The upcoming Synod meeting in July will, quite literally, be discussing matters of life and death, and for General Secretary Mark Lawrence this is a welcome change of focus.
That’s understandable considering the tumultuous events and transitions the Church wrestled with in the previous three Synod meetings, which Mark was charged with organising.
“It’s probably fair to say the last few Synod meetings have been dominated with looking at ourselves, they’ve been property, strategy and finance driven,” Mark said.
“However, the most notable area we will be looking at during this Synod will be the church’s response to the voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria.
“The legislation was passed last November and will be enacted from June this year.
“We will have the opportunity to think about the ground of our being in faith. What’s the theology of life? Who are we as part of the community? That sort of questioning.
“That’ll be a bit richer than what we’ve engaged with in the last few Synods, so I think that will be refreshing.
“I feel proud that we’re the sort of church that is willing to look at Voluntary Assisted Dying and to reflect theologically, socially and personally on what that legislation is about and how we as a church will respond to it.”
Mark’s first Synod meeting as general secretary dealt with the special circumstances of selling property, under the Uniting Our Future plan, to pay the debt left by the failure of Acacia College.
After meeting this obligation, the Synod embarked on a Major Strategic Review with the purpose of forming a broad vision and plans for the future.
This led to far-reaching recommendations for renewed emphases in mission and restructuring, which were debated and adopted at the past two Synod meetings.
This Synod will include a discussion on how property can be more generously used for mission and also discuss questions of financial sustainability.
However, unlike the previous meetings, there aren’t major changes proposed or being debated.
“It doesn’t feel like we’re at odds with each other,” Mark said.
“There are still questions around us, but it feels like as a church we are working on those things more together.”
This year’s Synod will see the first major reports from the new governance, ministries and operations arrangements.
Another notable change is that Synod’s business days have been cut from five to four.
“We’re trying to respond to people’s request to make the Synod meeting as accessible as possible,” Mark said.
“So, for people who work, only having to take two days off would be a good thing.
“It’s also a new date, we have never done the Synod meeting in July.
“Again, this is in response to the resolution to have the meeting at a time where as many people as possible can attend, so it’s in uni and school holidays.”
Mark is a veteran of Synod meetings – in various capacities he believes he has attended nearly all that have been held in Victoria since Union in 1977.
However, he still finds defining what happens at the gatherings, held every 18 months, tricky because of the breadth and scope of activities.
“It opens with worship, with the installation of the Moderator — that’s a key thing that is going on,” Mark said
“So we will see the installation of the new Moderator, Denise Liersch, as well as farewelling and thanking Sharon Hollis for her three years as Moderator.
“There’ll also be the tribute service, which is always valued very highly, that’s on Sunday early afternoon.
“Synod will also commission all of the people who are members of the key Synod governance committees. We will have reports from Uniting, Uniting AgeWell, Uniting Housing, U ethical.
“There will be an opportunity for presbyteries to share some of the challenges and opportunities they have.”
In terms of policy and advocacy, there will be proposals from the Justice and International Mission cluster to be considered.
As the major periodical decision-making body and reporting forum of the church, Synod could be likened to an AGM.
However, Mark said this didn’t really encompass its unique character.
Synods are conducted according to a consensus decision-making model, which means the meeting seeks a common mind about the wisest way forward for the Church.
The most typical and colourful means of showing consensus is when a mass of orange indicator cards is held aloft, meaning Synod members feel warmth to the proposal being discussed.
“For the days that the Synod operates, we actually form a Christian community,” Mark said.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know people in tables, in working groups, in coffee queues.
“The theory of consensus decision-making is that when you come into an issue and you start exploring views you might find a common space that is not compromise, but a new space to be in and move forward with a fresh and shared understanding.
“That’s something to be celebrated.”
Synod’s opening worship, which includes the installation of Denise Liersch as the new Moderator, will be held at St Michael’s Uniting Church, corner of Russell and Collins St, starting at 7.30pm on Friday 5 July. All are welcome.
The general business meeting days of Synod will be held at Box Hill Town Hall from Saturday 6 July to Tuesday 9 July.
Synod members hold up different coloured indicator cards to indicate their attitude to what is being discussed. An orange card shows warmth or approval, a blue card shows coolness and a yellow card indicates the person wants to ask a question.