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Social issues, gays in ministry hot topics at Australian Uniting Church Assembly

By Paul Titus

To help monitor human rights abuses in the Asia-Pacific region and not to establish a national doctrine at this time in relation to homosexual people in leadership were among the decisions the Uniting Church of Australia (UCA) reached at its 11th national assembly in early July.

The Assembly also inducted its current president Rev Gregor Henderson and elected its next president Rev Alistair Macrae. Alistair is principal of the Centre for Theology and Ministry for the Victoria and Tasmania synod.

Methodist Church of NZ president Rev Dr John Salmon says some Kiwi Methodists will be familiar with Gregor from the time he served as general secretary of the UCA. The UCA brings together the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches of Australia and the Congregational Union of Australia.

John attended the UCA Assembly. He was impressed by the attention it received from the media and the fact that both Gregor and out-going president Rev Dr Dean Drayton gave addresses that raised questions about how government policies treat people.

“Churches in Australia have a strongly perceived social role. In this way they share a closer cultural affinity to churches in the United States than we do.

“I was also impressed by the large contingent of people at the assembly representing overseas churches and the effort that was made to relate the issues of life in Australia to life in the world’s wider church. The Assembly had a strong sense of world connection whereas Methodist Conference here tends to be more insular.”

Guests included the president of the Irish Methodist Church, and representatives from the United Church of Canada, South Africa, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

In other ways, however, John believes the UCA is following a path the Methodist Church of NZ has already advanced along. A contingent of Aborigine and Pacific Peoples attended Assembly but there is still growing awareness of the need for bicultural and multicultural mechanisms in Australian churches and society.

“Decisions at Assembly were primarily by consensus. Their system does allow for a formal vote if required, and one took place after the debate on sexuality. To gain an indication of opinion in consensus decisions they use a system of orange and blue cards, which was effective.

“We will probably use this system at Conference. The Australian use of coloured cards was picked up by the World Council of Churches but the general approach was based on the consensus decision making New Zealand Methodists developed in the 1980s,” John says.

Among the steps Assembly took was a commitment to support international human rights instruments and to monitor and advocate for human rights in areas like the Philippines and West Papua. The statement commits the UCA to monitor the Australian government’s performance in regards to human rights.

A more divisive issue at the Assembly was whether to establish a doctrinal position that would commit the national church to a policy on the ordination of gays and lesbians. Currently the policy is that congregations and presbyteries can decide on a case-by-case basis whether to ordain and call people in same-gender relationships.

When Assembly began there were calls from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum for the entire church to establish a uniform policy: either to openly accept homosexuals in leadership or to forbid them. After three days of debate it was decided by a vote of 173-48 to maintain the status quo. This was clarified in stating that parishes would not be forced to accept a minister in a same-gender relationship nor would any parish wishing to call such a person be prevented from doing so.

The decision may have some fallout for the UCA. After the Assembly two evangelical groupings with the church, the Evangelical Members of the Uniting Church (EMU) and the Reforming Alliance announced they will combine to form a new Assembly of Confessing Congregations.

The proposed group's name and charter suggests it will try to set up parallel structures in the Uniting Church, which is not permitted. The UCA president has sought a meeting with the leaders of the EMU and Reforming Alliance to clarify their intentions but they have refused on the grounds that they have not yet prepared to enter into negotiations.