A report on the 15th Assembly meeting of the Uniting Church in Australia by Shirley Bowers

The newly-installed President of the Uniting Church, Dr Deidre Palmer,  compared the Assembly meeting to a marathon: that there was a time of preparation and a time of sustaining the energy to complete the race.  The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church was very much a marathon.  The meeting went from 9am to 9pm most days, and from Sunday 8 July to Saturday 14 July.  Part of the preparation was in reading the many reports and proposals that would be presented at the meeting.  Then, once the meeting started – long days, more proposals and long discussions – often emotional or speakers having opposing views to other speakers – made the idea of a continuing marathon a very obvious image.   The idea from the Basis of Union that we are always on the Way also came to my mind a number of times in this meeting and in thinking about this meeting afterwards.  There is likely to be further “marathons” as the various proposals that were accepted are put into action.

This meeting was a hard meeting in some ways – however with over 300  elected members involved in the meeting there was also someone to talk to in the breaks.  I met people that I knew slightly – some from the Vic/Tas Synod meeting last year and some from my travels around Australia.  There were also many new people to meet.  Image sitting at a table where a number of people came from Perth – myself from Tasmania and the others from Western Australia.  There was a guide dog at the meeting – named Wallace – who loved food, was very quiet but such a help to Bruce.  I met a number of people from the Adelaide College of Divinity – real people that before had only been names of the various lecturers.  It was an opportunity to hear about other churches in Australia, it was a time to see how others were coping with the meeting, and a time to just share stories.  A number of songs/hymns were sung during this meeting.  One was written by David Busch for the anniversary of the Uniting Church.  The Wesley College (Melbourne) Choir sang a number of songs on Saturday morning including “For you deep stillness of the silent inland”.  The final hymn sung was “Guide me O you great Redeemer” which was obviously well known and sung very loudly even in the big room we were meeting in.

Part of my preparation for this meeting was to knit scarves and beanies for the people attending this meeting, as many come from northern or tropical climates. I had learnt knitting from books about two weeks before the Synod meeting last year.  I came back and encouraged people around me and across the state of Tasmania to knit for Assembly as well.  There were over 50 articles provided from Tasmania to the Assembly meeting (Rohan tells me he took at least eight shopping bags full from Tasmania).  The scarves and beanies were received with surprise and pleasure.  I saw a number of articles being worn which I recognised, and when I spoke to some of the wearers they wanted to send their thanks back to the makers of the articles.  I knitted during this meeting and by the end of the meeting had completed one 10 inch square and was three quarters of the way through a second one.  Perhaps this shows how sustaining the activity of knitting was for the duration of this meeting.

The breaks were also a time to visit the Assembly agency displays. Uniting Church agencies such as Frontier Services, Uniting World, the environmental unit and Uniting (Care) had displays with people happy to talk and often were giving away things – like an Akubra Hat Stick Pin from the Frontier Services stand and a bracelet made overseas at the Uniting World stand.  Mediacom had an area as well and many people took advantage of this to look at the books, purchase a few and then later wonder how they were going to get the books home.

An important part of the Assembly meeting was the times of worship. There was a worship time every morning, with worship led by a different Synod each day.  There was a communion service on Monday morning and again on Saturday morning.  Two people led a Bible study each morning – Rev Dr Seforosa Carroll and Rev James Bhagwan – who sat on a mat similar to ones used in places like Tonga for the sharing of stories.

The decision making process was a long process for some of the proposals and very quick for others. For some the movers and seconders spoke and a decision could be reached immediately.  For other proposals there were questions and statements from the floor and then a decision.  However for a couple of the proposals there was a number of discussions on the floor of the meeting, as well as 20 working groups (meeting at the same time) to also consider and discuss the proposals and feed their discussions back to a facilitation committee who reported back on the results to the floor of the meeting, often giving the meeting a suggested way forward based on the comments they had received.

There were many decisions made during this meeting. The next President Elect is Sharon Hollis who is currently Moderator of the Vic/Tas Synod.   The makeup of the Assembly Standing Committee for the next three years was made – there was no Tasmanians elected.    A couple of the proposals presented from the Congress were accepted – A Day of Mourning, to be held on the Sunday before the 26 January, and the recognition of the First Peoples as Sovereign.   A proposal asking for support for the Roman Catholic Church Plenary Council to be held in 2020 was accepted.  A proposal around the support and encouragement between North and South Korea was also accepted.

The major decision and the one that started Monday morning and was not decided on until Friday night was the many proposals concerning same gender marriage. There had been proposals made prior to the Assembly meeting for and against, along with requests for concurrence (which is to have the matter discussed by all Synods and Presbyteries and having to have a number of them accept the proposal before it can be accepted overall).  After many discussions on the floor  of the meeting and in small working groups, proposals started to come through about having two marriage statements standing side by side.  After even more discussions, one of these proposals was accepted.  This proposal has the 1997 statement on marriage – and a new one with one phrase changed to reflect the marriage of same gender couples.  This proposal allows people to accept which ever statement of marriage that they wish to believe.  The proposal also has a statement about the diversity within the Uniting Church and this decision is one more example of this diversity that is part of the Uniting Church.  Ministers will be able to conduct same gender marriages or refuse to conduct – depending on their religious beliefs.  Church Councils will be able to allow or refuse the use of their properties for a same gender marriage.

This Assembly Meeting was a marathon is many ways. The meeting and the breaks had times of talking and support and times when there seemed to be many arguments and many ideas being presented.  However I am also aware that the Assembly meeting was one week – there have been many things that had happened in my life before this meeting and there will be many things to happen after this meeting.  Thank you to the Longford Congregation for my nomination and their support of me before, during and after the meeting.

I am now having down time – which I suspect that every member of this Assembly meeting is having in one form or another. For me this involves visiting my brother in Chinchilla (Qld) and then going onto Winton (Qld) to prepare dinosaur bones in a laboratory before returning to Tasmania.