While the resolution on same-gender marriage dominated headlines, it was just one of many significant decisions and discussions during the 15th Assembly meeting held from 8 to 14 July.
It was also a memorable week of worship, reflection, celebration and community for the more than 260 members of Assembly, visitors and support staff who travelled to Melbourne from around Australia and beyond.
The 15th Assembly formally opened with the installation service of new President Dr Deidre Palmer at St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne.
In her installation sermon, Dr Palmer reflected on the Assembly theme of ‘Abundant grace, liberating hope’, relating it to the gospel reading of the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus at the well.
“This woman’s witness, her willingness to engage, to dive deeply into this conversation with Jesus echoes over the centuries to be life-giving for us,” Dr Palmer said.
“We have this countercultural narrative – of abundance and hope.
“This hope liberates in us the strength to soar on the wind of the Spirit like eagles, to continue to walk and run the journey of faith.
“In this week and in the coming years, I pray that we will be shaped and embraced by God’s abundant grace. I pray that we, like the woman of Samaria, will run to share God’s liberating hope with the whole world.”
As president, Dr Palmer led the seven-day meeting hosted by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania at Box Hill Town Hall. Assembly members voiced a wide range of views from diverse biblical, theological and cultural perspectives.
One of the first proposals adopted by the 15th Assembly was a strong statement committing the Uniting Church to repudiate all teaching and theologies that justify domestic violence.
Standing Committee member Bethany Broadstock brought the resolution to tackle what she called “one of the most urgent and pressing social issues of the nation and time”.
Assembly members heard testimony from some of those affected by violent acts.
A number of members gave strong statements of affirmation that the Church needs to do more in this area.
The Assembly Standing Committee was asked to create educational, theological and liturgical resources for distribution to the wider church.
Assembly members also wore black on Thursday 12 July as part of the ‘Thursdays in Black’ campaign to stand in solidarity with all those affected by gender-based violence.
The 15th Assembly continued the Uniting Church’s tradition of taking strong environmental action to address climate change.
The document For the Whole Creation was presented to members by Assembly Associate General Secretary Rob Floyd and Zac Hatfield-Dodds.
Mr Hatfield-Dodds noted the Uniting Church’s history of environmental action dated back to the 1977 Statement to the Nation, which urged “the protection of the environment and the wise use of energy.”
For the Whole Creation will be developed into a discussion paper by the Assembly Resourcing Unit.
Assembly also adopted a Statement of Access and Welcome to guide conversations about justice and equality for people living with disabilities.
The Statement affirmed that people with disability are created in the image of God, and that Christ is most fully present when all those in his Body are unconditionally accepted as people of worth. It encouraged the Church to embody theology and practices that are accessible to all people and advocate for justice and equality for people with disability in the wider community.
The Assembly Standing Committee was asked to develop disability access guidelines for use at all national events and activities, and to encourage each Synod to develop similar guidelines.
Several proposals, including one on Pastoral Support for Seasonal Workers, Powers of a Presbytery Standing Committee, and Recognition of UCA languages were referred to the Standing Committee for further consideration.
The new Assembly Standing Committee meets for the first time in Sydney from 24-26 August.
A proposal to have a national church consultation process on the issue of voluntary assisted dying was withdrawn after feedback.
In between sessions, Assembly members were invited to forums on the new Assembly Circles of Interest.
The seven circles of interest each represent a broad area of the Assembly’s mission and ministry: Walking together as First and Second Peoples, Being a Multicultural Church, Seeking Common Ground, Working for Justice, Discipling the Next Generations, Growing in Faith, and Transforming Worship.
You can join a circle at uniting.church/circles
Synods took turns to host morning worship and the sessions incorporated a ceremonial bowl at the centre of each table. Each morning, the bowl contained something symbolic to the worship theme and scripture reading. On Wednesday, the bowl contained red desert sand and animal bones to correspond to the vision of the Valley of the Bones in Ezekiel 37.
From Monday to Friday a series of Bible studies, with a distinctly Pacific islands flavour, was led by Rev Seforosa Carroll and Rev James Bhagwan.
The two ministers began each session sitting on a traditional woven mat and invited Assembly members to embrace the Pacific story-sharing practice of talanoa.
The 16th Assembly will meet in Queensland in 2021.
First Peoples’ Sovereignty recognised
The Uniting Church has adopted a landmark statement affirming First Peoples as sovereign in Australia.
Following consultation with working groups, the original proposal was amended to give an expanded definition of sovereignty as the “way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians” of the land.
Referring to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the Assembly recognised Sovereignty as “a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples”.
Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress members spoke from the floor to support the proposal as a way to move forward in their Covenant with the Uniting Church.
Rev Garry Dronfield, President of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC), said the affirmation would further strengthen the spiritual bond between First and Second Peoples.
“Sovereignty refers to who we are and how we relate,” Mr Dronfield said.
“We speak with a passion, and we seek a continuation of the Covenant between the UCA and our members.
“Let us all commit to make these words into actions.”
In introducing the original proposal, former national president Stuart McMillan said recognising First People’s sovereignty will “give moral leadership to our nation”.
Mr McMillan referred to the Uniting Church’s Constitutional Preamble, the Mabo and Wik Common Law rulings, the Uluru Statement of the Heart and US civil rights icon Martin Luther King to support the “self-evident” truth that First Peoples have equal right to sovereignty in Australia.
In his report as retiring president, Mr McMillan also challenged the Uniting Church to be a culturally diverse and reconciling community that journeys in Covenant with First Peoples.
First Peoples continue to experience high rates of family separation and imprisonment, which Mr McMillan described as “blights on our common humanity”.
“Our call is to continue to shine a light on those injustices,” Mr McMillan said.
As Standing Committee member Bethany Broadstock presented a minute of appreciation for Mr McMillan’s tenure she said an enduring hallmark of his presidency has been seeking reconciliation with First Peoples.
“He reminds us an authentically Australian Christian movement is to put First Peoples at the heart of its being,” she said.
The Uniting Church will also observe a Day of Mourning to occur on the Sunday prior to 26 January every year.
Congregations will be encouraged to hold worship services that reflect and lament the effects of colonisation on First Peoples.
UnitingWorld hosted a series of lunchtime seminars where Assembly members heard from partner churches in Asia, Africa and the Pacific.
Rev Nyoman Augustinus explained how the Protestant Church in Bali undertakes community outreach ministry in a region where 98 per cent of people are Hindu.
The church provides health care to families in need and kickstarts small business projects for women.
“Despite our church being small, we believe that what we have we should share with the community,” he said.
Speakers from Maluku in Indonesia and Lebanon offered stories of hope and peace that have emerged in times of crisis.
Rev Elifas Tomix Maspaitella spoke about the Maluku Islands sectarian conflict, which ignited tensions between Muslims and Christians.
“We must invite our Muslim brothers and sisters to join in the peacemaking,” he said.
“In 2008, after a long time of unrest, we became one with Muslim people. I was able to invite a Muslim preacher to preach at our church.
“Christian and Muslim women joined to together in economic development, making crafts together in an act of solidarity.”
During the 15th Assembly, the Uniting Church pledged its support to the peace process on the Korean peninsula.
Presbyterian Church of Korea general secretary Rev Chang Bae Byun thanked the Assembly for the resolution and joined with UCA president Deidre Palmer in a prayer for peace.
Mr Byun was one of three international visitors invited to share their greetings and observations with the 15th Assembly.
Chair of the Congregational Christian Church in Samoa Rev Elder Tautiaga Senara and Rev Joshua Lian, ecumenical secretary to the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, also gave short addresses to Assembly members.
Elder Senara said he was impressed by the Uniting Church process of consensus decision-making, which is a model he would like to take back to Samoa.
He commended the Assembly on its courage, honesty and openness in addressing difficult issues.
UnitingWorld national director Sureka Goringe said the international visitors offered a valuable outsider’s perspective on the Uniting Church.
“They’ve urged us to bear with each other in the midst of our difference and hold unity,” Ms Goringe said.
“They have thanked us for letting them watch as we wrestle with challenges that they see coming down the road for them.
“They have challenged us to put more young people, and people of colour, into leadership.”
The church partners also took time to visit Narana Aboriginal Cultural Centre in Grovedale to listen and learn about the First Peoples of Australia.
They dined with Congress members, who explained the significance of Dreaming stories, language and their ancestral connection to country.
The overseas guests also shared stories of struggles that First Peoples experience in their home countries.
Young adults made up 10 percent of delegates to the 15th Assembly.
In the lead up to Assembly opening day, young members were put through their paces on the floor of Box Hill Town Hall.
Assembly general secretary Colleen Geyer, immediate past president Stuart McMillan and Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress president Rev Garry Dronfield briefed the young leaders on Assembly procedures.
During the orientation session, Cameron Shields from the Vic/Tas Synod ably filled the President’s chair.
Young adult delegates also had an opportunity during Assembly to chat with new President Dr Deidre Palmer, who hosted a dinner for the youthful members.
As a former youth worker and Christian educator, Dr Palmer is passionate about empowering every member of the Uniting Church, whether they are lay or ordained.
“A great strength of the Uniting Church is its focus on every-member ministry,” Dr Palmer said.
“Young adults are leaders now, it’s not about being leaders in the future.
“It’s about the church you are contributing to now.”
When asked what she believed to be the biggest barriers for the Uniting Church, Dr Palmer identified a reluctance to bear witness to the Gospel.
She challenged the young adults to confidently live out the Gospel at a time when Christianity is seen as counter-cultural.
“I think we need to have deep theological conversations so that we can grow in the confidence of what we are sharing,” Dr Palmer said.
“Where are those liberated spaces where we can be authentic and test those ideas? How do we have those authentic in-depth conversations?”
The young people shared with Dr Palmer their thoughts on the challenges facing the church today, such as the decline in youth attendance.
“For the longest time we’ve made it all about this institution that’s selling a product that needs more members to fill seats,” one young adult said.
“When its not about Jesus it doesn’t work.
“I think this is an exciting time for us as a Church because we really need to look hard at ourselves and what it means to be a Body of Christ.”
The Royal Commission National Task Group told Assembly members that the church has lost the community’s trust and restoring it is a vital task.
Rev John Cox, executive officer of the Royal Commission National Task Group, warned that addressing child sex abuse is not just a matter of ticking extra procedural boxes. The church’s social license is at risk.
“The reality is that trust has been broken with the community at large,” Mr Cox said.
“As a community with the unique character of being shaped by the gospel of Jesus Christ, called to tell the story of Jesus Christ, how do we tell that story if people cannot hear or will not hear, because they cannot trust?
“Our pledge to survivors is that we will continue to implement the lessons of the Royal Commission, and pursue best practice for care, service and support of children.”
Assembly general secretary Colleen Geyer reiterated the pledge first made by previous UCA president Andrew Dutney that the Uniting Church would “say ‘sorry’ to anyone who was sexually abused when in our care”.
“We will not hide from the truth, however painful that may be, and we will seek, with compassion and humility, to address whatever issues and challenges may emerge for us,” Ms Geyer said.
“We must be willing to examine our own motives and behaviour and be open to accept the close scrutiny of others.”
Mr Cox explained the National Task Group’s two main areas of work.
The first was to ensure the UCA engaged with the Royal Commission by responding appropriately and adopting lessons from it.
The second was to lead the implementation of those lessons to the Church.
Mr Cox reported that the church had collaborated very well in responding to the Royal Commission.
“We really are uniting when it comes to our response to the Royal Commission,” Mr Cox said.
One outcome of responding to the Royal Commission is the UCA’s National Child Safe Policy Framework.
The Task Group is consulting with synods to establish a Safe Church unit to carry on the work of engaging with the Commission’s findings and recommendations.
Another area of ongoing work is establishing a set of Professional Standards for ministry agents, which would flow directly from the Code of Ethics.
Mr Cox reported that, after extensive work and collaboration, the Uniting Church opted into the National Redress Scheme on 4 June 2018.
President Dr Deidre Palmer led Assembly members in a prayer of lament and repentance for survivors.
A reflection on the marriage decision
By ANDREW DUTNEY
“UNITING Church approves same-sex marriage.”
THE above headline from a Sydney newspaper conceals what actually happened in Melbourne last month.Without setting out to do so, the Uniting Church recovered its stated vocation of making visible unity in diversity.
Of course, the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia did indeed make decisions that will allow ministers to conduct same-gender marriages.
But it also reinforced the rights of ministers and congregations who remain committed to the traditional understanding of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.
No minister will have to conduct same-gender marriages if it conflicts with their beliefs. No congregation will have to make its property available for same-gender weddings if they don’t believe same-gender marriage is valid for Christians.
In fact, it is very unlikely that many ministers and congregations will see any difference in the teaching and practices that they are used to.
The intention of the initial proposal was that ministers who, in good conscience, are willing to conduct same-gender marriages should be allowed to do so.
But it was also intended that this should not compromise the rights of those ministers who, in good conscience, cannot conduct same-gender marriages.
They will continue to be able to teach their belief that marriage may only be between a man and a woman, and can continue to use a marriage liturgy that reflects that conviction.
In other words, without disputing the biblical and theological validity of the traditional understanding of marriage – in fact the resolution reaffirms the Church’s policy statement originally adopted in 1997 – the Assembly has approved an additional statement on marriage for the Uniting Church, also biblically and theologically valid.
The rationale to the proposal explained:
“Within the diversity of our fellowship there are ministers and congregations who believe that the change in our social context that allows same-gender marriage is consistent with the Gospel, and want to be able to celebrate same-gender marriages as well as opposite-gender marriages.
“They are seeking the consent of the rest of the church to have this ability.
“They are not asking the rest of the church to agree with them, but allow them to follow their conscience in this way.
“The Working Group on Doctrine Report on Marriage and Same-Gender Relationships confirms the biblical and theological legitimacy of this request.”
Two doctrines of Christian marriage? Two expressions of that in “the rites of the Uniting Church in Australia”?
How does that work?
Well, that’s the kind of thing that the Uniting Church was always supposed to be able to manage: unity in diversity.
The union of the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches in 1977 wasn’t an amalgamation or a takeover. It wasn’t for the sake of efficiency.
It was three historic, proud denominations choosing to set aside the things that divided them for the sake of something bigger: the visible unity of divided people as a foretaste, sign and instrument of the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.
In fact in its Basis of Union, the Uniting Church names the mission of God as “reconciliation and renewal for the whole creation”.
And it says that “The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself”.
Making unity in diversity visible, is what the UCA was built for.
So, in addition to bringing together three contrasting, divided forms of historic church polity, the UCA’s Basis of Union specifically acknowledged Calvinist Confessions of Faith alongside the Arminian sermons of John Wesley as witnesses the Uniting Church must listen to and which ministers must study, even though Calvinist and Arminian doctrines of salvation are famously in conflict with each other.
In the same way, from the beginning the Uniting Church has accepted a wide variety of views of the presence of Christ in Holy Communion, ranging from Zwinglian to Calvinist and Wesleyan, and assumes that some members and ministers lean more towards Lutheran or Catholic views.
Much of the dividedness of Western Christianity involves conflict between these contrasting doctrines of the sacraments.
Holding together two doctrines and practices of marriage within the one diverse Church is the kind of thing that the UCA was built for.
Of course, by introducing an additional approach to marriage into the Uniting Church’s theology and practice the UCA is out of step with most other Christian churches in Australia.
That’s something that would have given the Assembly pause for thought.
From the beginning, the Uniting Church was intended to be an expression of what God was doing with the whole church.
Anything that would make the UCA appear to be sectarian and anything which would unnecessarily “denominationalise” the UCA was to be avoided.
What it seeks is to be Christian – in the broadest sense; an expression of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church.
That doesn’t mean it can’t have policies and commitments that are different from other churches.
For example the Uniting Church welcomes and celebrates the leadership of women in all parts of the church’s life, even though this is out of step with many – even most – Christian churches.
The Uniting Church marries divorced people and accepts the leadership of divorced people even though many Christian churches would condemn this.
And other churches know what the UCA’s policies and commitments are in such matters without questioning the seriousness and authenticity of its desire to be Christian – as truly and deeply as it can in contemporary Australian society.
Nonetheless, it is always something for the UCA to reflect on honestly. How will this decision affect our relationships with other churches?
In my report to the 14th Assembly as the retiring President I said:
“God is calling us to be a church which receives its diversity as the precious gift of the Holy Spirit that it is: a foretaste, sign and instrument of ‘that reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.’
“Reconciliation doesn’t mean everyone being the same. It doesn’t mean one version of being human or being Christian replacing all the others.
“It means people and groups that are different and divided from each other being brought together in Christ to respect, value, trust and serve one another – in all our annoying, embarrassing, frustrating, frightening diversity.
“That’s profoundly challenging. It’s sharply counter-cultural. But it is the kind of church God is calling us to be.”
That’s the kind of church the 15th Assembly had in mind when it decided to approve same-gender marriage.
Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, is Professor of Theology, Flinders University and Past President of the Uniting Church in Australia.
Translated versions of the President’s pastoral letter are available at uniting.church/pastoralletter
Liturgy resources from the 15th Assembly can be downloaded from the Uniting Church website – uniting.church/liturgy-resources-available/