12th Assembly 2009

The Assembly that cried

Many people cried at the 12th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, meeting at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Tears of sorrow, regret, grief, anger and frustration. And sometimes tears of joy.

Much was accomplished by the triennial peak decision-making meeting, including several far-reaching reforms. New relationships were forged and old relationships strengthened across the divides of gender, race, geography and faith.

Coming and going
Congress matters
Participation with partners
Other faiths
The Church in the world
Holy ground
Life of the Church
Bible studies
Starting afresh

Coming and going

The Assembly welcomed new President the Rev. Alistair Macrae. Guests from all states, other countries, and other denominations and faiths witnessed his installation at the opening service.

A rousing chorus sang as Mr Macrae knelt with closed eyes while retiring President the Rev. Gregor Henderson prayed for him.

Mr Macrae signed the Assembly Bible, was given the presidential cross and scarf, then declared President to hearty applause. A rocking song of praise followed.

In his sermon on Living Water Thirsty Land, Mr Macrae called the church to leave behind the “demonic preoccupation with survival” and “risk everything” to share the sacred water of Jesus Christ.

Tears were shed during the emotional farewell to Mr Henderson, who shared his pride at having led the church through a period of renewal and growth. “Wherever I have travelled, there have been church members there with hospitality, with receptivity to what I have to share, with shared faith and love,” he said.

Mr Henderson honoured those with whom he had served over the past three years. He choked back tears himself as he thanked those who had supported him through the illness of his wife Alison, who died in 2007.

Principal of the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology in Adelaide, the Rev. Dr Andrew Dutney, was chosen as President-elect. The Rev. Terence Corkin was reappointed as General Secretary.

The Assembly noted with sadness the recent closing of Coolamon College, the national training body for lay education in Adelaide. The Assembly recorded appreciation for Dr Lee Levett-Olson and Dr Marelle Harisun for their service through the college.

Congress matters

Many items of Assembly business related to the relationships between the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and other parts of the church. Most of those discussions were highly emotional.

The first business day began with a moving celebration of the Covenant between Indigenous and non-Indigenous church members, established at the 1994 Assembly.

Jill Tabart, Assembly president in 1994, repeated her expressions of sorrow and commitment made to Indigenous church members 15 years ago.

Newly-elected Congress Chairperson Ken Sumner and Vice Chairperson Roberta Stanley then reaffirmed the 1994 response of acceptance.

Assembly members read together a statement affirming grief over past actions and commitment to restitution and healing. The Rev. Rronang Garruwurra from Elcho Island read a passage from Luke’s gospel in his Djamburrpuyngu language.

The most dramatic moments in the Assembly were experienced in deciding the new preamble to the church’s Constitution.

Debate had been anticipated with both excitement and apprehension, partly because of perceptions there was inadequate consultation, and also due to concerns about Christology and Indigenous understandings of God.

Although strongly supported by the Congress and others, it had its determined opponents too.

Many members on Sunday evening spoke, argued, asked questions and proposed amendments. Profound distress was expressed by many speakers.

At one highly emotional point Congress representatives told the meeting they felt “unsafe” and withdrew from the Assembly. This was followed by expressions of profound hurt, dismay, sorrow and apology by non-Indigenous members.

President Alistair Macrae then led the entire Assembly outside the meeting hall where they joined with the Congress representatives before re-entering.

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

Next morning President Macrae sought passage of the resolution by consensus, that is, without dissent. With seven dissenters, this failed. The

Assembly then shifted to formal procedures where a 75 per cent majority is required. A 97 per cent majority supported the proposal.

The controversial preamble takes the Uniting Church Covenant between Indigenous and non- Indigenous members to a new level. It places the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander people front and centre of the denomination’s life and witness.

Later on Monday, the Assembly experienced an equally difficult session. This related to the constitutional amendments which give expression to the changes to the status of Congress reflected in the preamble.

Not all proposed amendments were accepted. But most were. They allow for Congress to request the transfer of rights, powers, duties and responsibilities of a synod or presbytery, with an appeal mechanism if a synod does not respond to a request from Congress for such a transfer.

When all deliberations had ended with most proposals passed, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. Many present, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, once again cried for joy or relief. Most felt a profound spirit of reconciliation.

Participation with partners

The Assembly was enriched by about 45 guests from partner churches overseas.

“We are deeply connected with many partner churches,” President Macrae said in welcome. “It is part of the DNA of the Uniting Church in Australia.”

Bishop Samantaroy from North India observed that, despite the seriousness of many discussions, the Assembly also laughed.

“I appreciate your sense of humour here,” he said. “I laugh with you. And then I laugh again when I realise what was said. Then I laugh a third time when I realise I laughed first without understanding.”

Presiding Bishop Simbarashe Sithole of the Zimbabwe Methodist Church told the Assembly of the enormous challenges now facing his country.

Mrs Helen Grace Paris of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines spoke passionately about human rights abuses and the many recent killings of church members in her country.

The Rev. Jemina Mirino Krey of the Evangelical Christian Church in Papua talked about the work of the church in one of the world’s most remote and underdeveloped regions.

She described the Papuans’ struggle for “a just, sincere and respectful dialogue between Papuans and Jakarta to answer basic problems and bring an end to the conflicts and human rights abuses in our land.”

The Assembly resolved to “urge the Australian Federal Government to continue to encourage the Indonesian Government to more thoroughly and respectfully implement the Special Autonomy status of West Papua and to uphold the human rights of West Papua citizens”.

An emotional message on behalf of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma was brought from the Chairperson of the Uniting Church’s Fijian National Conference in Australia, the Rev. Jovilla Meo. Fijian invitees were unable to attend due to events within Fiji.

Mr Meo wept openly as he described the suffering of Methodists in Fiji.

Other faiths

Ecumenical guests included Sister Elizabeth Delaney of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Major Paul Kinder (Salvation Army), Father Shenouda Mansour (Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Sydney) and Bishop Albert Chew (Chinese Methodist Church in Australia).

Sister Elizabeth was moved by the consensus model of decision-making. “I find the continual movement to prayer is very important,” she said. “The President has been superb in voicing the prayer of the whole group.”

Several representatives of other faith groups attended the Assembly. “We welcome you as colleagues in this most important enterprise of maintaining good relationships and good friendships across the different faiths,” Mr Henderson said.

Jewish representative Peta Pellach responded. “We grow and in our growth we become reconfirmed in our own faith,” she said.

The Church in the world

Uniting Church members, councils and agencies will be asked to commit themselves to living at peace with each other and the planet, following the Assembly’s adoption of a visionary statement.

The document, An Economy of Life: Re-Imagining Human Progress for a Flourishing World, was prepared by UnitingJustice to addresses current crises.

It imagines a different story for God’s creation, an “economy of life”, marked by regard for the common good, where all people have access to what is necessary for their flourishing and where people contribute to the continued flourishing of the planet.

Some members were concerned that the document was not specific enough and that it could appear hypocritical for the church to be asking for governments to take steps it had not yet taken itself.

Professor John Langmore, from the UnitingJustice reference committee, responded that the paper was about paradigms, not action. It was not prescriptive about tactics, he said, but it spelled out important church responsibilities.

The Assembly called on Australian governments to “develop economic systems and structures which recognise that human and ecological flourishing require much more than the creation of wealth.”

The Assembly commended the Rudd Government for its promise to boost the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of gross national income (GNI) by 2015.

The meeting urged the Government to increase it even further — to 0.7 per cent — to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

The Assembly heard an impassioned call for the immediate end to the federal Intervention in the Northern Territory.

The Intervention, announced by the Howard Government in the lead-up to the 2007 election, has entailed significant loss of Indigenous human rights.

“The Intervention cannot and will not work for Indigenous people,” said Congress administrator the Rev. Shayne Blackman. “Policies to be effective must be driven by Aboriginal people.”

Mr Blackman called on the churches to be a platform for engagement between Indigenous people and governments. The Assembly overwhelmingly supported the proposals.

A strong document challenging free trade, neo-liberalism and “market fundamentalism” was adopted. UnitingWorld’s paper “Trade Justice – A Uniting Church View” provides a theological basis for the church’s education, representation, advocacy and action.

It says that the benefits and burdens of increased economic interdependence have not been equally shared. “Globalisation has had uneven effects: while some have enjoyed increased prosperity, the poorest are often left behind.”

Holy ground

The Assembly has created a new class of church property called “available for alternative missional use”.

This follows calls from several synods and presbyteries wanting disused or underutilised buildings to be available for other than traditional congregational purposes.

Alternative uses were listed as including:

  • new congregations, faith communities or worship gatherings,
  • growing or migrant congregations with inadequate property resources, and
  • approved strategic mission initiatives such as leadership.

 

Presbyteries are authorised to make decisions on alternative building usage but are required to take account of the rights of the local congregation in any changed application of a property.

Disputes between Uniting Church congregations sharing premises are now less likely to end in bitterness.

The Assembly decided that where two or more Uniting Church groups use one property base, “a culturally sensitive and appropriate form of memorandum of understanding or covenant [not a tenancy agreement] will apply to that relationship”.

It is expected this will resolve problems that have arisen in recent years with the rise in the number of ethnic worshipping groups meeting in Uniting Church buildings.

Life of the Church

Many changes were approved to the church’s internal structures and operations.

The Assembly unanimously agreed to continue its effective working relationship with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

The Assembly also unanimously affirmed continuing to engage in Jesus’ ministry of peacemaking within the church and the world. That would be pursued by developing resources to strengthen skills and strategies for living together in a peaceful, multicultural and diverse church, promoting human rights and fostering respect for God’s creation.

Decisions in the three other areas proposed were deferred pending further discussion to clarify the wording of the proposals. They were evangelism, Christian education within the church and loosening restrictions on local councils and congregations.

The number of Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress representatives at future assemblies increases from six to 16.

The Assembly agreed to spend the next three years in conversation about “what kind of church we need to be in the Australian context”.

The rationale for this decision was recognition that the Uniting Church’s current Constitution and Regulations reflect the Australian context of the 1970s and that society has since changed.

The Assembly also passed a proposal to allow the Assembly Standing Committee to review the whole of the regulations to simplify the language and remove parts that are overly prescriptive.

Bible studies

Members of the Assembly meeting were transported to the Middle East during Bible studies led by the Rev. Dr Elizabeth Raine and the Rev. Dr John Squires, both New Testament scholars.

Through dramatised readings and interpretation they explored the Assembly theme Living Water, Thirsty Land.

“Living water is not just a gift Jesus offers to us, it becomes our gift to others that we encounter on the way,” said Dr Squires. “When we accept the living water, not only are we changed, but that has the capacity to change others as well,” he said.

Assembly members were asked to reflect on how their traditions and faith history pushed them to perpetuate bias towards others and how stories of Jesus helped them understand how barriers might be broken down.

Starting afresh

At the end of a long and difficult day on Monday, Aboriginal Elder Bapa Ken presented President Alistair Macrae and General Secretary the Rev. Terence Corkin with branches of gum leaves.

With further tears, Shayne Blackman said it was hard to express “the joy of acceptance and inclusion in the church”, which came as a result of the Assembly’s historic decisions.

“It has made us truly happy, your willingness to discuss this and to seek God’s direction and to come to the resolution you have and we want to say thank you for that,” he said.

“I’ve been asked if I’m going to do a dance,” he joked. “That may not happen.”

Congress Chairperson the Rev. Ken Sumner then asked everyone who was able to kneel in prayer. “We get on our knees, we put our faith and trust in our Lord, because this is a new journey for us.

“We don’t know what is before us,” he said. “But it’s wonderful to start afresh.”