Reflections on the 15th UCA Assembly

Reflections on the 15th UCA Assembly

Sunday 22th July – 9am Worship

Sermon Series: Winter Reflections

Theme: Reflection on the UCA 15th Assembly

Bible Reading: Ephesians 2:1-21

Preacher: Rev Phil Swain


Today we are going to be doing some reflecting on the passage we have just heard from Ephesians as well as briefly looking at some of the issues and decisions from the recent Uniting Church 15th Assembly.

To begin with I am not going to assume that you all know what Assembly is or how the Uniting Church works … so to begin with I am going to give you a 3-minute introduction to the different governing bodies of the Uniting Church.

The Uniting Church is an inter-conciliar church – ie we have a number of different councils – from our local Church Council to Presbytery (which is the regional body), Synod (State body) and Assembly (national body).  Many people think that this is a hierarchy … where Assembly is the big boss and can tell everybody what they need to do … but the Uniting Church was not set up that way.  Instead in the Uniting Church we see that these different Councils are all on the same level … but with different roles, tasks and responsibilities.

Today we are reflecting on Assembly – which is our national body.  Assembly has a formal meeting once every three years and it has particular things that it pays attention to – such as worship resources and liturgies.  Assembly also considers ideas or policies of ways in which we as a church participate with public life – such as what is the church’s responses to domestic violence (as we will hear about soon).  And lastly Assembly is where formal relationships or partnership with other national councils take place – such as our relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

Assembly does a lot of work all the time – but it only formally meets as a council once every three years … and it met two weeks ago in the Box Hill Town Hall in Victoria.  This week long meeting included worship, input, discussions and decision making.  Quite a few things happened at that meeting such as addressing environment issues, responding to the Korea peace process, affirming disability access for our churches, the heartache facing our rural communities at this time and the installation of Dr Deidre Palmer as the next president of the Uniting Church. I don’t have time to touch on these or other things that happened during the meeting.  If you are interested, you can go to the assembly website and read all about it.

Instead I want to briefly touch on three topics – including the more contentious issue of marriage equality.

The first is that the Uniting Church 15th Assembly adopted a statement that commits the Uniting Church to repudiate all teaching and theologies that justify domestic violence.  The assembly heard emotional testimony from some of those affected by domestic violence and acknowledged that in the past the church has failed some people in the way we responded.  However, it was noted with hope and encouragement that many areas of the Church are now already doing some great work to combat domestic violence but it was felt that by making this statement the Uniting church was committing itself to continue to stand against the injustice of domestic violence and be a voice that calls for liberation and life.

How does it make you feel that our church has done this?

The next issue is one that I will admit that I am not an expert in at all – I just don’t know enough, but I will share what the Uniting Church Assembly decided in relation to the First People’s of our nation.

The Uniting Church 15th Assembly has affirmed that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in Australia.  In this context, Sovereignty is understood by the First Peoples as “a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples.”  In simple terms, we are affirming that they are the traditional owners and custodians of the land.

This motion was brought to the Assembly by the outgoing president Stuart McMillian, who has had journeyed with the First people on this issue for many years.  He hoped that in making this resolution, Assembly was giving moral leadership to our nation and hoped that it would speak into the national debate on this issue.  It was also an affirmation of the continuing relationship that the UAICC (Congress) has had with the Uniting Church – right from our conception in 1977, Congress has had this strong relationship with our church.

How does it resolution make you feel about our church?

But I guess all the talk before the Assembly was focused around one particular issue – how would the Uniting Church respond to the changing of the Marriage Act from a marriage being between a man and a woman to being between two persons.   This is not a new debate for the Uniting Church – who has been having this difficult conversation for over 30 years.

As it was mentioned in church last week, The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church has agreed to hold two equal and distinct views on marriage to honour the diversity of Christian belief among its members – resolving to allow its ministers the freedom to conduct or to refuse to conduct same-gender marriages.

What does that even mean?  Rev Dr Andrew Dutney, professor of theology, explains it like this:

The Uniting Church in Australia did indeed make decisions that will allow ministers to conduct same-sex marriages. But it also reinforced the rights of ministers and congregations who remain committed to the traditional understanding of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.

So … did the Uniting Church just do its usual “we won’t make a decision but rather push it back to the ministers and congregations to decide”.   In a sense, yes because Assembly is clearly not telling us what to do.  Each minister and each congregation can decide how to respond to a request for a same gender marriage.  Andrew Dutney again wanted to make this perfectly clear…

No minister will have to conduct same-sex marriages if it conflicts with their beliefs. No congregation will have to make its property available for same-sex weddings if they don’t believe gay marriage is valid for Christians. And in the same way, a minister or congregation can offer same-sex marriages if it sits comfortably with their beliefs.  

In fact, Dutney argues that on a practical level – it is very unlikely that many ministers and congregations will see any difference in the teaching and practices that they are used to.

But, I need to add … the Assembly didn’t just deflect the decision … they did actually make quite a profound decision.  They affirmed both views of marriage.  In other words – the Uniting Church now has TWO statement on marriage which they see as equal, and both biblically and theologically valid.

Just on a tangent for a moment – I know that some people will have a problem with this line – that we can have two different positions that are both biblical valid.  I have heard people say to me over the past month, “But the bible is very clear.”  I want to affirm that all people involved in this discussion have relied heavily on the Bible, but the reality is that different people place different weight on different parts of the Bible.    We might want to argue that our interpretation or implementation of scripture is more correct – but it is wrong to say that those who think differently to us are not being Biblical.  Both these statements that the Uniting church have on marriage are deeply rooted in the bible and come from much theological discussion and prayerful discerning.

But how can we as a denomination have two mutually exclusive but both equally valid positions on Marriage????  Graham Perry, our presbytery minister, in his reflection on all of this asked the question … “Is the Uniting Church really such a paradox?”  The short answer is … yes.

The Uniting Church was formed in 1977 from three different denominations – the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians and the Methodists.  At Union, did these three church have completely the same interpretations of scripture and the same theological beliefs?  No.  Actually they have some significant differences on key spiritual and theological issues such as baptism and our understanding of Communion.

Yet, the founders of the Uniting Church who wrote the Basis of Union saw that it was more important to focus on the centrality of Jesus and the mission of God that was bringing these denominations together than to make everyone in this new Uniting Church have the same theological beliefs on baptism.  Actually if they insisted on a single statement on baptism and communion we probably wouldn’t have had union.  Instead – the writers of the Basis of Union said that both the Westminster Confessions and the Wesley’s Forty-Four sermons would be affirmed as the Uniting Church beliefs – even though in many places they differ and are mutually exclusive.

So this idea is built into our DNA – that we are a church of diversity … different people from different backgrounds and with different ways of interpreting the bible and different beliefs and theologies … and yet we somehow God has successfully brought us together to work on God’s mission and ministry.

And this is what Paul was trying to address in our bible reading today from Ephesians.  The early church was a mixture of very different people – in particular you had the people who had been brought up in the Jewish religion and all that came with that, and those who were Gentile and brought up under other religions … or no religion at all … and yet now they had all discovered faith in Jesus.  And when you read the New Testament you see how many times the early church gets tripped up by insisting that people had to believe a certain idea or perform a certain practice.    Paul hinted verses 11 and 12 to the classic “to C or not to C” debate.  Did Paul in this letter to the Ephesians insist that they all believe the same thing … no, he told them to focus on the more important thing that brought them together in the first place … JESUS.

In the first half of our reading Paul hammers the point that it is not our works (or even our beliefs) that saves us … but our faith in Jesus.  It is all about Jesus.  And through our faith in Jesus, God has brought us together (v14)  so we can do the ministry and mission that he has prepared for us to do (v12).  Paul says rather than focusing on the differences, he uses terms like we are “members of God’s household” with Jesus himself being our cornerstone.  It is all about Jesus.

What does this mean for TUC?  What will be the practical implications of these assembly decisions about marriage for us as a congregation here at Turramurra?

If we are going to work through this issue I would like to see two things happen:

  • If we are going to talk about this that we have these conversations respectfully and graciously. We need to understand that we are a church of the full range of opinions, experiences and theological beliefs and we will not all agree – so let us not shut people down or be swift to judge, but rather be respectful and gracious.
  • I will be asking Church Council at our next meeting to consider how we might move forward. If you would like your voice to be part of that discussion, please have a chat with any of the members of church council and they can bring your points to the meeting.

And of course I am always happy to have a chat with you too.  I was reminded during my time off that I have a passion for healthy spiritual discussions.  Just give me a call or email and we can arrange a time to talk through this.

How are we going with this?  One last point to finish…

I was at Yamba – my first ministry placement – in 2003, which some may remember was when the assembly addressed faith and sexuality in relation to ordination.  Even though the issue has no direct impact on our congregation … it distracted us for about 9 months.  For 9 months we invested so much time and energy and conversations and heartache into it … and without realising, we stopped doing the mission of God for those 9 months.  All of our vision just came to a halt.  If I was a more experienced minister I would have realised what was happening … and I really don’t want to make the same mistake this time.

This issue of same gender marriage is important … and yes we need to work through this … but I am not going to let us get distracted by it to the point that we lose focus on what God is calling us to do.  We have a great Vision here at TUC and currently are riding a wonderful wave of momentum.  We are just about to see the fruit of 5 great mission projects over the next 6-12 months and begin work on the next 5 projects.  If we are going to invest time and emotional energy into something … let’s invest it into the thing that we all are united on … Jesus and on what God is doing in our church.

That was Paul’s point to the Ephesians.  Don’t get distracted by debates about circumcision, but rather focus on Jesus and the good works that God is preparing for us to do.  We are, and always will be a JESUScentric church.  We are, and always will be, a church that can work alongside people who may think differently to us because we are working together on something greater – God’s mission here at Turramurra.