Friday, July 14, 2006

Church rebels split over gay priests

Andrew Fraser

THE Uniting Church is closer to a fundamentalist split after conservatives yesterday moved to set up a breakaway "church within the church" in protest at the failure to ban gay ministers.

About a quarter of the almost 600 delegates who attended last week's Uniting Church Assembly in Brisbane have moved to establish the Assembly of Confessing Congregations, which they claim represents the "true gospel".

But they have stopped short of turning their back completely on the Uniting Church, saying they would wait until the movement was ordained in October to determine their next move. Sources within the church and on the rebels' side said it seemed to be a strategic move to determine how many people they could attract to the new movement.

The trigger for the movement is the Uniting Church's failure to ban homosexuals from the ministry, and over the past few days the conservatives have been discussing their future after last week's conference failed to definitively oppose the ordination of gay priests. Reverend Stephen Estherby, the national spokesman for the Evangelical Members Union - which, along with the Reforming Alliance, forms the basis of the new movement - said the breakaway body would be ordained in October.

"At that point, we will decide what happens. There is a very big difference between having 10 congregations and 400 congregations," he said. "But we have been trying to reform the movement from within for several years, but it's just not happening, so we're going to do it ourselves outside the church." Uniting Church president Gregor Henderson said he wanted to meet the leadership of EMU and the Reforming Alliance next week to clarify the proposal.

"On face value this proposal seems to suggest establishing a series of parallel structures within the Uniting Church," he said. "The church's Basis of Union provides for members of the church to work within the established councils of our presbyteries, synods and the assembly, and the proposed charter appears to be in breach of this."

Reverend Estherby said "there will be confrontation in this - they've said to us, 'You can't do this', but we just have". He said the new movement would not only try to attract existing congregations but also those who did not feel comfortable with the direction of the Uniting Church. "That's not to get up the nose of the Uniting Church - we see it as missionary work," he said. "We see ourselves as forming a sort of government-in-exile within the church because the assembly does not perform the function for which it was formed." He claimed that his movement had the support of 80 per cent of the "people in the pews" of the Uniting Church, but the "other side" had 80 per cent of the numbers at assembly. "Evangelical people haven't been interested in politics, but what we're frantically trying to do now is claw back our fair share of the power in the church," he said. But he stressed that even though his group was opposed to the ordination of gay priests, its members were not homophobic. Gay news for the Queer Australian

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