DisUniting the Church & the ACL

Protests against the ACL planned April 9 and 23rd in Sydney, 27th in Melbourne as questions (and eyebrows) are raised at the Uniting Church providing the lobby with their conference venue

acl protest

Stop H8! Protest the Australian Christian Lobby 12:30pm Saturday 23 April Outside Wesley Conference Centre, 220 Pitt Street, Sydney

The Uniting Church is seen by some as a place that welcomes and embraces Christians who identify as queer. However, there are issues on which the church it not as ‘united’ as its name suggests.

On the last Saturday in April the Australian Christian Lobby will be hosting its 2016 National Conference in Sydney at the Wesley Conference Centre in the CBD, which is owned by the Wesley Mission, part of the Uniting Church. Tickets to attend cost between $79 and $218. There is also a dinner at an unspecified CBD venue the night before.

Speakers at the conference include: America’s Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Dr J Ventrella, who has argued anti-gay marriage cases; Treasurer and Hillsong member Scott Morrison; and the ACL’s Lyle Shelton and Wendy Francis. One somewhat surprising speaker is Tony Abbott’s favourite indigenous leader and activist, Noel Pearson. But star billing goes to US radio host, author and public speaker Eric Metaxas, who is closely linked to far right evangelical organisation The Family, here on a speaking tour of Australia.

Metaxas will also be speaking at Melbourne’s Scots Church, on April 27. Equal Love are planning a rainbow chalking and a speak-out outside of this event “to spread the rainbow and to let the ACL know that they can rear their heads, but not without dissent.”

Equal Love Rainbow Chalking Scots Church Melbourne April 27

Equal Love Rainbow Chalking, Scots Church Melbourne, April 27

The ACL conference, on the 23rd of April, has received only limited coverage in the gay press and wider media, but almost nothing has been written about the venue or who owns it. Doug Pollard, writing in the stirrer earlier this week, touched on it, as did the Gay News Network.

It may seem unsurprising to many to find a Christian conference taking place in a Christian venue. However, to those familiar with the Uniting Church, this is something of a shock. The Uniting Church has many parishes with a reputation for welcoming Christians who identify as LGBTQIA+ and providing them a safe space. Pitt Street Uniting Church has been campaigning on behalf of queer refugees and has allowed its premises to be used for such meetings.

Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH) is organising a protest outside the Wesley Mission on conference day, April the 23rd at 12.30pm. . Stop H8! Protest the Australian Christian Lobby A statement on its Facebook page lists several reasons why. These include:

  • the ACL’s successful campaign to revoke funding and undermine the Safe Schools program
  • its lobbying against marriage equality
  • its claims that same-sex parenting is causing another ‘stolen generation’ and
  • its support for Christian schools expelling gay students as a “loving response”.

CAAH Co-Convenor Cat Rose explains:

The ACL must be feeling very proud of themselves after having successfully led the campaign to gut Safe Schools, and now having the Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison lined up to speak at their conference. We want to see them walking the walk of shame while we hold our own conference outside.

Meanwhile this Saturday April 9, barely two weeks before the ACL conference, a march for marriage equality will be taking place from Sydney’s Taylor Square to prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s electoral office in the small suburb of Edgecliff.Two of its organisers are activists Aeyrton Kee and Jim Argent, whose mother Shelley has been a champion of the equal marriage campaign and other queer causes.


This weekend in Sydney

The list of speakers at this weekend’s marriage equality event is impressive. They include Federal and State MPs Tanya Plibersek and Jenny Leong, Sally Rugg of GetUp!, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby’s Chris Pycroft, Geoff Thomas of PFFFLAG and students from Castle Hill High School. However, given the above info on the ACL venue there is one speaker’s name that stands out: the Reverend Ben Gilmour of – you guessed it – the Uniting Church. He belongs to the progressive Paddington branch and is openly gay.

Readers could perhaps be forgiven for having concerns or seeing a potential conflict of interest with Ben Gilmour speaking in favour of marriage equality on behalf of the Uniting Church while another branch of his church allows its venue to be used for another event two weeks later where there is certain to be strong opposition to equal marriage.

But organiser Aeyrton Kee says it is important that people such as Gilmour are speaking out and taking a stand on such issues. Indeed when the stirrer contacted the Reverend Ben Gilmour of the Uniting Church in Paddington he explained he was unaware of the ACL event but would make his opposition known including a call for a boycott.

He acknowledges the fact his organisation is a broad church and further explains:

While I am on the inclusive wing of the Uniting Church, each congregation has a greater level of independence as the church is not a centralised church, but more of a collection of different churches driven by local councils that are in a relationship with the wider Uniting Church.

A cancellation of the event also has the backing of the National Secretary of the Uniting Network Warren Talbot. The Uniting Network is the national network for lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex and transgender people, their families, friends and supporters within the Uniting Church of Australia.

But the Co-Convenor of Community Action Against Homophobia, Cat Rose, says that cancelling the event is not the answer and she encourages Uniting Church members to join the protest outside the conference:

I think our focus should be on getting numbers out to do so, if the venue is cancelled they have the money and the influence to hold it somewhere in secret like they have done before. On the one day of the year we know we know where these homophobes are it would be great to have people come out, paint the street in rainbow colours and give them the greeting they deserve.

That includes members of the Uniting Church of course! After all the ACL have been given mainstream legitimacy for years by a host of government leaders too willing to give their fringe beliefs an ear. Morrison speaking alongside Australian and American gay-hate groups should not go without protest.

the stirrer has contacted the Wesley Mission and as yet has received no reply.

But Uniting Justice, which campaigns of behalf of the National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia pursuing national matters of social and economic justice, human rights, peace and the environment has been quick to distance itself from the Wesley Mission. Its statement is short and sweet:

UnitingJustice Australia is not hosting this event or involved with it in any way. We have no formal relationship with Wesley Mission. I would encourage you to raise your concerns directly with Wesley Mission.

A friend quipped this week that the church is called Uniting rather than United because it is not quite there yet, and this comment may not be too far from the truth. Rev. Gilmour admits that this can send confusing signals in terms of brand consistency and is frustrating for those in congregations who wish to see an end to homophobia as a whole within the church.

He has also made it clear that he will raise with the issue with the Uniting Network, with Sydney Presbytery members and with the Wesley Conference Centre which is part of the Uniting Church’s Wesley Mission. He will also discuss this with the Paddington Church Council which he says has greater weight but still no authority in telling another congregation what to do.

However, the National Secretary of the Uniting Network, Warren Talbot, believes Lyle Shelton and the ACL may have deliberately chosen the Wesley Conference Centre in an effort to drive a wedge within the Uniting Church, which he feels they may see as a weak link.

Talbot will seek a meeting with the General Secretary of the Synod (State office) calling for the conference to not be held on Uniting Church property. He will also ask for the General Secretary to come up with a clear policy on the use of Uniting Church buildings including LGBTQIA+ friendly policies. In addition he is writing to the Superintendent of Wesley Mission regarding the event. He is also in the process of putting together a background paper to present as part of the letters.

It is true that the Wesley Mission has had a more conservative and evangelical approach to its Christian expression for a long time, while other churches are more inclusive and progressive in nature, but because the Uniting Church is not centralised it has meant that one congregation has no authority to tell another what to do. Rev. Gilmour writes:

I have personally expressed my concerns and asked the Superintendent of the Wesley Mission to do everything in his power to address the concerns we share, particularly to limit the harmful views of some of the speakers towards LGBTIQ. But I am just one individual within the Uniting Church and from one congregation and not the consensual view of the church. We still have a long way to go with that.

While many people may argue that the Wesley Mission has made an error of judgement in allowing its premises to be hired to the Australian Christian Lobby for its conference, they may also welcome  members of other branches of the Uniting Church such as Paddington holding the church as a whole to account and taking action.

There is certainly hope and as Rev. Gilmour points out, in July 2015 the Uniting Church’s current National President Stuart McMillan wrote to all Uniting Church of Australia Assembly members and councils:

…We seek to be an inclusive church that celebrates diversity and embraces LGBTIQ people as full members of the church community. For the times we have failed to be this loving community of Christ and caused hurt, we apologise, ask forgiveness and pray for healing and reconciliation for us all. Christian community modelled on Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance is what we strive to attain. We know that the world is watching to see how we treat one another. Paul says in Romans we belong to one another, the commandment is to love, to put the interests of others ahead of our own interests….

As Cat Rose of CAAH points out April 23rd will be the one day of the year where we know where all our opponents are and we can be out in force to protest at the views of those attending the conference.

To find out more about the protest, click here:

To Contact the Wesley Mission:

Street: 220 Pitt Street, Sydney NSW 2000

Mail: PO Box A555, Sydney South NSW 1235

Phone: (02) 9263 5500

Fax: (02) 9264 4694

Email: conferencecentre@wesleymission.org.au