The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia met in Melbourne for the week of 8-14 July, 2018. The theme of the Assembly was Abundant grace, liberating hope. I was one of twenty one members of the Uniting Church in Western Australia who attended. Here are my reflections on the week.
There were more than 260 members of Assembly, elected from the Synods and Presbyteries across Australia. A number of these were youthful members, who had a special gathering prior to the Assembly itself.
The Assembly Communications Unit, supplemented with various Synod Communications personnel, did a sterling job in reporting each of the substantive decisions of the Assembly. Their consolidated report can be read at https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/2855-grace-in-abundance-hope-liberated
and individual news items with more detail can be read at https://uniting.church/news/
or through the individual links as noted below.
The days began with prayer and worship, with Bible studies on three days led by Sef Carroll and James Baghwan. Members from WA led morning worship on Thursday;
There were either four or five business sessions on each weekday of the meeting, with four of these sessions allocated for members to meet in Community Working Groups to discuss some of the key proposals (marriage and same gender people, sovereignty of First Peoples, climate change, voluntary assisted dying).
The keynote Cato Lecture was delivered on the Wednesday evening by Bishop Ken Carter for the USA. Also present for the duration of the meeting were about 15 ecumenical friends, representing many of the overseas churches with whom the UCA partners through UnitingWorld.
On the day before Assembly commenced, I was invited to join the Assembly Facilitation Group. This group of 6 people met regularly throughout the week, to receive the written feedback sheets from the 20 Community Working Groups, collate them into regular reports for the Assembly, negotiate with the proposers and seconders of the various proposals relating to these matters, and offer amendments to the proposals for consideration by the full Assembly. Section 5.9 of the Manual for Meetings sets out the responsibilities of such a group; see http://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/Regulations/2012/Manual_for_Meetings_2009.pdf
This was my first experience of working on a Facilitation Group, and I appreciate the insights and learnings that this provided me. I remain firmly committed to the consensus decision-making process of the Uniting Church.
The community working groups are an integral part of the business of the Assembly, offering every single member the opportunity to have their point of view heard and registered, and ensuring that any move forward to decision is undertaken with a clear awareness of the range of concerns and hopes of members of the Assembly. This part of the process was able to assist in the reshaping of the proposal on sovereignty, and played a key role in moving the various proposals on marriage to the point where a decision could be made.
A striking element of this Assembly meeting was the way that people who addressed the Assembly introduced themselves. Speakers at the podium on the stage, as well as members addressing the Assembly from the floor, were asked to state their name, the body which elected or appointed them to Assembly, and the name of the First people on whose land they lived and worked.
This meant that we were being reminded, regularly and consistently, of the array of nations who had cared for the lands and waters of this great continent “since time immemorial”. It also provided a regular and sobering reminder of the fact that all the Second Peoples of this nation live and work on stolen land, taken from the original inhabitants, a fact that is not yet recognised by the signing of a national treaty.
One disappointing element of this Assembly related to the size of the hall in which plenary sessions were held, coupled with the decision to make almost all of the sessions when marriage was being discussed into private sessions. This meant that the hundred or so people who came to the Assembly as Visitors (including my wife, Elizabeth) were not able to see the process at work, and appreciate how the final decision was arrived at. This was a great shame.
Stuart McMillan concluded his three years as the church’s 14th President, giving an inspiring and prophetic address to the Assembly in the opening business session; see https://uniting.church/immediate-past-presidents-hearts-on-fire-report-to-15th-assembly-uca-2018/
Dr Deidre Palmer was installed as the Uniting Church’s 15th President in a service on the opening Sunday night. She is the second woman to serve in that role. Dr Palmer gave an inspiring address on the theme of the Assembly, Abundant Grace, Liberating Hope, which you can read at https://uniting.church/president-palmer-sermon/
Towards the end of the week, the Rev. Sharon Hollis was chosen as President-elect. Sharon will be the third woman to be President and the first ordained woman in the role. She is the eleventh President who has previously served as a Moderator, and the twelfth President who has served the church at some time in an educational role. Sharon Hollis will begin her term as President at the 16th Assembly in Queensland in 2021. See https://uniting.church/sharon-hollis-named-as-uca-president-elect/
Much attention has been given to the decision of the Assembly relating to marriage and same gender couples. Before reporting on that, it is important to grasp the range of other matters considered by the Assembly. There were some strategic and important decisions made throughout the week, which I plan to reflect on in future blogs. For me, the key decisions related to:
The 15th Assembly affirmed Australia’s First Peoples as the sovereign peoples of Australia; see https://uniting.church/uniting-church-recognises-first-peoples-sovereignty/
Uniting Church members will also be asked to observe a Day of Mourning on the Sunday prior to the 26th of January every year; see https://uniting.church/28-day-of-mourning/
The 15th Assembly adopted a statement that commits the Uniting Church to repudiating all teaching and theologies that justify domestic violence; see https://uniting.church/uniting-church-takes-strong-stance-against-domestic-violence/
The Assembly received a document, For the Whole Creation, which builds on the Uniting Church’s history of strong environmental action, dating back to the 1977 Statement to the Nation, which urged “the protection of the environment and the wise use of energy.” See https://uniting.church/19-for-the-whole-creation/
The Assembly adopted a Statement of Access and Welcome to guide conversations about justice and equality for people living with disabilities; see https://uniting.church/30-disability-access-guidelines/
The 15th Assembly committed its support to the peace process on the Korean Peninsula; see https://uniting.church/working-and-praying-for-peace-in-korea/
Of course, the matter of marriage and same-gender people was prominent throughout the week. I will reflect more on this at a later stage. For the moment, I note that we have adopted a new statement of belief on marriage, to stand alongside the existing statement. This honours the diversity of Christian belief among UCA members and permits Ministers to determine whether they will conduct marriages of same-gender couples, or not. In addition, Church Councils will have the right to determine whether such marriage services take place on their premises or not.
A Pastoral Letter from Dr Palmer relating to this decision has been sent to all congregations and faith communities, with translations being made into eight languages other than English. The letter can be read at https://uniting.church/pastoralletter/
In other matters, no decision was made on a Church consultation process on the issue of voluntary assisted dying. Several proposals were referred to the 15th Assembly Standing Committee for further consideration, including those on Pastoral Support for Seasonal Workers, Powers of a Presbytery Standing Committee (brought by the Presbytery of WA), and Recognition of UCA languages, including Aboriginal languages and National Conference conversations with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Conference.
The new Assembly Standing Committee meets for the first time in Sydney from 24-26 August. There are five people from WA who were elected to the committee: Steve Francis, Elaine Ledgerwood, Clare Ligtermoet, Yuko Tonai-Moore, and Ian Tozer. https://uniting.church/standing-committee-elected/
In between sessions, Assembly members were invited to forums on the new Assembly Circles of Interest. Circles are a new way for Church members to engage in the national work of their Church. There are seven circles of interest, each representing 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. Any member of the Uniting Church is able to join a circle at http://uniting.church/circles
It was a very full week, with important matters before us, involving a concentrated and emotional process of discernment. The above decisions well reflect how the Uniting Church understands itself, on mission in the context of 21st century Australian society.