Assembly stands for life overflowing
Members of the Uniting Church’s 13th Assembly stood with First Nations peoples, stood by the marginalised, stood in solidarity with global church partners, made a commitment to continue to stand by remote Australia, stood in solidarity with the victims of injustice and discrimination, with refugees and asylum seekers, stood alongside each other in love and friendship and stood in humble faith before God.
It’s the singing of “Like a Candle” and the Yolngu prayers of the Rev. Rronaŋ Garrawurra that the Rev. Professor Andrew Dutney said he heard as he looked back on the packed week of the Uniting Church’s13th Assembly.
He described the Assembly, meeting in Adelaide July 15-21, as multilingual, intergenerational, cross-cultural, ecumenical, international and prayerful.
Professor Dutney, newly-installed President of the Uniting Church, had walked with Mr Garrawurra, the new national Chairperson of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, leading nearly 400 people silently through the streets of Adelaide to the steps of Parliament House.
In response to the testimony of Congress about the pain caused by the “Intervention”, entrenched in the “Stronger Futures” legislation, the Assembly had decided to meet at Parliament House to publicly lament, pray and sing.
Professor Dutney said the new Preamble to the Uniting Church’s Constitution had changed something about the church.
“We saw that. It has laid the foundation for something substantial. Several proposals relating to different aspects of the Covenant between the Assembly and the UAICC were agreed to but it was really the way we spoke and listened to each other that convinced us that something is different.
“There was consistent respectfulness and trust even when difficult things needed to be said.”
Assembly started with a welcome to country led by Stephen Gold Smith, also known as Gadla-Barti, an Indigenous elder of the local Kaurna people.
A hush came over those present as Mr Gold Smith played the didgeridoo before he and two Indigenous dancers led in the procession with the Rev. Alistair Macrae (outgoing President of the Uniting Church), his two chaplains (the Rev. Jenny Tymms and the Rev. Dr Ji Zhang), the Rev. Rronaŋ Garrawurra (newly-inducted national chair of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress), and Terrence Corkin (General Secretary of the Assembly).
Mr Gold Smith spoke humorously about modern day inventions inspired by Indigenous culture, labelling it “Indigenuity”.
Paying respect to his ancestors, he welcomed members of the Assembly and congratulated Mr Garrawurra in his new role.
“Congratulations to our brother, who’s taken a special place as our messenger here,” he said.
Mr Macrae responded, welcoming Mr Garrawurra and sharing his hope for the future of the Uniting Church.
“We commit ourselves to continuing in the ongoing struggle for reconciliation in this land,” he said.
Congress welcomes new leader
The Rev. Rronaŋ Garrawurra holds high hopes for the future of Congress and the covenant between Congress and the wider church.
Despite never formally going to school, Mr Garrawurra completed his training and was ordained as a minister in the Uniting Church in 1986.
He was also a member of the Darwin Northern Regional Council of Congress, has taught theology and been the principal’s assistant at Nungalinya College, Darwin, and has been the Executive Officer with the Northern Synod.
He said he was surprised and humbled to be elected as chair on July 10.
He said Indigenous Christians were present in many denominations and it was important for Congress to work ecumenically as well as with the wider Uniting Church.
He also stressed the importance of continuing on the work of Congress in building leaders among members.
“I will try to travel around interstate and encourage strong leaders and support them,” he said. “I need to encourage them where they are so we can work together.”
On the first full day of business Assembly heard the report of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.
Congress members from the Northern Territory shared their sense of despair at the situation that had arisen as a result of the Federal Government’s Northern Territory Intervention. They told how the Intervention had eroded their human rights, stripped them of human dignity and diminished their hope for justice and reconciliation.
The 12th Assembly in 2009 had called for an end to the Intervention and supported calls for the World Council of Churches to send a Living Letters team to draw international attention to the situation faced by Aboriginal peoples in remote areas.
But Congress members said the situation had become worse and the Government had recently passed the Stronger Futures legislation which would entrench aspects of the Intervention for the next decade.
Gapany Gaykamangu said, “The Northern Territory Intervention of 2007 came like a flood and inundated our communities. And this flood doesn’t discriminate, whether we are living lawful lives or unlawful lives.”
Assembly reinforced a call first made to the Federal Government in 2000 for the removal of the racist provisions in the Constitution and to provide acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples as Australia’s “First Peoples”.
It urged Uniting Church councils, groups and members to engage in education campaigns that highlight the importance of constitutional change and to uphold the views of the Uniting Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress
Elenie Poulos, from UnitingJustice Australia, said in the lead-up to the promised Federal referendum about the issue, “It is vitally important we get involved. If you are looking for something to do, this is it.”
Partnership for justice
Among other expressions of support for Indigenous peoples the Assembly said it would work in partnership with the leadership of the First Nations assemblies living under the “Stronger Futures” legislative regime and assured them that the church stood with them in the name of justice.
It lamented the ill health, cultural disintegration and social dysfunction that exists among communities in remote areas but condemned the imposition and extension of the harmful and discriminatory aspects of the “Stronger Futures” legislation and those elements that disempowered local communities and imposed universal compulsory income management.
Assembly encouraged all people, councils and bodies of the Uniting Church and ecumenical partners to public advocacy of policies promoted by Indigenous leaders that build long-term prosperous and harmonious lives and empower Indigenous peoples to take responsibility and deliver the changes that are needed.
Week of prayer and fasting
Assembly also resolve to call members of the Uniting Church to a week of prayer and fasting for justice for Indigenous Australians, culminating in a public prayer vigil at Parliament House Canberra to be led by the Congress Chairperson and the President.
Uniting Justice will work with Congress and UnitingCare to determine an appropriate date.
Assembly encouraged every presbytery to send at least two representatives and will invite other Christian churches to participate in the activity.
Uniting Justice will coordinate local involvement for those who cannot attend the prayer and fasting vigil in the capital.
The Rev. Niall Reid, who first suggested the week of fasting, said it should be held “not just this year but year after year until justice is done”.
Pearl Wymarra spoke passionately on behalf of her Indigenous brothers and sisters and commended Ex-President Alistair Macrae for bringing the proposal before the Assembly.
Continuing the Covenant
On the final day of business members expressed a clear intent to continue to grow the covenanting relationship with Congress.
The Covenant between Congress and the Uniting Church was signed in 1994.
It was forged in the hope that congregations of the Uniting Church would catch the vision of a new relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that would be expressed in grassroots solidarity.
Three years on from the 12th Assembly’s approval of the revised preamble to the Uniting Church’s Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First People, the 13th Assembly agreed to establish a working party to evaluate progress in the covenanting relationship.
In moving the proposal, Denise Chapman said it was important that the covenanting relationship was deeper than just words on paper.
“This agreement needs to have an impact on the actions of the councils of the church to implement the Covenant and build partnership relationships with Congress in its ministry and mission among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are striving for equal outcomes with non-Aboriginal Australians,” she said.
A question is to be added to services of ordination, induction and commissioning to challenge and enable leaders of the Uniting Church to make a public commitment to the Covenant.
The charge to newly-ordained ministers will also require those ministers to work within the Covenant.
Members of Assembly hoped those changes would help to ensure that the church witnesses to the Australian nation that it is possible to live as one people and that racism will be consigned to the past.
Adding the question to induction services will ensure that leaders make commitments at regular intervals to lead the whole church into a greater understanding and participation in the Covenant.
Uniting Church past President, the Rev. Gregor Henderson, said the decision would underscore “the Australianness of the Uniting Church”.
Young leaders challenge church and government
Professor Dutney said the leadership of young adults at the Assembly was outstanding.
“Only about 30 in number, these young members engaged in every part of the Assembly listening carefully, speaking boldly and modelling how to integrate passionate faith and action.
The Assembly affirmed the statement from the National Young Adult Leaders’ Conference, “Reconciliation People”.
“Not just a token,” said Professor Dutney, “we recognised it as a clear, inspiring representation of who we are at our best and wanted the rest of the church to see it too.”
The statement challenged the Federal Government to welcome with empathy all people who seek refuge in Australia, called for an end to the continued displacement and oppression of Aboriginal people and for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples as the First People.
The young leaders said such recognition was essential for the continued reconciliation journey for all Australians.
The statement also called for an end to domestic policies that punished already vulnerable people, such as compulsory income management in Northern Territory Indigenous communities and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
“We feel passionately about these issues and we commit ourselves to action,” the leaders vowed.
In moving that Assembly receive the statement, Rads Sukumar said it was her hope that the concepts raised would be embraced in the life of the church.
“We hope that this statement will not become a document that gets lost on websites, at the back of minutes, or is completely forgotten,” she said.
“Rather, that it will encourage, inspire and call all people in the Uniting Church to action, following the example of Jesus Christ.”
The Uniting Church will take a renewed approach to multicultural and cross-cultural ministry as it recognises there is still work to do in becoming a truly multicultural church.
A statement prepared for the Assembly, One Body, Many Members – Living Faith and Life Cross-Culturally, asks members to recognise key requirements of living in a healthy cross-cultural church community.
The statement says that to be multicultural the church must embrace theological richness and difference, be inclusive in its ministry, be committed to education and discipleship and practise affirmative action among other things.
One request that drew attention was the calling of members to value multilingual ministries by “by encouraging its ministry leaders in their initial training and continuing education to learn a second language”.
The Rev. Rronang Garrawurra, Chair of Congress, said, “We’re talking here about understanding and respecting each other in the way that we talk, the way we act and the way that we think.
“A word of encouragement to my interpreter [Howard Amery],” he continued, “because I appreciate what he does because he understands my language very well.”
‘Make friends with people of other faiths’
New study resources will be created to help Uniting Church congregations and members to develop neighbourly relations with people in Australia’s multicultural society who are shaped by other faiths.
A paper called Friendship in the Presence of Difference: Christian Witness in Multi-faith Australia will be drawn on to create these resources which will be commended to presbyteries and congregations, along with the paper, for use.
A working group will be tasked with undertaking further investigations into the relationship between baptism, confirmation, discipleship and membership.
Its work will include who should be involved in decision making and how the relationships might be reflected in the constitution, regulations and practices of the church.
Assembly asked that the group consult widely with presbyteries and congregations and prepare a report on any proposals for change to the constitution and regulations for the 14th Assembly in 2015.
Assembly also strongly encouraged congregations to hold annual covenanting services and regular affirmations of baptism through confirmation services and other reaffirmation of baptism services as a way of strengthening the understanding of baptism and discipleship among members.
MEC to be replaced
The Uniting Church’s current Ministerial Education Committee (MEC) is to be replaced by an Education for Ministry Working Group.
The new body will advise the Assembly on the standards of formation, education and training for the ministry of the word, ministry of deacon, ministry of pastor and ministry of lay preacher.
It will also be responsible for the facilitation of national consultations of the faculties of approved centres for training for ministry and synod lay education and leadership, including continuing education, professional development and supervision.
Assembly also authorised the Standing Committee to appoint a task group to consult widely across the church to review the current work of the MEC and make recommendations on how that work should be continued, reformed or discontinued.
New resources to inspire prayers for peace
Uniting Churches throughout Australia will be urged to set aside the Sunday closest to Remembrance Day, November 11, to pray for all people caught up in warfare and especially those who grieve the deaths of loved ones.
New resources will also be developed by the Assembly to help congregations and individuals to pray for peace and to offer special prayers for defence force chaplains and personnel on that day.
“We ask our Defence Force people to do things that are very hard to do,” said the Rev. Gale Hall, the Assembly’s Defence Force Chaplaincy convenor, and that made it important to support those people in prayer.
Mr Hall said chaplains and defence forces personnel “coveted” prayer to help them in their difficult circumstances. The Uniting Church had also lagged behind other denominations in embracing Defence Force Sunday in the ten years since it was proclaimed.
Defence Force personnel were “asked to cross the moral boundaries of human co-existence and bearing the trauma of war into the rest of their lives and their families so, in fact, we must pray for them,” said Rev. Dr Wes Campbell, Chair of the Assembly’s doctrine working group.
Dr Campbell said the new resources would help the church as it was called by the Prince of Peace to pray and act for peace and “love our enemies”.
He said, “This proposal asks us to treat Remembrance Day as special; but not as a day on its own, as a prompt for us to act and pray and long for peace on every Sunday and, in fact, on every day.”
With infectious energy and humour the Rev. Christine Bayliss Kelly and Bradon French used a promotional video to report on the National Christian Youth Convention (NCYC) to be hosted by Parramatta-Nepean Presbytery in January 2014.
NCYC began in 1955 as a national gathering held every two years in January. Although it moves to a different state each time, NCYC ’14 will be first to be held in Sydney for 30 years.
Ms Bayliss Kelly said the Parramatta–Nepean Presbytery covered 53% of the Sydney population, including the Blue Mountains, encompassed 19 languages, and had the largest concentration of Indigenous people in Australia.
The theme for NCYC is the word “Yuróra”, a Dharug word meaning “passionate” and provided by the local Burramattagal people especially for the occasion. “It’s the right word for us,” said Ms Bayliss Kelly.
The mission of the NCYC is to mobilise young people to experience Jesus, to act in faith, to shake the church, and beyond. Ms Bayliss Kelly said that with Yuróra, it was not just about feeling good but about walking the talk putting faith into action.
The video was shot in part at the Charles Sturt University School of Theology. It featured future church leaders responding to the question “What am I passionate about?” interspersed with images of poverty, pollution and global warming, to music from Midnight Oil.
Assembly chose Stuart McMillan as its President-elect.
Mr McMillan, the Northern Synod Moderator, will be President-elect for the next three years before he takes up the presidency in 2015.
He will succeed current President the Rev. Prof. Andrew Dutney, who took up his role during the Assembly’s opening service on July 15.
Mr McMillan said, “I’ve been deeply enriched by what my Indigenous brothers and sisters have shared with me over the past 30 years in their spirituality. I’ll need to listen carefully to them, and to the church, over the next three years to prepare me for what you have entrusted me to do.”
Mr McMillan is pastor at Living Water Uniting Church, Humpty Doo. For 12 years he was a community worker and support worker with the Northern Regional Council of Congress.
He said he had a love for Indigenous Australians, for God’s justice and equity for them, and he counted it a privilege to work alongside them in that.
In his profile for the Assembly, he said he would encourage authentic Christian community, which was counter cultural to the general directions of society and would encourage the church to connect with the deep spiritual hunger in the Australian community and to believe in the power of the resurrected Jesus to call and transform, to passionately share the things that are important to us: justice, compassion, community and the overcoming presence of Christ in people’s lives.
Solidarity with Papua
Assembly agreed to continue to express its solidarity with the people of Papua and to encourage communities within the church to engage in actions which support them.
Papua is the largest and easternmost province of Indonesia.
The Uniting Church has a longstanding partnership with the Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua, stretching back 20 years.
The Rev. Rob Williams, Moderator of the Uniting Church in South Australia, said the situation in West Papua was at a critical point. People were under serious pressure, with Indigenous Papuans under threat of becoming a minority in their own land, he said.
Since Papua was integrated into Indonesia in the 1960s there had been many allegations and documented cases of human rights abuses, said Rev. Williams. “The rising loss of life is gravely concerning.”
He said Papuans lived in uncertain times and many experienced intimidation, harassment and torture.
With rapid immigration from other parts of Indonesia, Papuans were finding themselves outnumbered and marginalised.
Seconding the proposal, the Rev. Ron Larkin, Moderator of the Uniting Church in Western Australia, said he did not know how it felt to live in fear but that “our friends in Papua live in constant threat of violence”.
Hope, access and equity
Assembly committed the Uniting Church anew to the people of remote Australia, in the belief that reconciliation will become reality, hope will replace anxiety and despair, justice and equity will build community, and everyone will have access to the services they need.
It resolved to establish a review of the ministry of pastor with a view to evaluating implementation of the assessment, educational and oversight responsibilities assumed within the regulations, and expectations regarding administration and support.
Among members of the new Assembly Standing Committee, chosen for the next three years, are Emma Davison, Zac Hatfield Dodds and Andrew Johnson from the Synod of New South Wales and the ACT.
Perth, Western Australia, will host the next meeting of the Assembly in 2015.
Professor Dutney said the Assembly had done its work with a vivid sense of the wider church, encouraged by the presence and involvement of representatives of partner churches in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, and its insightful, challenging Bible study leader, the Rev. Luna Dingayan from the Philippines.