At its February meeting, the Synod Standing Committee made significant decisions regarding the Uniting Church’s potential relationships with its 14 schools within this synod.
As outlined in the December Crosslight, the Standing Committee has been considering matters relating to schools for some time.
The spotlight on MLC and Acacia College in 2012 highlighted the complexity of the wider Church’s relationship with its schools. Each school has its own unique culture and heritage and therefore cannot be bundled up into a ‘one size fits all’ discussion.
The resolutions passed last month began with a prayer of thanks for the ministry of Uniting Church schools over many years.
The desire of the Standing Committee is to continue in relationship with schools by working with each individual school to assess the specific constitutional ties. These ties hark back to a time when the synod and its predecessors had greater ‘ownership’ and voice in the running of schools.
The key section of the resolution acknowledges: ‘the changing nature of education and each party’s evolving understanding of its role’; ‘that future relationships with some schools may not include any constitutional ties’; ‘that the synod and a school may elect not to continue an active relationship’.
The resolution also affirmed ‘an ongoing role of the Uniting Church in ministry through, with, in and by independent schools’.
“The Church does not want to carry the reputational, compliance and other risks that have the potential to impact a school merely because it is named in the school’s constitution,” General Secretary Rev Dr Mark Lawrence said.
“Schools, by both description and nature, are independent. We certainly have some schools who want the Church to be involved in aspects of their governance, including oversight and risk management, but there are others who have been operating with very limited synod involvement for a long time,” Dr Lawrence explained.
“The resolutions open the way to look at a range of relationships with schools. These new relationships have the potential to be based on missional goals, rather than mandated constitutional and legal requirements.”
The resolutions passed by the Standing Committee seek to acknowledge that spectrum of relationships. It requested the moderator and general secretary to appoint a working group to further the work on collaborative relationship documents with each school.
Two clauses in the set of proposals relating to schools focused on the Uniting Church’s relationship with Haileybury and MLC.
Founded in 1892, Haileybury now has campuses in Keysborough, Berwick, Brighton and Beijing and could be described as having an ‘arms-length’ relationship with the Church. Under its constitution as an incorporated company, Haileybury has the capacity to discontinue its constitutional ties with the Church of its own accord.
Standing Committee resolved ‘to note the request of Haileybury to continue a relationship with the Uniting Church, while removing the need for legal constitutional connection’.
Haileybury will change the way it describes its relationship with the Church. No longer will it be described as an Institution of the Uniting Church in Australia (as provided by Regulation 220.127.116.11 (b)(iii). Instead, as per a request from the Haileybury board, the revised Haileybury Constitution will make clear Haileybury’s organisational independence whilst also acknowledging the historic links to the Church.
The Haileybury board has requested that the school continue a relationship with the Church, and the Standing Committee authorised the working group to consider a future relationship structure with Haileybury as a pilot scenario.
MLC, which was incorporated as an independent entity more than 30 years ago, undertook a wide-ranging review of its governance arrangements in 2012. MLC’s board and principal have been working closely with the Church on the review’s recommendations and the Standing Committee is now working towards a positive response to this review which will include constitutional amendments and explorations of new forms of relationship.
The Commission for Mission, which has oversight for the Church’s relationship with Uniting Church schools, has been exploring governance and operational matters with school boards for the past 12 months.
Its four-person Schools Panel, which presented to the Standing Committee, has been asked to bring its expertise to the working group. The working group will include two members of Standing Committee, two members of the Major Strategic Review team and co-opted members to bring other necessary expertise.
While the Commission for Mission expects that each document will be different for each school, there is likely to be commonality around provision of chaplains or mechanisms for providing pastoral care from a Christian context and fostering of Uniting Church values. A relationships document is only binding whilst each party agrees to its contents.
The working group will outline a process for consultation with other Uniting Church schools in its April 2015 report to the Standing Committee.