12th Assembly 2009

Assembly chaplains help ease the pain of the process

The 12th Assembly has seen some tense and trying discussion about several proposals, but particularly in consideration of the historic new preamble to the Constitution, which acknowledges the First Peoples of Australia and the troubled history of their past in relation to the Christian church.

Emotions have run high: some people were bewildered, some frustrated. At one stage the members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress left the Assembly, saying they didn’t “feel safe”.

It was the job given to the 12th Assembly chaplains Robert Watson, from the Synod of Western Australia, and Christine Bayliss Kelly, from the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT, to support those struggling to process their emotions and come to terms with the issues raised by the discussion.

Both Mr Watson and Ms Bayliss Kelly had attended Assemblies before but this was their first time in the role of chaplain. Their first task was to come together and consider the agenda.

20 july_chaplains_sw 61“We spoke about where we thought some of the points where going to be where people might start to feel uncertain and the issues that might to trigger emotions,” said Mr Watson.

Both are participating members of Assembly but as chaplains they are constantly attuned to the mood around them.

“I’m super alert to where people are at and listening and watching as to how people are responding. One of the things we talked about at the start was making sure we touched based with the Community Group Leaders because they’re the ones that are on the ground seeing all the members of Assembly.

“It was important that they felt confident and comfortable to come to us if they were concerned about someone.”

Though much of their work has taken place with people at various locations in the venue, Mr Watson and Ms Bayliss Kelly have visited the chapel as often as possible.

“I was there when there was someone in need there,” said Mr Watson. “They were quite distressed and sobbing and it was around one of the issues on the agenda and how they were dealing with that.

“I’ve touched base with that person a number of times and again today and they’re in a far better space than they were at that time because of decisions made by the Assembly.”

Ms Bayliss Kelly said, “Because we’ve been watching and listening we’ve been able to go up and say, ‘How are you going?’ and people will open up and say, ‘I’m going okay,’ or ‘I’m doing it a bit tough’ or whatever.”

“Last night when things got difficult we chose to stand near the door so we were a bit more intentional, a bit more visible and when Congress chose to take some time to themselves we went with them and made the chapel space available for that,” she continued. “Chaplaincy is about listening and serving.”

They described the atmosphere of the Assembly as rich and complex.

“I think there’s such a range of emotions,” said Ms Bayliss Kelly. “Some of the young people are puzzled. They’ve grown up with the horrible history of what’s happened to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters but for some of our older members that was something they learned about later.”

But it’s not only Assembly business that confronts people during Assembly.
“One of the ladies I had dinner with had just read that her newsagent and his whole family had died,” said Ms Bayliss Kelly “We’ve had a number of announcements of deaths of people who are connected to the Assembly and a number who are sick.”

Ultimately, though, both Mr Watson and Ms Bayliss Kelly view the process that’s taken place at the 12th Assembly as “healthy”.

“It’s one of the joys of the Uniting Church that we embrace that diversity, which will always bring with it that tension,” said Mr Watson.

“I hope it’s a healthy tension. It’s the nature of the Uniting Church that just because a council of the church makes a decision the people of the church don’t just blindly accept it. They need to work it through and understand it.”

“For me it was that we were journeying together and being authentic and that means wrestling with it and for people to be true to themselves in a way that’s caring to others,” said Ms Bayliss Kelly. “It’s about relationship but trying to be honest in that relationship.”

Though Ms Bayliss Kelly stressed that this had not been a “one issue Assembly” and that many significant decisions had been made, it was clear that the impact of some decisions had been bigger than others.

Mr Watson said the Assembly had been, in his view, “momentous”.

“The difference between this time last night and tonight is quite different. I feel elated and am very much looking forward to the future. I know it won’t be straight and easy and all the rest but I’m energised by what happened this afternoon.”

“It gives hope for lots of people,” said Ms Bayliss Kelly. “Whether we agree or disagree with the decision that’s been made, to see the joy our Indigenous brothers and sisters have is lovely.

“There has been a sense of diversity but also the oneness. That we can authentically and maturely deal with this stuff is exciting.”

“I’m not sure that we’ve fully realised it yet but the First Peoples have done us a huge favour,” added Mr Watson.

“They’ve forced us to start looking at our Christology and we will have to do that again and again with other people that come to Australia who bring with them their culture and having met God in other forms. That will challenge us no end.”

Both agreed that leaders around the country would be called upon to help church members process the decisions made by the Assembly. Ms Bayliss Kelly said that the way Assembly members reported back and framed the decisions would be critical to how people responded.