14th Assembly: moments before God

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The 14th Triennial Assembly Meeting was held from Sunday 12–Saturday 18 July. It brought together Uniting Church members from around Australia to discern the will of God and the direction of the church for the next three years. Nigel Tapp reports.

There are those within the Uniting Church who would deride the triennial Assembly gathering as a bit of talkfest. And yes, there is a lot of talking over the six days as the members deal with a  range of issues, both of a social nature and also how the church does church and how it engages with its congregations, synods, councils and one another. But, much is achieved and some of those truly special – or most powerful – moments actually come in silence before God.

Such was the story of the 14th Triennial Assembly in Perth last month. The gathering tackled weighty subjects such as same gender marriage, the role of elders within the Uniting  Church, church governance, Federal Government cuts to overseas aid, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the treatment of those seeking asylum and Federal and State  Government policies aimed at closing remote Aboriginal communities.

Royal Commission address

Clearly the most powerful moment came on the Wednesday when members stood in silent respect to all those who had suffered from child abuse. It came after chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Hon Justice Peter McClellan, had informed members that 399 of the 13,256 allegations within the Commission’s terms of reference were in respect of abuse by members of Uniting Church institutions, representing about three per cent of the total figure. A further 106 allegations had been received in respect of abuse by members of Presbyterian Church institutions and 62 in respect of abuse by members of Methodist Church institutions, the  majority of which relate to incidents before 1977.

Following his presentations, members of the Assembly stood in silence to honour those who had suffered in a sign of solidarity, respect and  support. Justice McClellan said the power
of institutions must never again be allowed to silence a child nor must it be allowed to diminish the preparedness or capacity of adults to act to protect children. And those representing the church clearly endorsed that position with the new president of the Uniting Church in Australia, Stuart McMillan, putting those who had suffered at the forefront of the church’s thinking.

“Their wellbeing and the opportunity for those people to be afforded justice, healing and perhaps with time some reconciliation [is our utmost concern],” Stuart said. “His Honour has outlined the  changes in our society over a period in time when children were not to be seen or heard which, allowed them to be quite vulnerable.

“Fortunately that has changed as the Christian community understands the value Jesus placed on children and we place that same value on the safety and welfare of children not only in our care  but in our community.”

Discussion on marriage

The Assembly has committed to continue to engage in a culturally appropriate conversation about marriage and same-gender relationships, even though it did not change its position on marriage. In addition to this conversation, the Assembly resolved to issue a pastoral letter to the church affirming the Uniting Church as an inclusive church embracing those members who identify as  lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ).

If a change to the Marriage Act is made between now and the next Assembly in 2018, the General Secretary of the Uniting Church in Australia, Colleen Geyer, will issue a letter to all Uniting Church authorised celebrants advising them of their freedoms and constraints under that legislation and in their church-authorised role.

International aid

Members of the Assembly were encouraged by UnitingWorld to advocate strongly for increases in government aid funding and to increase their own support for development aid through personal and church giving, and through advocacy and encouragement of their friends and community. It followed a massive cut in overseas aid by the Federal Government in the May budget which will  slice $2.7 billion from the forward estimates over the next few years.

Forced closure of remote communities

The gathering stood as one to oppose the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities. The symbolic action was the result of a heartfelt plea by a contingent of youthful members who pleaded with the Assembly to respond to the potential closures. All members – including the Uniting Church president, Stuart McMillan, Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Council WA  chairperson, Rev Sealin Garlett and National Congress chairperson Rev Dennis Corowa – moved outside the hall to signal their solidarity with Indigenous people in threat of being forced off their  land by Federal and State Government policies.

Asylum seekers and refugees

The Assembly also demanded that the Australian Government adopt policies which genuinely sought to support rather than demonise asylum seekers and refugees. In adopting a proposal from UnitingJustice, the Assembly outlined a nine-step plan to help achieve this, which included calling for the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees to be upheld at all times, an abandonment  of the policy of mandatory and indefinite detention and a response to asylum seekers and refugees based on humanitarian principles.

A growing church

While at the last Census only five per cent of Australians identified themselves as being part of the Uniting Church, compared to 14 per cent regarding themselves as Presbyterian, Congregational  or Methodist in 1976, members were encouraged to not see being on the margin of society as necessarily a bad thing.

In her Cato Lecture, the associate general secretary of the China Christian Council, Rev Dr Lin Manhong, argued that Jesus Christ was the marginal person ‘par excellence’. He was born in a lowly stable, was considered an outsider by his own, and he befriended those on  the edge of society – such as Zaccheus the tax collector, the sick, the poor and the woman at the well.

“If Jesus Christ, the incarnated God, was a marginal person, we Christians are definitely called to be the marginal people of God,” she said. “When the church is in a position of being at the margin,  it will be more likely to be like Jesus Christ to relate to and embrace those who are marginalised, because the church itself is one of them, as Jesus Christ was,” said Lin.

“It will be more likely for the church to join the voices from the margins and not just to listen to and speak for them from a distant, central and privileged position.

“It will be more likely for the church to be a more active agent of missionary activities to counteract injustice, inequality and exclusivity that have kept people at the margins.

“It will be more likely for the church to remember its original nature and what it ought to be.”

Being more willing to look for change and renewal in the Church was another positive which came from being on the margin of society.

2 thoughts on “14th Assembly: moments before God

  1. The last paragraph on the Cato Lecture is a bit baffling, in that according to the article a church on the margins of society has a greater impact on representing those groups on the margins as it is one of the marginalised rather than from a privileged position.
    This would have to be a case of looking for the positive in a bleak situation. The fact is the larger the denomination numerically the more impact it has on influencing government policy and the society in which the church exists. As the church continues to shrink numerically there is no doubt the church will find it harder and harder to be heard.
    It was interesting that at the Assembly the discussion and decisions appear to be overwhelmingly concerning social justice from aborigines to asylum seekers to foreign aid. Undoubtedly these are issues one would expect a church to discuss at an assembly, but, also perhaps some discussion should have focussed on the decline of the Uniting Church and how this may be reversed or at least strategies on how the church copes with decline. perhaps this is discussed at Synod or Presbytery level? The United Reform Church in the UK facing similar problems spent a considerable amount of time recently trying to address this very issue.
    The Uniting Church may encounter a future in which it is very much on the margins of society and unable to get the church’s voice heard amid many other groups on the margin.

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