The Uniting Presbyterian Church of South Africa’s Journey with Homosexuality
As early as 1968 the Presbyterian Church of South Africa’s (PCSA) General Assembly came to a decision that that there is a vast difference between loving, faithful and committed partnerships and casual, sexual relationships, whether homosexual or heterosexual.
In 1998 the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality and the Christian Life defined ‘Human Sexuality’ in its report to the PCSA General Assembly as follows: “Human sexuality includes all that we are as human beings, and although it is closely related to biological sex and procreation, they are not to be simply equated. The distinctions that give expression to our sexuality, our fundamental maleness or femaleness, run deeper than the procreative function. Sexuality is, at the very least, biological, psychological, cultural, social and spiritual. It is as much of the mind as of the body, of the community as of the person. Human sexuality is the most complete way of total giving of oneself to another. It is the most personal, intimate and sacramental outward expression of the inner physical and spiritual love which God has given. To be a person is to be a sexual being. Sexuality, then, belongs to the mystery of personhood and the mystery of the image of God.”
In 2002, the Uniting Presbyterian Church of South Africa’s (PCSA) General Assembly adopted a proposal, which instructed the Human Sexuality Committee to formulate a position, specifically, on the following:
- Homosexual practice
- Homosexual marriage
- Homosexual couple parenting and adoption. The 2003 Assembly received no report from the Human Sexuality Committee. A new Committee was appointed to give attention to this matter.
- “the Assembly to establish an official standpoint on ministers and office-bearers within the denomination who are self-acknowledged practicing homosexuals;
- the Assembly to rule (in the light of the mutual acceptance of ministries laid down in the Church Unity Commission Agreement) whether an appointment to one of our churches of a minister from one of the other denominations in the CUC who is a self-acknowledged practicing homosexual would be acceptable to the UPCSA."
- Each Presbytery was asked to set up a workshop on the matter.
- Workshop material with full instructions was prepared by the Committee and sent out to all Presbytery Clerks.
- A discussion paper, giving an overview of the current debate and the issues involved was compiled by the Committee and circulated widely. It was deliberately designed to open up the issues and stimulate thought.
- A wide range of additional study resources was made available on the UPCSA website.
- A two-afternoon workshop was arranged for the ministers' conference in April 2005. It sparked strong emotions, however there was healthy and robust engagement on the issues involved, and feedback on the conference workshops indicated that these were generally helpful to people.
In March 2004 the Executive Commission further clarified the mandate of the Committee to present a report to the 2004 General Assembly in order:
The Committee submitted a thorough report to the 2006 General Assembly held in Zambia (Livingstone, September 2006). The report included a comprehensive historical overview on the Church’s journey with the topic, as well as possible proposals in how to proceed (explaining and motivating in detail each option). The Committee also included the discussion document which they compiled earlier along with a paper by C. H. Hoffman of Stellenbosch University giving an overview of the various reformed churches current positions and progress in formulating a theology of homosexuality.
Unfortunately, the report was received very negative. It is reported that the Executive did not heed the warning of the Zambians - to not discuss the topic at the Assembly. After a vigorous debate the Assembly decided to reframe the proposals of the Committee and finally agree on the following: “The Word of God in Scripture is our final rule of faith and life’ and is therefore determinative for our position on homosexuality and our attitude towards people of different sexual orientations.
Whilst accepting that Scripture texts speak of homosexuality as not within the plan of God, the General Assembly acknowledges that:
- There are different interpretations of just what Scripture means and implies on the issue of homosexuality, depending on one’s view of the context, and we acknowledge this diversity without calling into question the integrity and faith of those with opposing viewpoints.
- The majority of Commissioners continue to view all homosexual behaviour as unacceptable in terms of the traditional interpretation of Scripture, but there is a significant minority group who interpret the Scripture differently.
- Any discussion on homosexuality cannot be divorced from the whole area of human sexuality, and there therefore needs to be a basic consistency in the way sexual ethics are applied to all sexual relationships.
- We confirm the definition of ‘Human Sexuality’ set out by the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality and the Christian Life in its report to the PCSA General Assembly in 1998
- The issues surrounding homosexuality are varied and complex and require journey and dialogue with those affected.
- The basic message of the New Testament is the Good News that Jesus Christ died and was raised to life to redeem all people from sin. Christians are commanded to love, accept and call all people to Christ, regardless of whether we judge their behaviour to be acceptable or not.
- To commit the UPCSA to continued engagement, study and prayer over this contentious issue, acknowledging our diversity of opinion, but relying on the promised guidance of God’s Spirit
- To reaffirm that baptism, accompanied by faith, is the sole criterion for membership of the church (Interim Manual of Law and Procedure, 1.3).
- To call its members prayerfully to consider whether they have failed to show Christian love towards any homosexual persons in the past and repent thereof.
- To condemn all forms of discrimination and abuse on the basis of sexual orientation as such as sinful.
- To condemn all forms of sexual promiscuity.
- To exercise a prophetic, healing and caring ministry when dealing with questionable sexual behaviour.
- To urge all its members to deepen their understanding of the issue of homosexuality in dialogue with homosexual Christians, through the study of Scripture and with the help of insights from medical science and psychology.
- To confirm the definition of Christian marriage set out by the Executive Commission in July 2005. “The Executive Commission affirms:
- To direct that Presbyteries and congregations, dealing with questions of sexuality in relation to office bearers of the Church, should do so in humble prayer for God’s guidance in light of the above statement.
1.1 Christian marriage is defined within the UPCSA as an ordained covenant that exists between one man and one woman under God for life, and holds this definition to be consistent with the authoritative rule of Scripture as well as the tradition of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.
1.2 The Executive Commission instructs all Marriage Officers affiliated with the UPCSA to remain faithful to the Church’s definition of marriage and to exercise pastoral compassion and sensitivity in their dealings with all who approach the Church for assistance with marriage.
1.3 The Executive Commission exhorts all members of the church to uphold the sanctity of Christian marriage and to acknowledge its role as the proper context for the expression of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman.”
The Committee did much reflection and focussed initially on trying to provide some helpful comment on the Civil Unions Bill, which was enacted in December 2006. However the Human Sexuality Committee of the UPCSA, tossed a spanner in the wheel, when the made a comment on the implications of the Civil Union Bill. This comment could have been interpreted as a comment of the General Assembly. It read as follows:
“With the passing of the Civil Unions Bill earlier this year, the question has arisen as to what the implications are for the ministers and members of the UPCSA. This comment is sent to you in an attempt to be of assistance. Current UPCSA position on same sex marriage: There is some tension and ambiguity within the denomination regarding the stance on same sex marriage. The statement by the 2006 Executive Commission defining marriage precludes gay marriages by implication, and instructs UPCSA marriage officers to conduct marriages only within the parameters of this definition. Yet the principle that there is a variety of legitimate viewpoints on the issue of homosexuality was accepted by the 2006 Assembly:
- “There are different interpretations of just what Scripture means and implies on the issue of homosexuality, depending on one’s view of the context, and we acknowledge this diversity without calling into question the integrity and faith of those with opposing viewpoints.
- The majority of Commissioners continue to view all homosexual behaviour as unacceptable in terms of the traditional interpretation of Scripture, but there is a significant minority group who interpret the Scripture differently.”
The committee believed it a grave error to just shrug off the people involved with a “rule-determined” refusal faced with requests for same-sex marriages/partnerships. In 2007 they drew the attention of ministers to the decisions of the 2006 Assembly, which encouraged them at the very least to enter into an open dialogue with same-sex couples.
It was the Committee’s conviction that the freedom of conscience that is part of their tradition, together with the recognition by the 2006 Assembly of a variety of viewpoints on homosexuality, would accommodate the following ministerial responses:
- “Make known the Assembly’s ruling of 2006 that belonging to the church is a function of faith and baptism, and that sexual orientation cannot be an excluding factor.
To reaffirm that baptism, accompanied by faith, is the sole criterion for membership of the church (Interim Manual of Law and Procedure, 1.3).
- Preach the Gospel in such a way that people are enabled to engage in creative dialogue about same-sex relationships and the need for health and commitment in such relationships.
- Establish support groups for gays/lesbians and their families, thus facilitating friendships which offer a safe space for them to explore issues relevant to them and their faith;
- As with heterosexual couples, help same-sex couples to submit their relationship to God and learn the skills and paradigms necessary to a healthy relationship.”
The Committee dissolved after the 2008 General Assembly. Some members feel disillusioned after all the effort invested in the gathering, formulating and advocating for inclusion. The General Assembly of 2012 had no interest in having any form of sexual education literature at their meeting.
To date no further discussions has taken place. A new Human Sexuality committee has been appointed and will be presenting a report of discussion in the July 2016 General Assembly.