12th Assembly 2009

Address of the retiring president to the 12th Assembly

President, let me first pay my respects to the Eora people, who have cared for this land on which we meet for thousands of years. Second, let me say how pleased I am, President, that you are presiding over this Assembly and I’m on my way to the backbench. To serve as President is a very significant responsibility and I feel considerable relief, almost liberation, at passing that responsibility on to you, Al.

But, third, I must immediately add that serving as President of the Assembly has been a wonderful privilege, mostly a great pleasure, and a huge encouragement as I have seen the church throughout this land faithfully worshipping the triune God and following the way of Christ.

Like our predecessors, President, I’ve kept a few statistics — I’m not sure you’ll like these!

In my three years I’ve been away from home 575 nights, just over half the time. I’ve slept in 247 different beds. I’ve flown on 390 planes. I have visited more than 100 of our 1,800 congregations; I’ve preached, as President, 83 sermons; I’ve delivered something like 180 other speeches, and I’ve participated in more than 150 gatherings with leaders of the Australian community and Australian churches, with government and non-government organisations, with politicians, and with leaders of other faiths.

I’m looking forward to a more normal home-based life rather than an airport-based life.

Let me share a few reflections on the state of the union. I want first to say that we have been blessed in these past three years by the desire of church members to get on with local ministry and mission and to turn aside from major upset and controversy. Thanks be to God that we have largely stopped the public arguments 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; we have accepted or at least respected the amazing hard work and the decisions of the last Assembly as we spent days discussing the issue.

For the relative peacefulness in the national life of our church, I thank first and foremost the Holy Spirit, for I firmly believe God has been active with us in working through the Assembly’s decisions and the church’s response to those decisions, and I thank the members of the Assembly and the members of the church for their commitment to focusing primarily on the mission and ministry of the church rather than on maintaining dissension or conflict.

I want then to say that this relative national peacefulness has been a significant factor in giving space for local congregations to live out their worship, witness and service more effectively in recent years than earlier.

While it’s true that a President tends not to be invited to congregations who are struggling or conflicted or in really low morale, nevertheless through visits to presbyteries and congregations a President does gain an overview of the church and one can check that overview with the Synod Moderators. Our best estimate at present is that 30 per cent of our congregations are growing. That growth is across our theological spectrum and across the sociological spectrum of this land — in city congregations, in the suburbs, in newly developing areas, in regional towns, in a few rural areas — and it’s happening chiefly through families with young children renewing interest in the faith and through our migrant-ethnic people. It’s happening because congregations are deliberately working hard on the quality of their worship, on their family programs, their welcoming of and openness to new people, their service to their local community and their belonging to the wider church.

That 30 per cent estimate is a higher figure than five or ten years ago, which is good news. It’s very encouraging. There is no doubt that we the Uniting Church are alive and moderately well, and it certainly means we’ll be present and active throughout Australia for a long, long time to come. But note that it also means 70 per cent of our congregations are not growing. I think something like 40 per cent of our congregations are declining numerically, and sadly, we still have a way to go with the merging or closing of congregations.

A word of commendation here: I cannot help but be impressed by the faith, gifts, skills and commitment of church leaders throughout the country. Our ministers — ordained and lay — are a great bunch of gifted Christians. I was impressed that 260 of them took part in the National Ministers Conferences last year, conferences which confirmed my absolute confidence that our next generation of church leaders is already with us, coming to the fore — many of them from a non-Anglo background. And then there are the thousands and thousands of church members, local office-bearers and volunteers, who are the backbone of the church. Most of them are very reticent to accept affirmation, to think they’re really providing an effective witness to the gospel — but they are, God bless ’em.

Let me now speak briefly of the credibility of the church, in Australia and beyond. I have been surprised how community leaders — in business groups, trades unions, community organisations — have readily accepted Uniting Church contributions and my participation in various community forums, simply because I’m a Uniting Church leader. Because of our vast UnitingCare network of agencies, because of the widespread presence of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, because of our exceptional presence in the outback through Frontier Services, because of our multiculturalism, because of the thoroughness of our social analysis and research which backs our policies and our submissions, because we are not afraid to take on difficult areas of community need and to address hard issues in theology, ethics and politics, our standing with community and political leaders is high and our access to them is excellent.

And add to that our relationships ecumenically in Australia and with our overseas partners. I’ve had the privilege of visiting a number of our overseas partners in Asia and the Pacific. For some of these churches we are regarded as among their major supports, very important to them - in West Papua for instance, or Papua New Guinea, or Bali, or Sri Lanka or Tonga or East Timor or Fiji. When a church is under pressure, such as in Fiji or West Papua right now, our support and solidarity is crucial. Our partner churches have much to teach us in terms of Christian discipleship, evangelism, inter-faith relationships, in keeping the faith in adversity — and we still have gifts to share with them: in professional expertise, in community relationships and service, in resourcing, in solidarity, in advocacy. On a world scale we are a small- to middle-sized church, and our UnitingWorld agency is far from large — but our overseas relationships are in excellent shape and are very important to us.

One of the growing areas of responsibility in our national and international church life is that of interfaith relationships. It’s been a joy to discover the depth of commitment among leaders of all faiths in Australia — most notably from our colleagues in the Jewish and Muslim faiths — to our living together here in Australia with increased understanding of one another and in community peace and harmony. And it’s far from just among national faith leaders — many of our congregations are now working very constructively on relationships with their local mosque or synagogue, an almost startling new development in recent years for local church life. As President I’ve been privileged to meet regularly with national leaders of other faiths, and occasionally with significant overseas figures such as the Grand Mufti of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former President of Iran or the Supreme Judge of the Islamic Court of Jerusalem. Interfaith 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.

President, time for me to say thank you to many people.

I firstly want and need to say thanks to my parish. I may be the last of the part-time Presidents, although not necessarily so. The Canberra Central Parish, to whom I happily return full-time after a decent holiday, have supported me and cared for me marvellously these past three years — even continuing to pay 50 which of my stipend in return for about 15 per cent of my time. I thank them. Thank you to my chaplains, Jan Trengove and Peter Walker, for their three years of support. Thank you to my supervisor, John Brown, who has helped me keep focused and ensured my integrity in Christ. Thank you especially to Caroline Fletcher, my part-time assistant in Canberra, who has worked many voluntary hours alongside the paid hours and whose patience with me, hard work with me, and support for me, has been just terrific. Thank you to the Assembly staff, to Terence, Glenda, Penny, Jenny, for their help every week. President, we have a top-class bunch of Assembly staff at present, the Secretariat, the national directors, but also the admin staff, many unsung heroes in the life of our church.

But more than that I want to thank the members of our church. I’ll never forget the way church members cared for me, my wife and my family when Alison took ill a few months after my installation and through that period to her death seven months later and beyond. The messages and prayers of the church then for us were fabulous. Thank you. Wherever I have travelled, there have been church members there with welcome, with hospitality, with receptivity to what I have to share, with shared faith and love. It makes me enormously proud to be part of the Uniting Church. Beautiful.

But most of all I thank God. I know every day God loves me and is here for me. My faith has grown and deepened through these three years.

President, I now return happily to local ministry in Canberra. But I will maintain of course my interest and commitment always to our being an ecumenical church, a servant church, a church working hard for justice, a church working closely with the rest of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, a church seeking always to follow the way of Christ. I will want to continue to make my 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 interfaith relationships. Having served as President is enormous privilege and it equips you for further contributions in the ongoing mission and ministry of the church.

Some of you may have seen a recent editorial in The Australian (July 7, 2009). Referring to the book God is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith is Changing the World the editorial stated that “Religion is assuming a fresh importance in many places, from the Middle East and the US to Africa and South America.” I’m sure that’s true. But it implies a challenge to us Christians in Australia to ensure that in the years to come it can also be said for Australia that religion has fresh importance. The last three years, I believe, have been positive years for us in the Uniting Church. The challenge is, with God’s help, to build on that. God’s Word, God’s world. Living Water, Thirsty Land.

I want to close by quoting from a minute of the last Assembly, the preamble to the Assembly’s resolution on sexuality and leadership. Because we are a multifaceted diverse church which covers every corner of this country and embraces many differences, it’s important always to be reminded of our oneness in Christ. The preamble to that 2006 resolution reads:

“In the struggle to be the Uniting Church in Australia, we affirm that our unity is our oneness in Jesus Christ; we acknowledge a variety of theological perspectives and biblical understandings which we maintain in tension within our life as a church, recognising that variety is a gift to the Church which allows most people to find a spiritual home amongst our many congregations and faith communities:”

President, I submit my written report, for reception. Thank you, church, for an extraordinary three years.

The Rev. Gregor Henderson