely in this tolerant secular society a person who is religious would have the freedom to wear symbols and clothing prescribed by or which identify their religion? Well no, Tolerant secularism in France says that all religious symbols and clothing are banned from schools, and Muslim women are forbidden from wearing their religious clothing - even to the point that they were banned from wearing a 'burkini' swim suit. Here is a woman in one:
Thank goodness secularism is saving the french from seeing children wearing cross necklaces and women in stylish swimwear! All joking aside though, the truth is enforced secularism is no better than enforced religion - forcing me to discard my religious views and beliefs in order to be eligible for government support, employment or funding is just as abhorrent as if someone was forced to adhere to a particular religious belief system.
What Australia actually needs is not secularism, but pluralism. Pluralism sees a nation recognise that it is diverse and that people have divergent views on religion, ethics and cultural expectations. Pluralism allows genuine religious freedom, including the right to not believe anything. Secularism by contrast demands that religion be completely removed from pubic discurse and disqualifies religious entities and people from receiving government funding - based only on the fact they have a religious affiliation, and not based on whether they are best suited to deliver the program or policy in question.
Pluralism says the religious affiliation or lack thereof of an organisation or individual is not relevant. What matters is who is best suited to provide the service, program or implement the policy. Secularism demands that religious individuals give up their faith and ignore their conscience if they wish to serve in public office. Pluralism recognises that all citizens of our nation are guided by their own beliefs and morals - whether based on religion or not, and allows freedom to politicians and other public servants to exercise their judgement based on their conscience - confident that if they behave in a way that society opposes, they will not be re-elected,
I agree with Tosca that our nations demographics are changing, and are likely over the short term to continue toward an increasing number of people who identify as non-religious. However the solution is not to impose secularism, but rather to embrace a pluralism that sees everyone free to live and believe as they wish (within the bounds of the law), and doesn't exclude people, and organisations from public service, and government funding and support arbitrarily based only on religious affiliation, but instead judges all funding and policy decisions on their merits, recognising the increasingly diverse society we live in,
Some of you may have seen over the past week the controversy surrounding Coopers Brewery and the Bible Society about a short video where two politicians discussed the idea of same sex marriage.
The video was part of the Bible Society’s 200th birthday celebrations. It was designed to encourage people to engage in discussion on significant issues in a civil and respectful manner. Coopers had agreed to make a specially labelled light beer to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society and the video featured the participants “keeping it light” while they discussed the issue with great respect and care while enjoying a beer.
Now all of that seems fairly reasonable doesn’t it? The Bible society as part of its birthday celebrations released a video encouraging people to engage in respectful and caring conversation on major issues… However the response to the video was anything but reasonable.
Almost immediately same sex marriage advocates called for a boycotting of Coopers products. They demanded that pubs and clubs stop stocking Coopers beers—and many agreed. Why were they so outraged? Both men in the video were given equal air time to put forward their case—and even had to say what part of the others view they found most compelling. The Video did not present one view as superior to the other… The outrage came because they dared to even put it forward as something to be debated.
That isn’t a typo—the same sex marriage lobby has decided that not only should those who oppose same sex marriage be bullied into silence, but that even those who think it is an important matter for public discussion and civil and respectful debate should be bullied into submission—dissent will not be tolerated in any form. Anyone who they perceive as even suggesting that there is a discussion to be had must be punished—and so Coopers was punished—dragged through days of hostile media scrutiny and sadly they eventually caved in to the bullying—no doubt fearing for their livelihoods—and in some cases their safety as threats were made. Coopers withdrew its plan to release the commemorative cases of light beer—they disatanced themselves from the Bible Society and they announced they were going to join the group Australian Marriage Equality. The bullies won.
This has been an incredibly sad week in our nation for freedom of thought, speech and expression. It has been a week in which the same sex marriage lobby have shown their true colours as bullies, hypocrites and bigots who demand tolerance and respect on one hand and then bully and coerce those who have not accepted their views on the other.
Please pray for our nation, that we will be able to hold onto the values we value so dearly. Values of freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of thought, expression and freedom of speech. Pray that we don’t become a nation that does not tolerate dissent, and punishes those who don’t agree with the prevailing view of the elites. Pray that we can be a nation that debates important issues with civility, love and compassion—the very things the video promoted.
I also invite you to pray for the victims in all of this—the staff of both Coopers Brewery, and the Bible Society.
Fr Daryl is an Anglican priest living in regional New South Wales Australia. Learn more on the About page.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my church or any other organisation I am affiliated with.