Bishop Robert Forsyth, formerly Bishop of South Sydney, current senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies sees a testing time ahead for Evangelicals.
We are living in different worlds. Leaving aside for a moment the religious freedom implications of the passing of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, the process and events around it reveal profound differences in fundamental beliefs in Australia between the churches and much of the wider society.
Much of the disagreement about same-sex marriage reflected deeper disagreements about other questions of what is marriage itself, what is the moral status of same-sex relationships, and about how such questions are decided in the first place. The differences go all the way down. As ancient historian Kyle Harper recently wrote: ‘In our secular age, just as in the early years of Christianity, differences in sexual morality are really about the clash between different pictures of the universe and the place of the individual within it.’ 1
This was unacknowledged in much of the debate and yet is one reason why neither side seemed to be actually talking to the other. The churches’ campaign for the no case never really said why same-sex marriage should not be legal because, whether they realised it or not, the real Christian case for no is incomprehensible to those who share so little of the Christian understanding of reality. Harper captures this well.
An avowed secularist is as likely as a Christian activist to proclaim the universal dignity of all and insist upon the individual’s freedom. And yet, however moralized the domain of sex might be, the vast, vacant universe seems to have left only authenticity and consent as the shared, public principles of sexual morality. These axioms derive from a picture of the universe different from the one imagined by Paul, who envisioned the individual—including the sexual self—within the larger story of the gospel and a created cosmos in the throes of restoration. That is why the no case was all about unwelcome consequences to same-sex marriage, not the issue itself.
Since then, not unexpectedly, the meaning and significance of the change in the law is deeply contested as well. In the second reading Attorney General George Brandis described the passing of the bill as saying ‘to those vulnerable young people [who are homosexual or lesbian], there is nothing wrong with you. You are not unusual. You are not abnormal. You are just you.’ The Prime Minister said that in amending the Marriage Act the clear message to every gay person was ‘we love you. We respect you. Your relationship is recognised by the Commonwealth as legitimate and honourable as anybody else’s. You belong.’ Peter van Onselen writing in The Australian on 27 November likened those who voted no with ‘people who wanted blacks to continue to ride at the back of the bus, or racial segregation of toilets, or bans on interracial marriage. When the laws changed they realised they were on the wrong side of history.’
If this rhetoric is to be taken seriously it means that in the eyes of significant thought leaders in this country those who voted no, and in particular those who continue to hold to a view of marriage that is not the one endorsed by the passing of the Act, must be saying to gay people; ‘you are abnormal’, ‘you are not loved or respected’, and that such non-cooperators are the moral equivalent to segregationists in America’s deep South in the 1960s. In other words, it is not just that such leaders remain unconvinced as to our stance, they are uncomprehending, and, worse, regard us as immoral.
It is not easy so close to these events to know how long-lasting such attitudes are. Public debates have short half-lives. But the reality of incomprehension and disgust is lasting. We can be sure that the six in ten Australians, who, according to the Ipsos survey2 released in October last year, believe that religion does more harm than good are not going away soon.
The implications for the churches are threefold. Firstly, we face threats to religious freedoms and privilege in a situation of diminished goodwill towards us. Secondly, we need to accept that, on any public issue other than those where we simply echo the majority culture, we have to start way back in the different picture of the universe and the place of the individual within it that informs our understanding. Thirdly, the churches face the Herculean task of maintaining the integrity of their own discipleship and culture down the generations in the face of a proselytising and persistent secularism, especially in matters of sexual behaviour. It will be a testing time indeed.
1. Kyle Harper ‘The First Sexual Revolution’ First Things, January 2018