The Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania and Access Ministries will seek to mend a fractured relationship over the next eight months.
That is the time Access has to convince the Synod to remain as a Supporting Church.
Many within the Uniting Church have raised concerns about what they see as a narrow theological teaching of the Bible adopted by Access instructors. It was also felt the provider of Christian religious education in Victorian Government schools failed to engage proactively with the Church, despite its status as a Supporting Church.
The Synod discussed the issue in great detail at its September gathering. The Christian Religious Education Task Group recommended that the Uniting Church should no longer be a Supporting Church of Access Ministries, the trading name of the Council for Christian Education in Schools.
It resolved, instead, to give Access Ministries until 31 May 2015 to demonstrate positive responses to the following requests in order for the Church to continue its Supporting Church status:
A commitment to changes in the governance practices and structures that facilitate the full participation of members of the Council of Christian Education in Schools in the policy development and direction setting of Access Ministries.
Increased and transparent communications with the General Secretary of the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.
An inclusive and consultative approach to the development of the Special Religious Instruction (SRI) program materials, a commitment that these materials will be theologically broad and pedagogically sound and that this is reflected in the training of SRI instructors.
The removal of the compulsory nature of the Partnership Program payment.
A conversation with the UCA Centre for Theology and Ministry (CTM) about the possibility of the CTM’s involvement in the training of SRI instructors.
The Synod also sought to affirm, acknowledge and thank Uniting Church members whose dedication over many years contributes to the work of Access Ministries and its predecessors as CRE teachers, members, council members and board members.
Uniting Church SRI instructors will continue to be affirmed and supported by the Church.
Uniting Church members sit on both sides of the SRI debate – there are those who are strong supporters of Access Ministries alongside those who believe that Access Ministries is not interested in the Church’s viewpoint.
Opponents point to the August 2014 report of the Christian Religious Education Task Group – one of two reports prepared by the group since 2013 – which argued Access Ministries’ current direction conflicted with core values of the Church such as:
Transparent in process
Broadly discerning in decision making and;
Broad in theology and respectful of difference.
The report indicated that since the May 2013 Synod, the Uniting Church had sought to find meaningful ways in which its Access Ministries members could contribute or represent the Church’s views about the governance structure of the organisation and curriculum development. No meaningful ways had been found.
“The relationship with Access Ministries is not a partnership. The CRE Task Group believes that, along with a change in Constitution, the spirit of the organisation changed and involvement of the Supporting Churches has not been sought,’’ it said.
“Despite the Synod 2013 Resolution to grow and develop the relationship with Access Ministries and to have clearer communication, Access Ministries has shown little desire to be more inclusive.’’
The report also indicated the Uniting Church should direct its attention and resources towards General Religious Education (GRE), stating: “The CRE Task Group encourages the Synod, Presbyteries and Congregations to engage in the opportunities that arise through a general and multi-faith approach to General Religious Education.
“Opportunities to support schools, such as involvement in mentoring and co-curricular programs, should also be considered.’’
Task Group convenor Annette Bennet said, although the Group was disappointed its key recommendation was not accepted, it considered the eventual resolution was of a similar spirit. The difference came down to timing, as the resolution adopted allowed for a further eight months of discussion.
Mrs Bennet urged those truly seeking to understand the CRE Task Group’s position to read both its 2013 and 2014 reports.
“It is a matter of how much time you wish to give Access Ministries. There has been 18 months (since the last Synod) and the (2014) Synod decided to give them (Access Ministries) a further length of time.”
She said the reports represented three years of investigative work into the provision of Christian SRI in Victorian state schools and the relationship between the Church and Access Ministries.
Mrs Bennet said the Group operated within very specific Terms of Reference.
Rev David Fotheringham is the minister at Ashburton Uniting Church and an Access Ministries board member. He told the Synod that he had little argument with the Task Group’s report but believed Access was beginning to show signs of change.
Mr Fotheringham said there had been significant, and exciting, changes since the annual general meeting and the appointment of interim chief executive officer Dawn Penney.
He said the Task Group was correct in its assessment that the Uniting Church had tried to strengthen its relationship with Access Ministries but was rebuffed.
“However, almost to my own amazement, it is my belief that in the last two months the changes have begun,’’ Mr Fotheringham said.
“There are still many parents who enrol their students in SRI programs, and there are other forms of delivery to be worked on. I believe the Uniting Church should continue to work with ecumenical partners on it.
“We should welcome the signs of hope, late as they may be, and work ecumenically for the best outcomes for students and schools.’’
Mr Fotheringham conceded the organisation had not been listening well to important voices such as the Uniting Church, but suggested that was changing.
“Dawn brings a clear focus to relationship building. We have reset the culture within Access… this has included having a new meeting with members of council. We have put forward a draft policy to have that council meet at least three times a year, with potential involvement for members in sub committees around different issues.’’
Mr Fotheringham said Access was not a fundamentalist, evangelical or Pentecostal group.
“Our vision for SRI is to enable students to explore Christian beliefs and values so as to enhance their development as whole persons and to contribute to the wellbeing of their school community,’’ he said.
Mr Fotheringham said Access recognised the need for the training of its volunteer instructors to meet community expectations and standards.
He said the moment a UCA representative joined the Board they became a member of it, rather than a representative of the Church – just as people who attended Synod were members of that body rather than representatives of their home congregation, although they brought perspectives from their home congregations just as Access board members did.
Mr Fotheringham said he would welcome more conversation between potential UCA writers and the Access editing team in the development of SRI program materials.
He shared concerns about the lack of a relationship between the CTM and the Access Ministries Training Institute.
But, Mr Fotheringham believed there was an opportunity to build a way forward in partnership if both parties were willing.He told Synod he believes such a willingness exists within Access.
Rev Dr Sandy Yule is the former secretary of the Assembly Christian Unity Working Group, a group concerned with ecumenical relationships. He feels the position adopted by the Synod is a positive outcome from a difficult debate.
“I am not uncomfortable with the decision,” he said.
Dr Yule said he had no reason to doubt the findings of the report and understood the level of frustration which existed in relation to previous attempts to engage with Access on the Church’s concerns.
However, he said it would not have been appropriate for the Church to simply express its opposition and walk away as a Supporting Church without providing Access with a further opportunity to enter into meaningful dialogue on areas of concern.
“When you have a disagreement (in an ecumenical context) you have to talk to the people with whom you have the disagreement,” Dr Yule said.
“To withdraw from engagement should be an absolutely last step and one which has been clearly signalled in advance.’’
Dr Yule said he was concerned about the impact of this decision on Uniting Church instructors who continue to work with Access.
He said no withdrawal should occur without at least the opportunity for discussion with other Supporting Churches.
Access was created through ecumenical cooperation and should not be left without revisiting this same set of relationships in some way, he argued.
“Not talking means the ecumenical fallout could be significant. We must be prepared to explain our situation to other Supporting Churches.”
Dr Yule conceded he shared concerns about the narrowness of the theological approach to teaching the Bible stories being adopted by Access.
A narrow theological reading of Bible stories and Bible teaching can easily lead to misunderstandings in a modern context which can create unnecessary traumas for children and their families. But, he affirmed the importance of teaching Christianity so that people have a proper understanding of the Christian faith and its historical influence upon Australian culture.
“It is important for the culture that biblical stories are known. The challenge is how to teach them,” he said.
Dr Yule said it was his view that the decision the Church makes on 1 July next year should not be simply based on whether or not Access has ticked all the boxes of concerns raised.
“If respect is shown and there are some cracks in Access Ministries’ wall then that would be enough for me.
“It is about a spiritual discernment. If we see there are clear ways our position can be heard, I would hope that we could trust in refreshed processes to produce a better outcome.
“For example, if the CTM can have a place in working with teachers, we should see that as a renewed opportunity for influence.”
Dr Yule said it is also important to initiate credible curriculum offerings in the area of GRE, which could eventually replace the current model of SRI.
Mr Fotheringham said the prospect of GRE entering the curriculum in a meaningful way in the short-term was a distant one, no matter how worthwhile such a concept was.
“I would be very hesitant to expect anything significant in that space in the near future. There is no GRE ready for rolling out next year, or any time soon.”
Mr Fotheringham said Access’ ecumenical relationships and significant schools experience meant it was well placed to work towards GRE preparation and was keen to do so.
Dr Yule said the Council for Christian Education in Schools had a long and distinguished history, with the forerunners of the Uniting Church playing a leading role.
“We helped to create Access Ministries and, while it is not something we own, we should be respected for our contribution to it.”
Supporters within the Church have also argued that if a narrow theological viewpoint was adopted by a small number of instructors, it was of their doing and did not reflect the material provided by Access Ministries.
But, they acknowledge it was Access’ responsibility to ensure that such teaching did not occur.
At its meeting last month, the Synod Standing Committee requested the general secretary, Rev Dr Mark Lawrence, to communicate with Access Ministries regarding their responses to the matters raised, to monitor the situation and to report back to Standing Committee at its April 2015 meeting.
Dr Lawrence has met informally with the chair of the Access Ministries board, Elida Brereton, and senior staff since the resolution was passed by Synod.
Interim CEO of Access, Ms Penney said meetings between the UCA, the UCA review group and Access Ministries had been positive and she was confident that there was a clear way forward.
“The leadership at Access Ministries will continue to engage with all the members appointed by all supporting Churches and remains open to creative ideas and solutions that might be put forward in such areas as training, curriculum development and of course ensuring the financial sustainability of the SRI program,” she said in a statement following the Synod decision.
“Improving the training of, and support for, our SRI instructors is a key priority for Access Ministries and the input of theologians from all supporting Churches should and does form a background for all our training.”
By Nigel Tapp