12th Assembly 2009

Henderson 'hugely encouraged'

By Meera Atkinson

The retiring president of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Rev. Gregor Henderson, addressed the 12th Assembly with a lively report on his presidency.

Mr Henderson left the church’s top job wearing a knitted jumper featuring the Uniting Church’s colorful logo.

In the Thursday afternoon session Mr Henderson announced growth in 30 per cent of congregations, noting that this is a higher figure than five or ten years ago.

He claimed there was “no doubt that we, the Uniting Church, are alive and moderately well”  and that looked set to be “present and active throughout Australia for a long long time to come.”

Mr Henderson attributed the rise to the commitment of congregations to worship, family programs and embracing new members.

He then observed that, conversely, 70 per cent of congregations are not growing, 40 per cent are declining numerically and some are in the process of merging or closing.

Mr Henderson reported that relationships with partner churches and aid projects in the developing world were strong.

On the domestic front, he said, the church’s reputation, standing and access to governments, business groups, trades unions and community organizations was “excellent”.

He thanked God for the blessing of a church now relieved of major upset and controversy over sexuality and leadership.

“The great bulk of the church has put that issue to one side, at least for the time being, and we’ve stopped the bickering,” he said. “We have respected the amazing hard work and the decisions of the last Assembly after days spent discussing the issue.”

Mr Henderson spoke of interfaith relations as a particularly vibrant aspect of church life.

“As President I’ve been privileged to meet regularly with national leaders of other faiths, and occasionally with significant overseas figures,” he said. “Inter-faith relationships is an area where we can and do make an important contribution to community harmony, and to national and even world peace.

“It’s an area which will continue to grow in importance in the decades to come,” he added.

Saluting the countless unseen contributions to the wellbeing of the church and the many “gifted Christians” in ministry, Mr Henderson painted a picture of a church kept buoyant by the passion of its members.

He noted in particular the 260 ministers, ordained and lay, who took part in the national ministers conferences last year.

Mr Henderson read out a list of statistics he kept during his Presidency, getting a laugh with the declaration that he had slept in exactly 247 different beds during his term.

Later, he choked up as he thanked the many church members who sent messages and prayers for his wife, Alison, and their family during her terminal illness and following her death.

Delivering the minute of appreciation, Sue Withers, from the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, praised Mr Henderson’s deep understanding of consensus decision making, his skill at chairing meetings, breadth of knowledge of church, his love of people, and his “infectious” love of God.

She spoke of him as a president known for his generosity and good heart and commended “his baby” — his vision of three minister’s conferences realised with determination and dedication.

In the second appreciation, Robert Watson, Assembly chaplain and ex-moderator of the Synod of Western Australia, said Mr Henderson was a “divine talent, a natural.”

He added that his relaxed demeanour and sense of humour were key ingredients of that talent.

After a presentation of flowers and a prayer led by new president, the Rev. Alistair Macrae, the Assembly honoured Mr Henderson with a standing ovation.

The man who brought considerable energy and a ready smile to his role as President now plans to return to local ministry in Canberra, while continuing to make “small contributions from time to time in ecumenical relationships, in Indigenous affairs, on matters of human rights, world poverty, climate change, to peacemaking for the people of Palestine and Israel, to positive inter-faith relationships.”

Mr Henderson’s most heartfelt thanks were offered to God, saying: “I know every day God loves me and is here for me. My faith has grown and deepened through these three years.” 

View the photo gallery from the morning