Having worked at the synod for only a few months, I was not quite sure what to expect when I attended Assembly for the first time in Perth. Meetings are normally long and dull affairs, but I was surprised by the eclectic mix of worship, music and inspiration that took place during the six days.
The first day opened with a Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony. The theme of seeking fellowship with Australia’s First Peoples featured prominently throughout Assembly proceedings. I was particularly impressed with the respect showed towards First Peoples at the installation service of new President Stuart McMillan. Members of the Yolngu clan led Mr McMillan onto the stage, symbolising that the road towards reconciliation is a journey we need to take together.
I did not know much about Assembly prior to my trip to Perth. One Assembly procedure I did know about was the orange and blue cards, which indicated ‘warmth’ or ‘coolness’ to a proposal. The cards can help gauge the overall feeling in the room. I was seated in the gallery overlooking the auditorium and this provided an excellent view of members flashing their cards below. Even though I was not a voting member, I felt a rush of anticipation whenever members decided on a proposal. Being present in the hall also meant I could sense the hushed silence during the intense and highly emotional sessions, as well as enjoy the celebratory atmosphere when a significant proposal was passed with unanimous consensus.
Coming from a Catholic background, such a system was unfamiliar to me. Debates over the wording of a proposal can dominate discussions and it can be difficult trying to allocate enough time to discuss all proposals in details. Reaching unanimous support behind every proposal is difficult, but I believe it is important to try to seek consensus wherever possible. This consensus model reflects the Uniting Church’s commitment to being a non-hierarchical Church.
Assembly was an opportunity shape the future direction of the Church, but it was not all business and deliberation. Guests were housed at Trinity Residential College, which provided a communal environment for members to interact and get to know each other. Some of the liveliest conversations I had with Uniting Church members took place in the dining hall as guests shared stories over warm food. This recalls an observation Dr Rosemary Dewerse made during one of the morning Bible studies – it is by breaking bread that strangers become friends.
Another standout feature of Assembly was the pastoral care provided for attendees. Staff from the synod office regularly checked up on me to see how I was enjoying my first Assembly experience. The Assembly ‘veterans’ I met generously gave their time to share their knowledge and insights with me.
This pastoral care was extended to all members of Assembly, not just newcomers. Chaplains were readily available to assist members who needed support. There were several sensitive issues discussed during Assembly, but conversations remained respectful. Even though members disagreed on some proposals, the atmosphere was mostly civil and there was a general acceptance that it is okay to disagree.
As Assembly came to an end, I felt a sense of optimism about the future of the Uniting Church. Church attendances may be declining, but I believe there is still much to celebrate about.
I met many young members passionate about sharing God’s love with the world.
Migrant and multicultural congregations continue to thrive.
The Church’s commitment to being a voice for the marginalised remains as strong as ever.
This Assembly had an international flavour with thirty overseas guests from partner churches coming to share stories of how they maintained their faith in the face of oppression. Through their stories, I am reminded that it is not the size of the Church, but the strength of our faith, which matters the most.
Tim Lam was a member of the Assembly communications team.