Synod resolves to form Korean presbytery
The Synod of New South Wales and the ACT on September 27 passed by formal majority a proposal to convert its Korean Commission into a presbytery.
Presbyteries in the Uniting Church have responsibility for oversight of the church’s life and work in their region, especially for the settlement of ministers, establishment, amalgamation and disbanding of congregations, mission strategy, and support of congregational life.
The Synod’s first non-geographic presbytery was approved only after extensive discussion during its September 23-27 meeting at Newcastle University.
On Synod’s September 26 evening session a facilitation group responded to feedback submitted by table groups, which commented on the proposal when it was first presented to the plenary.
Eleven of the 45 table groups fully supported the proposal and 13 indicated general support.
“Issues like this generate uncertainty, confusion and fear,” said Tina Rendell, member of the Synod Standing Committee working group.
“That is hard to overcome with empirical data but that’s what we try to do tonight.”
She outlined the Korean churches’ lengthy relationship with the Uniting Church in Australia and the tendency among Korean ministers to meet with each other to talk about the church and their ministry due to language barriers.
This, she said, left them marginalised and sometimes unclear about Uniting Church regulations.
The Korean Commission has been in function since 2004 with similar powers to a presbytery except for selection of candidates for specified ministry and the authority to ordain.
Korean leaders had argued that a representative body for Korean churches within the Uniting Church was necessary to counter lower participation in the structures of the Synod due to language-based barriers.
Korean Commission bodies are made up of representatives of Korean congregations, Synod and presbyteries that meet bilingually with the aid of translators.
Some Synod members struggled with the notion of a migrant ethnic presbytery and argued that it was not in line with the church’s multicultural ideals.
Others argued that the specific ethnic focus empowered, educated and linked Korean churches to the Uniting Church by resourcing them and stipulating that Synod and presbytery representatives make up a percentage of its membership.
Ms Rendell spoke of her own participation in the Commission as a Synod representative and how translators in turn allowed her to participate in meetings and relationship without speaking Korean.
She said it was the only Synod group she was aware of that operated bilingually at every meeting.
Ms Rendell addressed concerns that allowing one migrant ethnic group its own presbytery would begin a trend of other ethnicities requesting a similar body.
She said that only very committed groups that seriously believed in the necessity of such a structure would consider going through the procedures the Korean Commission had undertaken.
It was estimated that Koreans spent 15 years working with Synod toward the possibility of their own presbytery. At least nine congregations with nine ordained ministers are needed to begin the consultation.
Also mandated are:
- A Pastoral Relations Committee
- A Mission Committee
- A Second Generation Committee
- 25 per cent of membership under 40
- 25 per cent of membership to be female
- Four lay people per ordained member
“Any group that decided to develop its own presbytery would have to do at least this plus anything else decided by Synod,” said Ms Rendell.
“We have a rigorous process for sifting through their motivation and ensuring they understand the church. We also make them answer some difficult questions.”
She challenged Synod to reflect on how many of the existing presbyteries were run as conscientiously and said that, while the church overall was experiencing declining membership, the Korean church in Australia was experiencing strong growth.
“We’ve asked them to do a lot of things we haven’t been able to do ourselves,” she said.
“They’ve done a very good job at trying to tick all the boxes and, when they succeed, do we still turn around and say, ‘No, we don’t trust you’?”
She asked whether the church as a whole could be adapting some of the inclusive strategies used by the Korean Commission and invited anyone with concerns about an insular Korean structure to join in order to allay their fears.
“We believe we are at a point where we have a number of choices,” said Ms Rendell.
“We can be wedded to the past or we could be a bit smart about how to live in this multicultural society that is not going away.”
She argued that increased commitment to the Uniting Church was evident in Korean churches’ contributions to Living is Giving and UnitingWorld.
Thirteen table groups asked questions on the theme of women in leadership and requested details of how a Korean presbytery would intentionally support pathways for women in ministry.
Executive Secretary of the Commission, the Rev. Kisoo Jang, said there were currently a number of female lay leaders within the commission and a long-term female treasurer who had recently been promoted to Deputy Chairperson.
Deputy Chairperson Kum Ran Chung later commented from the Synod floor with the assistance of a translator.
She spoke of the 20 years she’d lived in Australia and her difficulty in learning English.
“Before I became a member of the Korean Commission I had little understanding of the Uniting Church but now I have learned a lot,” she said.
“The Korean Commission has encouraged lay women like me.”
She then asked Synod to help allow Korean church members to contribute in their full capacity.
“What we need now is not your worry but your prayer,” she said.
Another key theme arising from table group feedback was concern about a loss of multiculturalism in geographic presbyteries if a Korean presbytery was to be approved.
Tina Rendell said that was an issue continually wrestled with. The Korean Commission included representatives of each geographic presbytery that Korean churches existed within and, where presbyteries were willing, the Commission had offered to report annually through those structures.
They also linked back into the church by attending such events as Myall Creek memorials and had expressed interest in twinning with rural congregations.
The proposal for a Korean presbytery included a clause requiring it to be reviewed no later than the year 2020 and, as with all presbyteries, Synod retained the authority to dissolve it at any time following consultation.
Clarification was also sought on the Korean practice of lifetime tenure for ministers. The Facilitation Group confirmed that it was a common practice that could occur within Uniting Church structures but presbyteries also had power to terminate lifetime tenures if deemed necessary.
Clive Pearson, Principal of the United Theological College, spoke about the work that had been done to educate Korean churches about the Uniting Church’s formation and Basis of Union. He noted orientation days undertaken by Korean churches that were interested in joining the Uniting Church and said that UTC was considering a Korean language Bachelor of Theology.
Table groups also asked, What happens if the Synod says no?
Christine Bayliss Kelly from the Facilitation Group said there would be a great sense of disappointment within the Commission.
“We embarked on this Synod focused on new and risky paths,” she said.
“The Korean Commission entered on a new and risky path many years ago. They take us to new places outside our comfort zones. Are the words on the front of our papers just that: words?”
Comments from the floor
A question from the floor from a first generation Korean migrant also touched on the theme of discomfort, criticising the Commission for not having any ordained females within its numbers and wondering about the consequences if a Korean presbytery was given the power to ordain.
He said that if Korean churches in the Commission were ready to accept the radical theology of the Uniting Church they may need to experience discomfort in order to belong as one body.
Holly Wright from the Riverina Presbytery said the proposal was bigger than Korean culture or presbytery structures.
“If someone feels marginalised they shouldn’t create their own presbytery; the whole church should change to include them. It’s not up to them to change.”
The Rev. Niall Reid, former Moderator, spoke of his own membership within the Commission and the difficulties in doing something as personal as worship in a language that you struggle with.
“In the Korean Commission I have experienced people who are delighted to be part of the Uniting Church,” he said.
The Rev. Alimoni Tapueluelu of the Parramatta-Nepean Presbytery spoke of his journey as a Tongan and the challenge of being in a strange land. He objected to comparisons between Tongan and Korean ethnic groups and said the Tonga Parish had worked hard to encourage members to work within the presbyteries they were part of in order to be in multi- and cross-cultural ministry with the wider Uniting Church.
He asked, “Is this the new and risky way we are embarking on, one where any ethnic group can become separate?”
Comments continued in the morning session of the Synod meeting’s final day.
Synod members spoke of the two-way responsibility with multicultural groups and the importance of making an effort to understand different cultures.
It was also noted that a Korean Presbytery might operate well as a stepping stone which might not be necessary in the future, depending on migration patterns and second generation language skills.
Arthur Krust from the Ku-ring-gai Presbytery reflected on the proposal in relation to Uniting Church history. He said that as someone who voted on the new and risky path of forming the Uniting Church 34 years ago he was comfortable with the uncertainties involved with making change.
“I’m delighted we’re an open, generous and inclusive church — or at least we say we are,” he said.
He described the Korean prayer and devotional lives as energetic and of “the highest calibre”, reminded Synod members of Australia’s significant migrant history and asked them to consider at all times what Jesus would do when questioning how to welcome people.
“I think this proposal is about giving space and permission to Koreans,” said the Rev. ’Oto Faiva of the Macquarie Darling Presbytery.
“It is also about trust. We have enough Synod staff involved to work as a check-point to our theology. This proposal helped me ask the question: What does it mean to be Uniting? For me, to be in the Uniting Church means being in a church that isn’t scared to do hard things.”
The Rev. Ki Duk Hwang from the Korean Commission had the final comment from the floor. Without the use of a translator, he spoke of his ability to form basic sentences in English and of the frustrations he had experienced when attempting to build relationships and contribute to English-speaking church communities.
He recalled the frustrations of 20 years ago, when he first arrived in Australia, when all he could say during church was “Hello” and “How are you?”
He said he wanted to share more but was unable and thus spent two hours listening to words that he did not understand.
“I wanted to be like you,” he said, “I wanted to be a bird, not a bird in a cage.”
A version of the proposal with amendments, including provisions for Korean language in some publications, could not find consensus but was passed by formal majority.