The Uniting Church in Australia holds a national conference every 3 years. The 15th Assembly was held in early July 2018 in Melbourne.
Two representatives of the Mid North Presbytery attended. Below is the report from one of those delegates.
Report on the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia
as presented to Presbytery Meeting on 18 August 2018
To go to Assembly brought with it many thoughts and feelings. Not least among these were, the feeling of being overwhelmed by reports to read, prayer to be had, pathways to be discerned, and practicalities to be juggled.
Prior to Assembly three groups of paperwork were sent to each delegate which contained, the reports and proposals which were going to be presented. Some 25 reports and some 58 proposals. Whilst some of these were able to be skipped over, such as proposals to thank various people within the life of the church, it still left much to be read, including the 63 page report on same sex marriage.
Jason and I have agreed to talk about separate proposals and reports that were tabled at Assembly, but before I talk about those on my list, I wanted to give you a brief overview of a day in the life at Assembly.
Each day followed roughly the same structure.
Assembly proper commenced at 9.00am with devotions and bible study. (there was opportunity to worship in the nearby Anglican church at 8.00 am ).
9.00 am worship, was lead by a different synod each day and bible studies were lead by Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll and Rev James Bhagwan. These wonderful speakers sat at the front of assembly on a traditional Polynesian mat and each day referred our thoughts back to various items which were placed in the centre of our discussion tables. Collections of stones, individually painted indigenous crosses etc.
At 10 am we went into open session, where reports and proposals were presented and discussions commenced. Such sessions went through to lunch. At lunch you had opportunity to talk to various agencies of the church such as frontier services, Uniting world, Uniting Care, defence force chaplains, Uniting Earth etc.
Following lunch open sessions continued through to afternoon tea, when we then went into small groups and discussed, questioned the larger proposals which were placed before us.
Tea followed and then we came back into open session.
The day concluded around 9.00 pm
In this description I must mention the work which was done by the small groups and then the follow up work carried out by the facilitation team. At these small groups we posed questions, sought clarification, expressed views on the proposals before us. For example in relation to indigenous sovereignty, questions were asked as to what the actual definition of “sovereignty was”, how this would affect an actual congregation etc.
The facilitation group would, at the end of each day, collate all these comments etc from the 20 or so small groups, and report back, to the open session the next morning, providing clarification answers or simply showing how many groups had similar feelings or views on that particular matter. I cannot over state the great work that this team did and how it did assist in shaping how either the proposals may be reworded or at least viewed in light of their finding. I found this work very helpful which I must admit was in stark contrast to synod where although the same system was used, there appeared little evidence that small group discussions found their way into meaningful changes or revisiting of proposals.
Review of Proposals
Whilst the Same sex marriage proposal dominated discussions and the ensuing headlines, it was by no means the only proposal, substantial or otherwise that Assembly grappled with. As I mentioned earlier there were some 58 proposals listed for discussion when Assembly began. This number increased to about 64 as the week wore on.
The first of the proposals I wanted to discuss was the one brought to assembly by Uniting Care on Voluntary Assisted Dying.
The proposal read:
"That the Assembly resolve
A) To request Uniting Care Australia to commence a 12 month process of consultation and discussion across the life of the church to discern the Church’s approaches to voluntary assisted dying to be presented to the Standing Committee no later than July 2019.
B) To request that the scope of the consultation include theological, ethical, social, pastoral, health, cultural and service aspects of the issue."
Debate that was held on the floor of Assembly in relation to this proposal, centred on two areas, firstly what was the aim of this proposal.
In response to this you will note from this proposal is that it was in no way seeking to place a set position in relation to this matter. It was simply to consult with the church as a whole and present their findings to Standing Committee. At present no agency or level of the church has a policy position on this matter and with this matter being brought to state governments both now and over the last 12 months, a discussion on this I think is timely, if not overdue.
The second issue raised was whether Uniting Care was the best agency of the church to undertake this discussion. There was a range of thought, from one end saying that yes they were, as this matter was central to the work uniting care does in their aged care facilities, however the opposing view suggested that for this exact reason, Uniting Care was not be best, impartial body to facilitate this discussion. Could it be that Uniting would try and position and promote itself within a competitive market place, itself using the findings of this report.
Initially the proposal was deferred and then on the day assigned for it to be voted on, the floor of assembly was informed that the proposal had been withdrawn. No explanation for this withdrawal was given. I must admit that this withdrawal saddened me as it is an issue which I think impacts on a larger number of UCA members than same sex marriage does and I fear could become a more divisive issue.
The Second Proposal I want to bring before your attention was from the Royal commission National task Group.
The actual proposal is quite long from this report but in essence if sought five things:
1) To reaffirm the values statement made at the beginning of the Royal Commission
2) To note the work done in providing equitable, consistent and just redress
3) To work towards a Safe Church unit within the UCA
4) To delegate final responsibility and oversight back to the Assembly Standing Committee
5) To request that Standing Committee with reference to the legal dept makes changes to the Regulations etc and implement practices and policies in response to recommendations of the Royal Commission.
It should be noted that the church had already commenced a redress scheme prior to the national Government one, which the church has signed up to. There was no discussion as to how this was to be funded and definitely no mention made of the church heading down a similar road as to what has been reported on for the Anglican Church, particularly in Tasmania, where up to 40 % of properties are to be sold.
This proposal was passed by consensus.
The next proposal I want to bring to Presbytery’s attention is that brought by the Synod of Vic and Tasmania, concerning Disability Access Guidelines.
Again the actual proposal is quite long and I won’t read it all out. It had 4 points
1) To adopt a Statement of Access and welcome as a starting point for conversations aimed at seeking justice and equality for people with a disability. This statement was part of the proposal.
2) To request Assembly standing committee to develop disability access guidelines for use at all events and activities overseen by the Assembly. And encourage each Synod to do likewise
3) To encourage each Synod to develop Disability Action Plans in line with the federal Disability Discrimination Act of 1992
4) To request synods to develop appropriate liturgical responses which acknowledge the historical exclusion of many people with a disability.
All of this sounds somewhat long winded and highbrow but what the discussion surrounding this brought down to a congregational level, is how do we get passed thinking about physical barriers such as ramps and handrails, and to start thinking about things like skyping church services, electronic sermons, powerpoints for notices gluten free food being available at every morning tea after fellowship, etc.
This was passed by consensus.
And yes we did spend some time talking, debating, and discerning the matter of same sex marriage.
As I report on this, I want to state from the outset that this was not a matter which was taken lightly by any member of the assembly. This proposal was discussed on and off for 5 days and during meal breaks, smaller one on one conversations were being had also.
It was also a topic in which I saw the best of the Uniting Church and the grace in which people were held and respected. We all know and realize that there are a range of views held on this matter, there was coming in to Assembly and there still is. All are faithfully held. Assembly tried and I think succeeded in holding these views and the people who held them. Let me give you an example.
One of our night sessions was an open floor time when anyone could come and speak on this proposal. There were two microphones set up and people lined up to speak. In all there were 32 speakers in this one session alone. Each speaker had 2 minutes and were dictated to by a traffic light system which went from green to orange at 1.45 orange to red at 2 minutes at which time the microphone was switched off. Not once did a speaker try to speak after their allotted time, even if it was mid sentence. They accepted their time was up and quietly resumed their seat. The other thing worthy of note was that there may have been speakers with completely opposing views following one another, yet there was no anger or finger pointing or whatever, each person said what they wanted to and were allowed to do so.
Within the 58 original proposals there were I think about 9 which related to this general topic. They ranged from supporting same sex marriage, to opposing it, some wanted the decision deferred others wanted it referred back to the church as a whole. The people who brought these proposals were allowed to speak to Assembly on these matters.
Prior to coming to Assembly I had thought that the divisions on the church in relation to this matter would be along cultural lines, with first peoples, our Korean faith members and those of Polynesian background being against this motion. It was pointed out early in our discussions by the chairman of the Aboriginal and Islander congress that as this were a diverse range of views held by the congress members, it was decided that each member was free to express their own view but no-one could or would speak for the congress as a whole. While no such blanket statement was made on behalf of the Polynesian cultured members, it became evident from those who spoke, there was a similar diversity of thought within this group also.
On Monday, after the initial proposal was brought to the floor and questions were asked as to the validity of the Assembly actually hearing and deciding on this matter, we met in small groups to question, discuss the proposal. We were guided by pre-prepared questions and a feeling of each small group was taken by way of a show of hands. This was by no means a formal vote but it gave the facilitating group and the executive a sense of what the mood of Assembly was. There was some discussion the next day that these questions were too leading, and although this may have had merit, it was up to each group to get passed this notion and look at the issue which was before us.
On Tuesday morning the work of the facilitating group was shared. Tuesday night saw a discussion on the marriage issue on theological grounds as well as the open time I mentioned earlier. I came away thinking and this is my personal view only, that theological arguments or positions were in some sense nullifying each other out. Each position taken was faithfully held and truthfully believed but could not debunk the theological position of a differing point of view.
Wednesday saw an amended proposal come to the floor which was the first that contained two definitions of marriage. The instigators of other proposals were consulted as to how this affected their proposals with some willing to withdraw such proposals This new proposal was discussed in session both full assembly and small groups during Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Within such discussions many questions and comments were made about congregations leaving, congregations which would grow etc, many of which are not useful here, but I would like to read you one:
"How do we give voice and credence to a widely diverse and distinctly different community of faith which have strongly held beliefs?" This I think is the kernel of what all that the church was trying to do at Assembly.
How do we give voice and credence to a widely diverse and distinctly different community of faith which have strongly held beliefs?"
The original proposal contained slightly different wording when giving its two definitions of marriage, however by way of voting this was amended so that both definitions would take the same structure as that of the 1997 Statement of marriage
It was decided on the Friday evening that a vote would be taken on this issue. It was known that consensus would never be reached and so a formal written vote would be taken. There had been some discussion through the week that some members of Assembly felt unsafe in expressing their views and that if they were seen to be voting in a particular way by card or show of hand would lead to censure or reprisals at a later date.
Many procedural matters and votes were taken with the end result being that for this proposal to pass it would need a 2/3 majority rather than a simple 51%. This was decided as it was felt that whatever decision was made, had to be by a clear definitive majority rather than a closeness which could be later disputed.
The vote was taken and we adjourned for tea. On our reconvening, the president stated prior to the announcement that there would be no applause cheering or other forms of celebration in deference to those who held opposing views. Her comment in announcing that the same sex marriage proposal had passed was that it was done so by a significant margin over the required 2/3. With great dignity the floor of the Assembly did not respond in any way to the announcement.
This was not the end of the matter as some of the other 9 proposals relating to this matter still needed to be debated. One of these related as to whether this matter was of “vital importance to the church” this motion was openly discussed but was defeated.
My final comment on this matter would still be that I see this decision as one in which the church has tried to hold in balance the diverse and strongly held views of the members of the Uniting Church. It was pointed out that the holding of such divergent views is not unknown within the UCA. It is here that part of my inadequacy comes in, as examples were given of the differing theologies held within clause 10 of the Basis of Union in its referral to the reformation witnesses and subsequent documents of faith.
This decision allows for each congregation and ministry agent to decide which of the definitions they will abide by. Information will be sent to each congregation to assist you make this decision, so all I can encourage you to do is to wait for this information, pray earnestly, hold in grace and love those who have a different point of view to yours and allow them the space to express such views, and to honestly look at where this matter sits in the life of the church and more importantly, God’s kingdom.
In concluding, my impressions of Assembly are these:
Was it dominated by the same sex marriage debate, yes, Part of me sees the time spent on this as necessary, as it was an issue which clearly and directly affects congregations, and it is an issue which others have strong views on but part of me comes away thinking that is it that big of an issue in the church that other issues had been either deferred or not dealt with by the assembly as a whole. I would like to see this being the end of this matter, as I think there are more vital issues facing the life of the church than this, but I sadly think that this will not be the case.
As mentioned earlier I was greatly impressed by the grace and love which everyone was held in.
I still feel inadequate to be at such meetings, I still struggle with discerning the will of God on many issues.
I appreciate the logistics and costs, but I think that three years between Assemblies is too longer time.
I came away seeing how the machinery of the church can work.
I worry that on some matters, that the flow on from proposal to grass roots practical applications and guidance can or may get lost. I am concerned that the nuts and bolts of some of the issues passed by Assembly get lost in the machinery of the church.
The theme of the Assembly was Abundant Grace Liberating Hope. If you are like me I often go to conventions etc and do not think about the catch cry of the event. As the week went on I became more and more aware of the truths and hopes in this phrase. What is it like to have and live with Abundant Grace and Liberating Hope.
Because of our diversity, I came away seeing both the beauty and the difficulty of the Uniting Church. Here was a body of people who gathered faithfully to try and discern the will of God for our church. The beauty of that lies in the fact that we are a diverse group of believers and yet there was grace and love within that diversity. There is beauty in the fact that we as congregation members can and do have a say in where our church is heading and what it thinks. This is what separates us from other churches. This is our unique strength but it is also our weakness. For such diversity, such openness to the voices of many will cause for difference of opinion and disagreement. It is this diversity which enriches us and is what the church as a whole tries to keep in balance whilst still trying to discern the will of God and the promotion and realization of his kingdom.
Pastor Geoff Battle