12th Assembly 2009

Church adopts historic new Constitution preamble

The Uniting Church in Australia now sees itself in an entirely new light. And it will project itself to the world in a fresh way.

For the first time in Australia, and possibly in the world, a major Christian denomination in a Western nation defines itself in terms of its relationship with the people dispossessed by colonisation.

This is the significance of a controversial new preamble to its Constitution passed today by the Uniting Church at the 2009 national Assembly in Sydney.

Debate on the proposal was anticipated with both excitement and apprehension. Although strongly supported by the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (Congress) and many others, solid opposition had been signalled in advance.

Many speakers sought to amend some of the proposal’s complex wording. Others expressed concern at the lack of adequate consultation.

Deliberations on Sunday evening became highly emotional, with profound distress expressed by many speakers. At one point Congress representatives told the meeting they felt “unsafe” and withdrew from the Assembly.

This was followed by many expressions of profound hurt, dismay, sorrow and apology. President Alistair Macrae then led the entire Assembly of 265 members outside the meeting hall where they joined with the Congress representatives before re-entering.

It was agreed late on Sunday evening that the proposal would again be put to the Assembly on Monday morning, but without any further discussion.

On Monday morning the President Alistair Macrae sought passage of the resolution by consensus, that is, without dissent. This failed, with about seven dissenters. The Assembly then moved to formal procedures where a 75 per cent majority is required.

An overwhelming majority then supported the proposal, approximately 256 to nine.

The preamble takes the Uniting Church Covenant between Indigenous and non- Indigenous members to another level.

It tells the truth about the history of Australia, including the truth of her Christian churches. And it places the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people at the centre of the denomination’s life and witness.

The preamble states that:

1. When the churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation they entered a land that had been created and sustained by the Triune God they knew in Jesus Christ.

2. Through this land God had nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country,the Aboriginal and Islander peoples, who continue to understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians (meaning ‘sovereign’ in the languages of the First Peoples) of these lands and waters since time immemorial.

3. The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

The preamble affirms, further, that many church members “shared the values and relationships of the emerging colonial society including paternalism and racism towards the First Peoples. They were complicit in the injustice that resulted in many of the First Peoples being dispossessed from their land, their language, their culture and spirituality, becoming strangers in their own land.”

The preamble is not legally binding in terms of interpretation of the constitution, or for any understanding of regulations which flow from that constitution.

Although the overwhelming majority of Assembly members were strongly in favour of the new preamble, celebration was subdued following the distress which preceded the final decision.