By Stephen Acott
Family gatherings can be fraught affairs, particularly long ones. You just know that, the longer the day goes or the longer the stay, the more likely there will be an argument of some sort. Everyone has an opinion and, at a family gathering, more often than not, they air it.
And so it was that Synod gathered from the far reaches of Victoria and Tasmania and sat down together for four long days of deep discussion on a variety of topics, some very polarising. Many opinions were raised, not all of them in harmony, many emotions were stirred, not all of them joyful, but overall this was a family united, not divided.
And with each passing day and each passing discussion, no matter the topic, this was a family that grew closer.
The scene for spirited debate was set from the outset, with new Moderator Rev Denise Liersch choosing a theme of new and renewing. “Look, I’m doing a new thing, now it springs up, do you perceive it?” she quoted from Isaiah 43:19.
Most looked at that phrase and zeroed in on the word “new”. New, as in different. New, as in change. Some even saw it as out with the old and in with the new which, to those who would be considered “old”, would have been uncomfortable, even alienating.
Denise says the latter interpretation is not one she shares.
“It’s not either/or, rather it’s both/and,” she says. “We can open ourselves to do things in different ways alongside each other and together. We already are.
“I’m not saying we as a whole have to change everything we do, but we can look to incorporate new practices or add new times and places for worship. We can open up more opportunities for people of a greater diversity of ages, cultures and ways of understanding to engage with Christian faith and community.
“When I chose that particular passage in Isaiah, I wasn’t trying to just focus on the word ‘new’ because much of what we perceive to be new isn’t new at all.
“In my reflection at my installation I gave a few examples of different ways people were coming together, such as churches hosting playgroups.
“Those examples weren’t really of new things, but they were examples of things some people don’t consider to be ‘church’. Church doesn’t have to be in a stone building on a Sunday morning.”
Not surprisingly, one of the topics that generated a lot of debate was the proposal to increase the involvement of people under 50 in the service, leadership and shaping of the Church. An aspirational target of 30 per cent on committees was suggested. This proposal did not reach consensus easily.
“The responses were quite mixed initially and I took that to mean people were worried about meeting the suggested quota,” Denise says.
“But there was so much energy in the room for finding ways of creating far more opportunities for leadership for those under 50. ”
Generational tensions aside, the mood for change was evident, particularly with regard to property. One of the theological reflectors noted how some people wanted to be part of a church that had a vision for the future that didn’t depend on buildings.
There was also a presentation titled Changing Landscapes – Reimagining Property For Mission, which asked the room to consider how property surplus to missional needs could be released for missional activity.
“By the end of Synod I was sensing a pretty strong appetite for change, an encouraging amount,” Denise says.
The biggest discussion centred on whether Synod was prepared to form a response to Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation.
The debate was passionate and lengthy, but also respectful.
In the end the meeting decided to “give permission within Victoria to UCA institutions and the UCA-affiliated hospital group Epworth HealthCare to make voluntary assisted dying allowable within the context of their facilities and services for their patients, clients and residents”.
It was also decided that “exploring, accessing and conscientiously objecting to VAD were all within the range of faithful Christian responses”.
“Voluntary assisted dying was a challenging space for us all to be in and it was important to be able to engage in conversations openly, honestly and respectfully – and we did,” Denise says.
“There was a clear mood that people wanted to find a way together.
“We struggled and worked together to seek the Spirit’s leading for us all. Most of our time was spent on what we wanted to affirm together theologically.
“As we listened to each other and discerned the Spirit’s movements, there were times when there was a hush as someone spoke, followed by a sea of orange cards indicating, ‘yes, that is what we need to say!’
“An example was when three people in a row spoke about Christian spiritual discernment in relation to matters of life and death. This changed the shape of our affirmations over the course of the meeting.
“We don’t all agree in our understanding of voluntary assisted dying, but we acknowledged that, ultimately, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.”
Other highlights included acknowledging NAIDOC Week, introducing a Disability Action Plan, and celebrating significant ministerial anniversaries – one was 75 years!
And then there were the ever-popular Choose Your Own Adventure information sessions.
When asked what she perceived at Synod 2019, Denise replied: “There was a large number of people who hope to see a renewal on who we are, as a Church, and what we are focused on – discipleship, mission and being communities of faith.”
Adara Liersch, 21, Horsham
“I really liked hearing other people’s views. They were very refreshing. I learnt a lot.”
Christopher Booth, 35, Carlton North
“It was really encouraging to see how what was discussed in the working groups was incorporated into the whole meeting.”
Belinda Clear, 39, Glen Waverley
“There was a sense of hope and, moving forward, thinking outside of the box. The style of the meeting is hard because it is not something that’s familiar to a lot of us, so that can be prohibitive.”
Cameron Shields, 33, Shepparton
“It was a tough journey. It required a lot of thought, a lot of listening and reflecting. There were some tough proposals we had to work through, but it was positive.”