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Making space for grace
By Catherine Hoffman
New Times Editor & Communications Officer
Posted in Culture
Space for Grace is an expression that many Uniting Church members may now be familiar with, particularly in the light of recent conversations about marriage. But not everyone is aware of what the term means.
“Space for Grace is a process that we’re using to build community for Spirit-led decision-making within a diverse group of Church members,” explains Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan.
“It’s been developed over a number of years by the Assembly’s Multicultural and Cross Cultural Reference Committee based on that group’s approach to decision-making across a very diverse membership.”
The Uniting Church SA has chosen this process for its continuing discussions on marriage. But what does this look like in practice?
The Uniting Church on marriage
The Uniting Church in Australia’s current understanding of marriage is “the freely given consent and commitment in public and before God of a man and a woman to live together for life”. This remains unchanged.
The topic of marriage has been a huge focus for politicians and the media in recent months, centred on potential changes to the current Marriage Act. The intensity of these discussions has only risen with the announcement of the Marriage Law Postal Survey and the mailing of survey papers.
However, the Uniting Church has been having its own discussions about marriage for many years.
In 2012, the 13th Assembly tasked the Doctrine Working Group with preparing a discussion paper on marriage and exploring the implications for public covenants for same-sex relationships.
This paper was presented and discussed at the 14th Assembly in 2015. This Assembly resolved that further work must be done, including engagement with the continuing work of the Doctrine Working Group and engagement with members of the LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex +) community, the wider Uniting Church, and ecumenical partners. The Assembly also committed to discussing same-sex relationships in culturally appropriate ways.
“We are engaging in respectful conversations with one another, guided by the Spirit, sharing our stories and understanding of marriage and same-gender relationships in culturally appropriate ways,” Stuart wrote in a statement released in August.
“We will consider carefully the implications of any future changes to the Marriage Act. Regardless of any legislation change, we will continue the process of discernment in relation to same-gender relationships in a way that reflects the Uniting Church’s commitment to uphold Christian values and principles.”
What is Space for Grace?
As a result of the decisions made at the 14th Assembly in 2015, the Multicultural and Cross Cultural Ministry Reference Committee were invited to create a “space for grace” – a culturally appropriate way to approach decision-making that could be used to further facilitate discussions about marriage.
Two members of the Reference Committee, Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler and Rev Dr Tony Floyd, created the Space for Grace process.
“Members of the Reference Committee wanted to share the approach we had developed over a number of years in the way we have made our decisions together across a very diverse group of people,” Amelia and Tony explain in the introduction to the “Space for Grace Facilitator Guide”.
“The Space for Grace process is still being developed and refined, but has served our group of culturally and linguistically diverse leaders well over a number of years and helped us stay in community, despite our diﬀerent backgrounds, theologies and worldviews.”
Over a series of 11 steps, participants are encouraged to create a welcoming space in which they can enlarge personal boundaries through guiding questions and a mutual invitation to share stories and engage in compassionate, active listening.
The common themes resulting from this sharing are then identified and used to determine an agenda or further themes for discussion. The group may then determine directions or decisions to pursue moving forward.
The emphasis throughout is on respectful listening and behaviours, and sharing personal experiences.
This process can be used for a wide variety of conversations. It was recently used at “One-Two: What’s Next?”, a conference for young culturally and linguistically diverse members of the church which was held at CitySoul in Adelaide.
However, the main use for this process thus far has been during national conversations on marriage.
The Uniting Church in Australia Assembly organised two national Space for Grace conversations on marriage to take place in May and June this year. Each session was attended by about 30 Uniting Church members from across the country, with varying cultural and theological backgrounds.
Each Synod chose representatives to attend. In South Australia, Moderator Rev Sue Ellis invited each mission network to nominate a person to attend and participate in these discussions. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress also sent representatives.
The Gulf Mission Network (Gulf), Urban Mission Network (UMN), Hope Mission Network (HopeNet), 3DNet, and Grace Connections Network (Grace) each sent a representative. Community Outreach Mission Network (COMN) also nominated someone to attend, but emphasised that this person would be representing their own beliefs only, not those of the entire mission network. These representatives come from a variety of personal and theological backgrounds, and range in age from 27 to 73.
Each of the networks represented, as well as the COMN member, shared their thoughts about the process.
“I am a person with strong views and a willingness to discuss them, but as one who doesn’t enjoy conflict, I accepted the invitation with a lot of trepidation,” said Allan Barnes, the COMN member.
“However, my concern of a difficult and bruising time was misplaced. This [Space for Grace] process enabled an extended conversation to take place, in which nobody was interrupted, no judgements were laid upon another, and everybody had as long as they needed to tell their story.”
Scott Button, the 3Dnet representative, agreed:
“I was very appreciative of the process used to facilitate the discussion. It allowed people from very divergent positions and life experiences to share freely with mutual respect.
“It enabled me and others to engage firsthand the diversity of opinion and desires of people in the UCA around marriage, and [was] therefore able to fill in gaps for those who may have questions about the diversity.”
Rev Phil Webber, the Gulf representative, felt that while “it was good to have the time [two and a half days] to listen to the stories of others, it was a bit frustrating as some participants took a long time to tell their stories.”
Other representatives emphasised the affirmation they felt in seeing how well people were able to interact with one another when they were given the time to share stories, get to know one another, and truly listen to each other.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive feedback, there were some areas which representatives felt could be improved.
“[It was] well-ordered and conducted, but restrictive. It was frustratingly difficult for some not being able to explain reasons from Biblical perceptions for our experience,” said Rev Ian Clarkson, the representative from HopeNet. “The Space for Grace process must be careful not to depend so heavily on subjective experience.”
Both Ian Clarkson and Rosalie Dow-Schmidt, the representative from UMN, express concern that LGBTQI+ people were under-represented at the gatherings.
“One of the disappointing elements of the Space for Grace discussion I attended was that LGBTQI+ people were a clear minority in the group,” said Rosalie.
Ian noted the lack of “same-sex attracted people who have chosen to live celibate lives in accordance with their understanding of Christ’s teaching”.
Both national discussions were led by Rev Lindsay Cullen, who Grace representative Rev Judi Hartwig described as “very good at introducing the appreciative enquiry method, which enabled everyone to talk as they wished.”
The Space for Grace process was a new one for Lindsay, but he is enthusiastic about the way it can open up conversations across diversity.
“My own ‘takeout’ from the process is that respectful conversations are possible, and can be constructive – but it takes time!” Lindsay explained.
“When we take the time to hear one another’s stories and get to know one another as people with unique hopes, dreams, fears and concerns, we have built a platform on which truly respectful conversations can be built.”
While each South Australian representative who provided feedback had positive things to say about the process, not all were sure of how it might be used by the wider Uniting Church.
“This was a great experience for me personally, but I was left at a loss as to how this experience could be broadened to the wider church,” said Rosalie.
“I’m not sure [how it could help the Church moving forward],” said Scott. “It was a time of sharing not interactive debate or decision-making.”
Ian again shared his concern about restricting conversation to subjective experience.
On the whole, however, the representatives expressed the opinion that the Space for Grace process could be very helpful for the Uniting Church in continuing conversations.
“I think it is a good way for the Presbytery and Synod, [mission] networks and congregations [to have these discussions], but leaders will need to be well-trained,” said Judi.
“If we are to be an example of a reconciled, loving community to our local community, I offer this process of space for grace as a way for our congregations to truly listen to one another and build honest relationships that together can [help us] face the many tough decisions that the Church is called to [make] in an ever-changing-world,” Allan reflected.
Lindsay offered his own perspective as facilitator of the course.
“[What struck me most during the conversations] was that human experiences around relationships are incredibly diverse and complex, with enormous potential to be healing and growth inducing, or to cause great harm. Any way forward the Uniting Church might explore needs to be properly aware of that diversity, complexity and sensitivity,” he explained.
Elements of the Space for Grace process, particularly its emphasis on listening and respectful conversations, will underpin discussions about marriage at the November 2017 meeting of the Uniting Church in Australia, Presbytery and Synod of South Australia, and the meeting of the 15th Uniting Church in Australia Assembly in 2018.
One of the matters for discernment that will be considered at the 15th Assembly is the conversation on marriage. To allow for productive discussions at the meeting, the Assembly Standing Committee has invited input and comment from Synods.
To aid in this discernment, they have asked all Synods to discuss the following three areas at their state gatherings:
- Share your hopes and concerns about our conversation on marriage.
- In what mutually respectful ways could we move together as a Church that reflects the breadth of who we are as the Uniting Church in Australia?
- What matters would you like the Assembly Standing Committee to consider as it prepares for a discussion on this matter at the 15th Assembly?
Members of the SA Presbytery and Synod will be invited to use elements of the Space for Grace process to consider these topics at the November meeting, which will take place from 23-25 November at Adelaide West Uniting Church.
Congregations and faith communities sending representatives to the November meeting may wish to engage with Space for Grace in the coming weeks. This would allow the wider community’s thoughts to be shared by their representatives at the meeting.
Continuing with respect
As conversations continue to take place in the coming weeks and months, both in the Uniting Church and the wider community, Stuart reminds all members to remain respectful and speak from the heart.
“The Uniting Church, in contrast to the nation, is encouraging respectful conversations on marriage between our members. Being open to difference and grappling with it respectfully is the great and eternal work of reconciliation that continues within our Church and beyond,” he says.
“No matter how difficult the conversation or how wide the differences are, there really is nothing that cannot be resolved if we are prepared to listen to one another and leave the space for God’s grace.”
The Uniting Church in Australia Assembly website contains resources and statements on the national marriage conversations, in addition to the Space for Grace Facilitator’s Guide. To access these, please visit assembly.uca.org.au/marriage or contact Assembly on (02) 8267 4204 or email email@example.com
Statements from Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan and Uniting Church SA Moderator Rev Sue Ellis will continue to be shared through the Uniting Church SA website, New Times online and UC e-News as they are provided.
We ask that comments on this article should focus mainly on the Space for Grace process, rather than the postal survey or discussions about marriage, and that all comments are centred in respect and love.
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