Yes, there is a lot of talking throughout the six days as the members deal with a range of issues. Topics discussed include issues confronting contemporary society as well as questions about how the church ‘does church’, and how it engages with is congregations, synods, councils and one another.
Much is achieved. Some of those truly special – or most powerful – moments actually come in silence before God.
Such was the story of the 14th triennial Assembly in Perth last month.
The gathering tackled weighty subjects such as same-gender marriage, the role of elders within the Uniting Church, church governance, federal government cuts to overseas aid, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the treatment of those seeking asylum and federal and state government policies aimed at closing remote Aboriginal communities.
The most powerful moment came on the Wednesday, when members stood in silent respect to all those who had suffered from child abuse.
It came after chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Justice Peter McClellan AM, had informed members that 399 of the 13,256 allegations within the Commission’s terms of reference were in respect of abuse by members of Uniting Church institutions. This represents about 3 per cent of the total figure.
A further 106 allegations had been received in respect of abuse by members of Presbyterian Church institutions and 62 in respect of abuse by members of Methodist Church institutions, the majority of which relate to incidents before 1977.
Following Justice McClellan’s presentation, members stood in silence to honour those who had suffered in a sign of solidarity, respect and support.
Justice McClellan said the power of institutions must never again be allowed to silence a child, nor must it be allowed to diminish the preparedness or capacity of adults to act to protect children.
Those representing the Church clearly endorsed that position, with president Stuart McMillan putting those who had suffered at the forefront of the church’s thinking.
“Their wellbeing and the opportunity for those people to be afforded justice, healing and perhaps, with time, some reconciliation is our utmost concern,” Mr McMillan said.
“His Honour has outlined the changes in our society over a period in time when children were not to be seen or heard, which allowed them to be quite vulnerable.
“Fortunately, that has changed. The Christian community understands the value Jesus placed on children and we place that same value on the safety and welfare of children, not only in our care, but in our community.”
The Assembly has committed to continue to engage in a culturally-appropriate conversation about marriage and same-gender relationships, even though it did not change its position on marriage.
In addition to this conversation, the Assembly resolved to issue a pastoral letter to the Church affirming the Uniting Church as an inclusive church embracing those members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ).
If a change to the Marriage Act is made between now and the next Assembly in 2018, the general secretary will issue a letter to all Uniting Church authorised celebrants advising them of their freedoms and constraints under that legislation and in their church-authorised role.
Members were encouraged by UnitingWorld to advocate strongly for increases in government aid funding and to increase their own support for development aid through personal and church giving, and through advocacy and encouragement of their friends and community.
This call follows a massive cut in overseas aid by the federal government in the May budget which will slice $2.7 billion from the forward estimates over the next few years.
The Assembly members stood as one to oppose the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities.
The symbolic action was the result of a heartfelt plea by a contingent of youthful members who pleaded with the Assembly to respond to the potential closures.
All members – including president Stuart McMillan, Nyungar elder Rev Sealin Garlett and Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress chairperson Rev Dennis Corowa – moved outside the hall to signal their solidarity with Indigenous people in threat of being forced off their land by federal and state government policies.
The Assembly also demanded that the Australian government adopt policies which genuinely sought to support rather than demonise asylum seekers and refugees.
In adopting a proposal from UnitingJustice, the Assembly outlined a nine-step plan. The plan includes calling for the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees to be upheld at all times, an abandonment of the policy of mandatory and indefinite detention and a response to asylum seekers and refugees based on humanitarian principles.
Declining numbers of church adherents was also discusses.
While at last Census only 5 per cent of Australians identified themselves as being Uniting Church comparted to 14 per cent regarding themselves as Presbyterian, Congregational or Methodist in 1976, members were encouraged to not see being on the margin of society as necessarily a bad thing.
The associate general secretary of the China Christian Council, Rev Dr Lin Manhong, argued that Jesus Christ was the marginal person “par excellence”. He was born in a lowly stable, was considered an outsider by his own and befriended those on the edge of society – such as Zaccheus the tax collector, the sick, the poor and the woman at the well.
“If Jesus Christ, the incarnated God, was a marginal person, we Christians are definitely called to be the marginal people of God,” she said.
“When the church is in a position of being at the margin, it will be more likely to be like Jesus Christ to relate to and embrace those who are marginalised, because the church itself is one of them, as Jesus Christ was,” Dr Lin said.
“It will be more likely for the church to join the voices from the margins and not just to listen to and speak for them from a distant, central and privileged position.
“It will be more likely for the church to be a more active agent of missionary activities to counteract injustice, inequality and exclusivity that have kept people at the margins.
“It will be more likely for the church to remember its original nature and what it ought to be.”