12th Assembly 2009

More of the same?

As he presented the report of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress to the Uniting Church’s 12th Assembly on the evening of July 16, the Rev. Ken Sumner said that, while the Uniting Church is a wonderful church, it could be a great church.

I agree. But recent events suggest we’re not yet ready to step up.

Over the last few days of the Assembly meeting, I’ve heard lots of conversations about who the Uniting Church thinks it is as a church.

We say we are a church that values and takes seriously its covenantal relationship with Congress. Yet when a leading minister of the Congress shared honestly and with great vulnerability about the importance of the new preamble to the constitution, and challenged the Uniting Church to put aside its need to debate and discuss every last detail, Assembly did not hear him.

I hope the new preamble will go through and that we will congratulate ourselves for being a church committed to reconciliation. But what would it have meant if Assembly could have simply accepted the version approved by Congress at its meeting?

We say we are a church that values diversity, creativity and the input of lay people. Yet, as far back as I can remember (I’m a relatively young member of the church) our president has been a middle-aged (depending on how you define that), middle class, educated white cleric. And today the church decided the next president would be made in the same image.

The Rev. Dr Andrew Dutney will no doubt make a good president. He is intelligent, insightful and humble. In fact, I think each of the four people who were nominated as president-elect would have brought something good to the role.

In a way that’s not the point. Just as the nine months of pregnancy are helpful to form a person as a parent, the three years spent as president-elect are there to allow the person to be formed by God for the role. We have to trust God will do that work.

As we left the Cato Lecture on Saturday night, we started talking about the architecture of the University of NSW — in particular the tree imagery that ran through the building at the top of the main walkway. The conversation then led on to architecture more generally and the idea that, just as a community can form a building, the building then starts to form the community.

It’s a pertinent idea also when you’re thinking about the shape of an Assembly meeting. What would the meeting have looked like if the Cato lecture was on the opening night, instead of the president’s sermon? What would the meeting have looked like if Assembly considered its key directions for the next three years before undertaking any other business? What would the meeting have looked like the Chair of Congress co-chaired the meeting?

I think it’s also a relevant metaphor when thinking about choosing a new President for a church.

Just as the community of faith chooses its President, that choice has an impact on the way that community is shaped in the years to come. It’s not just about what the President says or does or even how they act. It’s about what they look like and what meaning they create in the world.

As a young-ish, non-ordained woman in a leadership role in my synod, what meaning would it give to the way I thought about the church and my place in it to see a non-ordained woman as president? And what would it mean for the way the rest of the world saw our church.

Of course, the female nominee for president-elect was Rosemary Hudson Miller, who is part of my local church congregation and is a valued mentor and friend. But my disappointment at the result of the ballot was not so much about her. As the current President, the Rev. Alistair Macrae, rightly said, for those not chosen there is a mixture of disappointment and relief. Being President of the Uniting Church is not a cushy job.

I would have loved to have seen Rosemary elected as President. I would also have loved to have seen the Rev. Jason Kioa elected as President, because of the meaning that would have had for all the non-white people in our churches, and particularly the Tongan community.

I would have really, really loved to have seen the process of discernment in our synods and presbyteries mean the nominees on offer reflected who we are as a church: a church that values lay people, a church that recognises the leadership of women as much as men, a church that says it is multicultural and committed to justice and reconciliation, as well as a church that values scholarly inquiry.

Of course, it’s a risky thing to comment on the process of discernment the church has just undergone when I am not part of it. I have attended this Assembly as part of the media team. I haven’t taken part in every discussion and every session. Nonetheless, as a member of the church I have taken seriously the debates I have heard and the challenges offered by Mr Macrae in his opening sermon as President, by the Rev. Shayne Blackman and the Rev. Rronang Garrawurra from Congress and by the Cato Lecturer Daniel Smith-Christopher.

I suspect the reason many people voted for Dr Dutney was because they have been inspired and challenged by what he has to say about the Basis of Union. Which is great.

The church is richly resourced by deep theological thinkers who can challenge us. And we love it.

I also love nothing better than sitting around with a glass of wine having deep meaningful conversations about the world and my place in it. Often such conversations feel like they are solving the problems of the world. But if I have too many such conversations, or if they go on too long, I just won’t get anything done. In fact, I’m likely to end up drunk and not making much sense but deluded that I sound fabulously entertaining and insightful.

When we begin again the process of discerning those people we might nominate as the next president-elect, let’s put down the bottle of wine, shut up and listen.

Alison Atkinson-Phillips