Almost 300 Synod members packed Box Hill Town Hall throughout the five business days of the meeting to discern and discuss the future of the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania.
Before that Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker set the tone for the 13th Synod meeting during the opening worship at St Michael’s Uniting Church on the Friday night.
She urged Synod members to “wrestle with God and one another… in our very non-combative UCA way of holding up coloured cards.”
Perhaps the biggest news that emerged from this year’s Synod was the announcement of the moderator-elect.
In a Synod-first, the announcement was live streamed on Facebook.
Rev Denise Liersch, minister at The Avenue Uniting Church in Blackburn, was chosen as the moderator-elect.
She will be installed at the opening worship service of the 2019 Synod, where she will replace the current moderator Rev Sharon Hollis.
The Synod received visitors from assembly with the president, Stuart McMillan, assembly general secretary Colleen Geyer and president-elect Dr Deidre Palmer all in attendance.
In preparation for the 15th Assembly next July, Synod members were asked to participate in working group discussions on the Uniting Church’s position on marriage and recognising sovereignty of the First Peoples in Australia.
The Synod’s conversations attracted the attention of the ABC, who ran a Lateline story on how faith communities can have respectful discussions on same-gender marriage.
The sessions in the main hall were dominated by the amendments to the Synod Standing Committee bylaws and a suite of proposals from the Presbytery Transition Team.
After days of deliberations and revisions, the Synod reached consensus on presbytery funding.
Reformed bylaws for the Synod Standing Committee were also adopted. But one proposed requirement for rural and Tasmanian representation was not adopted after a majority, rather than the usual consensus, vote.
The Synod also adopted a proposal acknowledging family violence in Church communities and rejected any theology used to legitimate family violence.
Another significant resolution at Synod 2017 was the passing of a proposal calling on the Victorian and Tasmanian governments to support the development of Medically Supervised Injecting Centres (MSIC).
The Creative Design Team introduced a number of new initiatives to this year’s Synod.
Daily vox pops, filmed and edited by the Communications unit, were shown throughout the meeting.
The ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ session allowed Synod members to roam around the Town Hall building and attend in-depth reports and interactive sessions held by various Uniting Church agencies and bodies.
An evening storytelling program on the theme of sustainable leadership and generational change was warmly received by Synod members.
Each day theological reflection was provided by Dr Margaret Campbell, who even played a bit of reimagined Bach as a welcome musical interlude at one stage.
The Synod farewelled a number of long-serving staff and board members whose roles will conclude as a result of Synod restructure.
The Property Board, Board of Mission and Resourcing, the Centre of Theology and Ministry board and Commission for Mission board will wind up on 30 November. The Finance Committee, the Risk Management Committee and the Audit Committee will change their terms of reference.
In the closing Eucharist, Uniting AgeWell’s director of mission Rev John Broughton reminded Synod members that “new beginnings are affected by old endings” and that as Synod 2017 drew to a close, a new door opens for the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania.
“For a Synod that ended well – we thank God,” Mr Broughton said.
The next Synod will take place in May 2019, but before then Melbourne will host the 15th Assembly on 8-14 July next year.
Moderator-elect follows the God of surprises
Rev Denise Liersch was named as the moderator-elect of the Uniting Church Synod of VicTas following a ballot on the Sunday of Synod.
Ms Liersch will be installed as the moderator at the opening worship service of the 2019 Synod, replacing the current Moderator Rev Sharon Hollis, and will serve until the 2022 Synod.
She is currently the minster at Blackburn (The Avenue) in the Presbytery of Yarra Yarra.
Ms Liersch – who is married with two children – was one of three nominations for the position with the others being Rev Stan Clarke and Rev Sani Vaeluaga.
After the ballot result was announced at the Synod meeting, Ms Liersch encouraged members to keep on following the God of surprises.
“When we follow we keep on following, when we walk together as First and Second People we keep walking together. We seek community and we keep going,’’ she said.
Ms Liersch said she loved the Synod’s mission statement as it was not so much about strategic growth as an approach to life where we are always following Jesus.
It was about being attentive and responsive to God, the one we are following, and attentive and responsive to those we were walking with.
She said she was reminded by the story of Jacob (Genesis 32:22-31).
“It was in the struggle that Jacob saw the face of God but he also needed to learn to let go,’’ she said.
“As Jesus Christ said, perhaps the grain of wheat needs to die when placed in the ground in order to grow into new life.
“We (truly) give ourselves over (to God) when we can discover ourselves surprised by what happens. (When) we keep believing in the God of surprises.’’
Walking together at Synod
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congresses in Tasmania and Victoria presented Synod members with a broad overview of their work in both states.
Alison Overeem is the centre manager at UAICC’s Leprena facility in Hobart’s northern suburbs. She said Congress was seeking to provide holistic community development and cultural inclusion through its work.
Ms Overeem said a strong relationship had been developed with the Presbytery of Tasmania and praised the work of former synod liaison minister Carol Bennet and former presbytery chair David Reeve in helping to sustain this.
The work being done at Leprena includes cultural learning and sharing opportunities, empowerment programs for women to explore the impacts of family violence within the community, youth group facilitation and youth leadership opportunities.
Leprena is developing a culturally safe and inclusive space and this is symbolised by wall murals expressing contemporary Aboriginal culture, which have been produced by local teenage Indigenous artist Grace Williams.
UAICC Tasmania chair and minister Rev Tim Matton-Johnson said work had been done on collating and finding ways to display cultural information about the life of the UAICC ministry in Tasmania.
A second “on country” workshop has been held on Bruny Island as part of a family violence project funded by the Tasmanian state government.
The same program also recently developed a successful Safe Families Expo in the Moonah Arts Centre.
Ms Overeem said Leprena continued to develop networks with other not-for-profit providers of services for Aboriginal people.
“This allows us to provide safe space for the provision of services at no cost to us for Aboriginal families who otherwise may find accessing such services intimidating,” he said.
“These have included literacy projects, a school holiday program and a play group, work readiness training and mentoring.”
House church worship is also being offered by Congress in Launceston with contact maintained and fostered amongst the wider Aboriginal community.
Craig McGough is UAICC Victoria’s Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre general manager. He said Narana continued to be a significant destination which offers authentic and immersive cultural experiences to families, tour groups, schools, community and business groups and church groups.
Narana attracts up to 1000 visitors a week.
Cultural education is delivered daily to school, community and business groups by Narana’s team of Indigenous educators. They help visitors appreciate and understand ancient Dream stories, connection to country, artwork, cultural artefacts and bush tucker.
Synod members given say on same-gender marriage
Synod 2017 heard feedback of what VicTas members think about same-gender marriage and what they would like the national Uniting Church Assembly to keep in mind as it discusses the Church’s position next year.
On the Sunday of Synod working groups convened to discuss same-gender marriage and what the Uniting Church should consider for Assembly.
Two facilitation group leaders Rev Rachel Kronberger and Phil Morris presented a summary of what the groups had said
to the general meeting of Synod on Tuesday morning.
Ms Kronberger first outlined some of the hopes that the groups had expressed about what was going to occur at Assembly.
The groups hoped that the Church would be open to equality, safe and honest conversation, deep listening and respect as well as accepting diversity.
A particular hope was that the Church listen to the voices of LGBTIQ, CALD and First Peoples.
There was also a desire for a clear theology of marriage.
Three working groups expressed the hope that the Church would change the definition of marriage to being “between two people”.
The groups expressed concerns over the conflict, disunity and potential schism the subject could engender in the Church.
There were also concerns the members and congregations could be marginalised, left behind or pressured to conform.
Some groups were concerned by details such as whether a same-gender marriage could be conducted in a church building and what would happen if ministers or congregations disagreed.
One group warned of rushing to decision and another of the danger of indecision.
In its preparation to discuss the topic Assembly was asked to affirm that what matters is “the quality of relationships not just gender”.
Another group thought it might be useful to hear from sister churches that had grappled with the issue.
Assembly was called on to develop resources for informed and respectful conversation, and possible alternative marriage liturgies as well exploration of legal issues and a code of ethics.
Moderator Sharon Hollis commended members on the way they had discussed the matter.
“The level of respect, generosity – you could feel it in this Town Hall,” she said.
New presbytery funding model adopted
Presbyteries will be guaranteed funding for a minimum of two full-time ministry positions, following a decision of the Synod.
The funding will be based on an approved stipend to contribute to the ministers’ capacity to fully undertake their work.
Presbyteries will also share an annual fund of at least $400,000 for additional resourcing. A distribution model for the new fund will be developed in consultation with the presbyteries.
The fund will build on the strengths and principles learned from the Rural Ministry Leadership Fund, taking into account equity and need.
A process to review the arrangements for the fund will be developed by the Standing Committee with a report to be considered by the 2020 Synod.
Previously presbyteries were funded under a mandated model of three ministers. The mandated model was concluded, by consensus, earlier in the Synod meting and will cease no later than 30 September 2018.
All eight presbyteries received funding from the Presbytery Pool Fund, and the Rural IOMF helped fund five rural presbyteries including Tasmania.
Many members expressed concern that the funding proposals were inadequate for rural presbyteries to be able to effectively undertake their work.
A facilitation group undertook further discussions before bringing a revised proposal, which was approved by consensus on the final day.
Presbyteries have also been encouraged to develop sources of income beyond what is being provided through their Synod budget.
Earlier in the meeting, members of the Presbytery Transition Team (PTT) told Synod members they had travelled widely throughout the synod and heard from a variety of church members.
Of particular concern were the highly demanding roles of presbytery chairperson and treasurer.
The Synod agreed, by consensus, to allow presbyteries to appoint officers, including the chairperson, with remuneration based on a full or part-time stipendiary basis in the future.
Moderator’s rollercoaster 18 months
Moderator Sharon Hollis presented the Moderator’s Report to Synod 2017, outlining her observations of the life and witness of the Synod of Vic/Tas over the previous 18 months.
Ms Hollis took members on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. She spoke of her own failure in the work of reconciliation; of the joy she feels as she visits congregations and agencies; her hope for the future and her gratitude for the people in her life.
Ms Hollis adopted ‘Following Christ…’, the opening words of the Vision of the synod, as the theme for the meeting and the final 18 months of her term as moderator.
Her report was framed around the rest of the synod’s Vision Statement: Following Christ, walking together as First and Second Peoples, seeking community, compassion and justice for all creation.
The moderator acknowledged that there had been little progress in the covenanting between the synod and the two Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congresses in Victoria and Tasmania.
She said this was nobody’s fault but a new process had been resolved by the Standing Committee which she hoped would enable new ways of working together.
“I confess to the Synod my own failure to be an agent of reconciliation and to the work of de-colonising that still needs to happen in my own life,” Ms Hollis said.
“I pray for the gift of the Spirit that I and the Synod might develop an imagination for how we can address what we have done wrong and what we might do to set it right.”
Ms Hollis also reflected on her experiences visiting congregations and communities of faith.
“Many of the communities I have visited are flourishing. These communities and congregations understand that the role and place of the church in society has changed and they seek to respond to this change,” she said.
“They are grounded in prayer. They long to share the Good News. They are open to the new thing God is doing in their midst.”
She also spoke of the importance of ensuring that the whole of church continues to strive to be a safe place for all. Ms Hollis referred to both the inappropriate use of power and bullying among church members, as well as abuse against children.
“We need to learn how to disagree with each other without damaging each other,” the moderator told the Synod meeting.
She spoke of meeting with survivors of child sexual abuse within the Church, and said that as she offered an apology and a settlement, their recurring plea was to ensure such abuse did not happen again.
Young take the lead at Synod
There was a distinctly youthful feel to Synod 2017.
On Sunday night six young people shared stories that focused on sustainable leadership and generational change.
The session was led by Synod Creative Design Team members Aaron Blakemore and Bethany Broadstock.
Manningham Uniting Church minister Rev Lucas Taylor admits while he does not consider himself young – at the age of 36 – he does comes from a different generation to most of his congregation.
But he stressed that it was important to continually engage across the broad cross-section of generations which make up our communities.
Lucas warned words used carelessly could impact negatively.
“It is the comments (young people might receive) about our dress or hair. Comments which suggest we may be tolerated but never embraced or welcome,” he said.
Jen Shields, Robin Yang, Anika Jensen, Hannah Dungan and Rev Jennie Gordon also shared their stories and experiences within the life of the church.
The session was warmly received and embraced by the Synod members.
On the final morning of Synod some younger members presented a Bible study on “Following Christ – A Basis of Union perspective”.
The presenters were Rev Deacon Michelle Cook, Joy Han, Anna Harrison, Kelly Skilton and Bethany Broadstock.
Joy Han and Anna Harrison opened the session with a joyful musical number.
The lyrics rang out –“We have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back”.
Ms Han shared her experience of being moved emotionally, physically and spiritually by Christ’s power, primacy and centrality in her life.
She spoke of her desire to explore further how we can be ambassadors for Christ.
Ms Harrison introduced ‘Poo Man’ to Synod. She explained that one day a friend had invited to do some art. She declared herself a rubbish artist but went along anyway.