It’s a week now since I returned from a week spent at the Uniting Church in Australia’s triennial Assembly, held at University of Western Australia. I was there as a member elected by the NSW/ACT Synod, joining approximately 265 members of the Uniting Church in Australia, along with office holders, Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress members, youthful members. Here’s a few personal highlights and reflections from the week, weaving together experiences from Australia and NZ.
On the first Saturday night I joined up with the Youthful Members orientation, along with Uniting Aboriginal & Islander Christian Congress members and UnitingWorld visitors from across the world. The photo above is at the end of the week, just before a number of us went out for lunch together. I attended my first Presbyterian assembly in Hamilton, New Zealand as a 26 year old in 1988, and continued to attend as a theological student in Wellington, 1990, as a minister in 1993 and 1995, as National Youth Ministry Coordinator in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 2000. In each of these gatherings, young adults brought a valuable contribution to the discerning process. Providing an orientation experience for young people involves an introduction to complex decision making processes, along with a community forming experience that helps support them through the emotional strain of dealing with conflict and complexity. There’s a challenge here to help young adults find a shared voice, without becoming a voting bloc that can be wooed by interest groups.
The installation of Stuart McMillan as President of the Uniting Church in Australia was a rich experience. Stuart was escorted on to the stage by a performance group from Arnhem Land. Stuart and his wife were adopted as brother and sister to a couple from the Gupapuyngu clan of the Yolngu nation. Stuart’s escort reminded me of the Maori custom of whanau (extended family) escorting their family member for presentation. We come not as individuals, but as persons in community.
The first session began with a smoking ceremony, with welcome to country, followed by what on the surface was a fairly straightforward introduction to the way the Uniting Church does business. It wasn’t until talking with my NZ colleagues later that I realised how significant this was. Terence Corkin talked us through the value we put on discerning God’s leading together, valuing the perspective of the other as the one who also listens to the Spirit. As Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, “the goal of Christian community is to encounter one another as bringers of the message of salvation”. Values relating to respectful listening are right up there with careful processes.
We met in small working groups of about 12 people, twice during the Assembly. These provide a chance for listening carefully to a variety of viewpoints, as well as a chance to debrief on experiences. We were able to talk through and express opinions on proposals relating to congregational leadership structures, and challenges relating to indigenous sovereignty and theology. Interestingly we weren’t asked by the business committee to talk about theology of marriage in small groups. Facilitation of such a sensitive issue would have required very careful processes and skilled facilitation.
The theology of marriage report from the Assembly Doctrine Working Group told us what we needed to hear – that we don’t actually have a theology of marriage shared across the Uniting Church. I was part of the first wave of consultation back in 2012 and 2013, with the development of a theological reflection process that listened for insights from shared experience, Biblical reflection and thoughts on a way ahead relating to marriage equality. Robert Bos worked with a team of us to design the process and then try it out across Australia. I had the privilege of facilitating conversations with Canberra Region Presbytery and the Confessing Congregations marriage task group – each with quite different perspectives. The challenge for this Assembly was committing to the ongoing work of theological reflection together, while signalling that people affected by the lack of decision should hang in there. Those most deeply affected are members who are in same sex relationships who are either already married or who would like to be married. It was difficult knowing that Australian marriage law could change in the next three years and leave us in the difficult position where ministers are being asked to officiate, and legally not being allowed to. Under Australian marriage law, Uniting Church ministers are required to use the official Uniting Church marriage service, which currently states that marriage is between a man and a woman. Understandably there’s angst also from those holding conservative views on this matter.
I presented proposals from the Assembly Standing Committee relating to a review of Ministry of Pastor, largely because I had edited and presented the Ministry of Pastor’s report to the standing committee in 2014. There’s more work to be done on providing resources to the wider church relating to lay ministry, and there’s consultation required relating to the name “Pastor”. However at this Assembly we voted to remove “Pathway B”, a confusing piece of legislation designed in 2008 to regulate the way lay people gain access to Synod ministry placement process. Removing the requirement for 12 months of Uniting Church membership didn’t go through. It’s a complicated issue and requires more thinking together.
Uniting Church gatherings are not just about decision making. One of my roles during Assembly was as a member of the national Formation Education and Discipleship Working Group. Working with Craig Mitchell, National Director of Formation, Education and Discipleship, members of the group shared resources being developed, handed out lifelong learner badges, and reflected with the Assembly on the need to resource local approaches to membership. Craig was able to showcase footage of people reflecting on the UCA’s Preamble to the Constitution, featuring the place of first peoples. Bradon French, from the Resourcing Team, provided a fully convincing launch of Yurora 2017, the next National Christian Youth Convention, to be hosted by the NSW/ACT Synod in Sydney.
Worship and Bible studies each day took us deeper and deeper into the walk to Emmaus and back as recorded in Luke 24. Reflections on context and challenge were provided by Denise Champion, an Adnyamathanha woman from the Flinders Ranges, Emanuel Audisho, an Assyrian from Iraq and Perth, and Rosemary Dewerse, from New Zealand. On the final day we were encouraged to use the Lectio Divina approach to listening to scripture. One phrase struck me: “They paused, sad”. Much of our work as a community for the week was doing just that, agonizing over the end of Frontier Services as we’ve known it, reflecting on the painful learnings from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse of Children, hearing the perspectives of those caught up in the complexities of the marriage equality question. And yet despite all of our careful retrospection, we were constantly inspired to celebrate life and find hope for the future.
I took the a camera along with me each day and was able to share quite a few shots with friends and colleagues through Facebook. Official photographers shooting from the press balcony at the back of the hall often struggle to get the right angle at the right moment. By sitting closer to the stage, or getting up into the side balconies, I was able to discreetly catch pivotal moments, such as the multicultural dancing during worship, announcements of Colleen Geyer as the next General Secretary and Deidre Palmer as the next President, the standing in solidarity with indigenous people threatened with relocation, and the final pose of the youthful members. Taking lessons from my daughter earlier this month, I’m learning the value of careful editing of photos on Adobe Lightroom and the selection of photos for sharing online.
UCA gatherings also provide wonderful opportunity of catching up with people from across the country. The UCA Assembly Fringe Facebook page provided a brilliant way to connect during the week. Having served with the UCA in Queensland for ten years, reconnecting with colleagues felt like restoring something that had been temporarily lost. My leadership role with United Theological College called for diplomatic relationship building across Synods. I deeply appreciated the chance to compare notes with Andrew Norton and Richard Dawson, Moderator and Moderator Elect of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. And through the week I had the privilege of sharing in the life of the Morrell family who kindly provided me with bed and breakfast. I came away from the week with the sense that I’m being drawn deeper into a movement that takes seriously the calling of God.