12th Assembly 2009

Constitution changed to acknowledge Covenant with Congress

The Assembly of the Uniting Church, meeting in Sydney, made several amendments to its Constitution on July 20 to reflect the content of the new preamble adopted earlier in the day.

The purposes of the changes were explained as paving the way for more effective expression of the relationship between Congress and other branches of the Uniting Church.

The Constitution now allows specific rights, powers, duties and responsibilities of a synod or presbytery to be transferred to Congress, with an appeal mechanism if a synod does not respond to a request from Congress for such a transfer.

The title of Division 4 was amended to read: “Covenantal Relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.”

Secondly, a preliminary paragraph to Division 4 was added:

“49. Noting the Preamble and the Church’s desire to build on its covenantal relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, and in order to serve more effectively the purposes of God in the land of Australia, the Church shall remain open to the ways in which the covenantal relationship may find fuller expression in its life.”

Both changes were accepted by consensus, that is, by unanimous show of cards.

The Assembly approved by agreement adding the following definitions to Clause 3:

“Covenantal relationship is the relationship which exists between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and the Assembly, which began in the invitation of 1988 and response of 1994, in which both groups commit themselves to developing more just, inclusive and equal relationships in the Church that recognise the place of First Peoples, the difficult history of this nation since invasion, and the particular responsibility of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress for ministry with and among Aboriginal and Islander peoples.

“First Peoples are the Aboriginal and Islander peoples of Australia who are the indigenous peoples of this land. These peoples are a diverse group with many languages and communal identities.

“Second Peoples are all those peoples who have come after the First Peoples and who are beneficiaries in some way of the invasion and dispossession of the lands of the First Peoples. Among Second Peoples within the Church are many whose racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, experiences and expression of Christian faith are not those originating in Western forms of thought and theological expression.”

Clause 71 was amended by consensus to read: “All rulings as to the interpretation of this Constitution or any of the Regulations made by the Assembly shall be made by the President after taking appropriate advice, and noting the preamble, provided however that any such ruling may be confirmed, varied, modified, rescinded or over-ruled by the Assembly or by the Standing Committee on its behalf.”

A more controversial amendment was accepted by agreement after lengthy discussion.

That permits a synod, at the request of a regional committee of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, to prescribe that the regional committee or the National Executive of the Congress exercise the rights, powers, duties and responsibilities of a synod or presbytery.

Agreement could not be reached on the amendment relating to dispute resolution. So the Assembly shifted from consensus decision-making mode to the application of formal business procedures.

After extensive debate, those proposals were accepted by a majority of more than 90 per cent:

“(b) Any such prescription may be (i) made subject to such limitations as may arise from the nature of the Congress or the regional committee and such limitations or conditions as may be required by the Synod and

“(ii) withdrawn or varied from time to time by the Synod, after negotiation with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

“c) if a synod declines a request from a regional committee made under (a) above, the Assembly shall at the request of the regional committee seek to negotiate a resolution of the dispute in the spirit of the Covenantal relationship and if the regional committee remains unsatisfied the Assembly may direct the synod to make the transfer of some or all of the specific rights, powers, duties and responsibilities of a synod or presbytery as requested by the regional committee.”

Finally the Assembly authorised, by consensus, “the Standing Committee on the advice of the Legal Reference Committee to produce Regulations that give effect to the amendment to Clause 49A of the Constitution.”

Discussion on these changes was the most time-consuming item of business of the Assembly so far, with many members exercising their right to speak, ask questions and suggest amendments.

The session closed with an emotional celebration, including songs, prayer and expressions of joy and relief, involving all representatives of Congress present.