By Penny Mulvey
The Synod Standing Committee (SSC) has decided to change the legislative structure of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.
In a letter to all congregation councils, presbyteries, the Assembly, other synods and reporting bodies and institutions, general secretary Rev Dr Mark Lawrence outlined the ‘significant decision’ taken by the SSC.
Dr Lawrence explained that under the legislative model, by an act of the two state parliaments, the current unincorporated Church will become incorporated.
The letter outlines what led the SSC to make this decision, what the next steps will be, and what impact it will have on the governance of the Vic/Tas Synod.
“Instead of the two Property Trusts of Victoria and Tasmania being the legal entities for the synod, the Church itself in each state will be incorporated,” Dr Lawrence wrote in a letter dated 21 January 2016.
“There will no longer be a Property Trust in each state, but the Constitution and Regulations of the Church (appropriately amended to reflect this change) will continue to operate.”
The SSC has been considering the question of incorporation for the last 12 months, largely because of the recommendations of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry in Child Sexual Abuse’s Betrayal of Trust report.
One of the report’s many recommendations, which have all been accepted by the state government, seeks to require all non-government organisations that receive government funding for child-related services to be incorporated. This is to ensure that the actual institution which is responsible for any child sexual abuse is directly accountable.
Currently the Uniting Church is an unincorporated association of individual members. Its legal status rests with the Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (Victoria) and Uniting Church in Australia Property Trust (Tasmania). These two statutory corporations were established by Acts of Parliament in Victoria and Tasmania in 1977.
However the Property Trusts are not the bodies that have oversight of the Church’s activities and therefore are not involved in, nor have responsibility for, the Church’s policies and procedures related to child sexual abuse. Hence, the Property Trusts cannot introduce and enforce policies and procedures that would protect children.
One of the questions of concern for the SSC in considering the Church’s legal status was what impact might such a change have on the Church’s inter-conciliar nature and polity.
On the question of change, Dr Lawrence quoted from the report of the Incorporation Working Group, which advised the SSC:
“[the Working Group] is not proposing a change to the Basis of Union, our travel document, but assuredly we are suggesting a fundamental change in ‘the vehicle’ we pilgrims are going to travel in!”
The SSC has now appointed a Legislative Incorporation Task Group. The task group will develop a framework for achieving incorporation within Victoria and Tasmania.
The task group will consider topics including state governments’ and Church engagement; theological and ecclesial principles; how incorporation might impact the governance role of the SSC; and any changes to the UCA’s Constitution and Regulations required to implement this change.
The SSC identified a number of benefits for the Church in becoming incorporated.
In the letter to the various councils of the Church, the first benefit listed was enabling victims of child sexual abuse to more easily seek redress.
The letter states that the SSC is committed to work with the other synods and the Assembly in any matters related to incorporation that will impact on the UCA throughout Australia.
Dr Lawrence acknowledged that “these resolutions are the start of a significant journey within the life of the Church, in response to God’s mission in the world, and the community’s expectations for institutions to provide safe places for all people”.
He reassured the letter recipients that the journey ahead will involve substantial consultation between various councils of the Church, with an outcome designed to bring stronger governance structures and a simpler legal model.