Partnering Women for Change: UnitingWorld Pacific Forum

Written by General Secretary Colleen Geyer

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen …

I bring you greetings from the Uniting Church in Australia, and also from our President, Mr Stuart McMillan.

Our dedication to working ecumenically, and with our Partner Churches in the Pacific, is at the heart of who we are as the Uniting Church, as we work together to serve in, and build communities that flourish. In keeping with this, I acknowledge the strength of the partnership between the Uniting Church and the Methodist Church in Fiji. Together, we have a shared history and our partnership has been richly rewarding for over 100 years now. We are very grateful too for the support that the Methodist Church in Fiji offers to our UnitingWorld Pacific office. Following the recent devastation in the wake of Cyclone Winston here in Fiji, the Uniting Church, through UnitingWorld (the overseas Partnerships Agency of the Uniting Church in Australia), raised over $450 000 to support relief and development work. This is an indication of the strength and value of this Partnership and shared history by the members on the Uniting Church.

Today and tomorrow it is my great honour and privilege to be with you at this Pacific Forum, where we will have the opportunity to learn and share together about the important topic of gender equality, and the impact that commitment to human dignity can have on communities and families.

I have only been the Assembly General Secretary of the Uniting Church since January this year, so I’m new! I am only the 5th person to have served in this national role in the almost 40 years since the Uniting Church began; and only the first woman and the first layperson. The Uniting Church has been committed to gender equity since it was formed, even mandating that for the first three years of its life that there had to be gender balance in the membership of its committees. Our Church has also encouraged women to serve in any of the roles of the Church, including as Ministers and Deacons, and also in any of the leadership roles. An example of this is that after June, four out of our six Synod (our state councils) Moderators will be women; and our President-elect is a lay woman and current Moderator of the South Australian Synod, Dr Deidre Palmer.

In 1990, a landmark conference was held in the Uniting Church, “The Church Made Whole”. This conference brought together members of our Church interested in progressing towards a more inclusive Church, where gender equality was given priority. This conference led to the establishment of the National Assembly Commission on Women and Men; which later became the Assembly Gospel and Gender Unit. Although this unit no longer exists in the Assembly, the work of these two bodies developed key processes for us – The Code of Ethics for Ministry Practice, and the Sexual Misconduct Complaints procedures. They also developed statements about the Church being a safe place for all, resources concerning the use of inclusive language, among others.

Two weeks ago – and 26 years later, 400 women met in Adelaide in Australia for the Uniting Women 2016 conference to share stories of hope. One of the significant panels at that event looked at an international perspective on hope with partners and team members of UnitingWorld. Rev Maleta Rumaroti (Secretary for Mission, from Kiribati Uniting Church) shared her own journey of conviction re her vocation, and the barriers she faced to achieving this because of her gender. Her story of perseverance and hope was inspirational. In her role, Rev Rumaroti oversees the mission of the Church including the work of Bishops, Ministers and Pastors serving in the Church. The Uniting Church in Kiribati is one of the most Gender Balanced churches in the Pacific with close to equal numbers of women and men Ministers serving in congregations across the Island Nation. Clearly we all have a lot to learn from Kiribati.

In the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union, our founding document, it says that the “Uniting Church... will provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them… [and that it] will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to recognise among its members women and men called of God to preach the Gospel, to lead the people in worship, to care for the flock, to share in government and to serve those in need in the world.” (par 14)

Therefore, our understanding of all people as made in the image of God also recognises the importance of women in leadership, just as God’s grace is for all people. When we share in ministry and leadership, what we bring together, our shared gifts and skills contributes to a more whole community.

We know that having women leaders in communities is good for the economy. Studies[i] have shown this, not only women in leadership positions, but more generally having more women employed leads to inclusive economic growth. An OECD Report released in March this year has shown that bridging the gender divide and moving towards workforce participation parity could boost global GDP by 12% in the next 20 years – a staggering statistic.

I know that even with our commitment to it, we struggle for gender equality in the Church, just as our societies struggle to work towards gender equity in the workforce. Our shared commitment in the church to the Bible is important. However, we know at times, the stories and instructions contained in the Bible have been used to create unequal situations between women and men, and often within families. Questioning long-held assumptions is a healthy thing to do. A critical interpretation of the Bible, understanding the cultural and historical contexts, is very important, as we seek to be guided by it in our contemporary lives. Cliff, your introduction to the resource we are celebrating and launching at this forum, is very helpful in this respect. It helps to situate this important issue in the context of the Pacific culture and narrative; as well as providing the foundations for reading the Bible through the lens of our belief that we are all unique and valued, created in God’s image.

The opposite of this perspective, that of inequality, inequality which is often seen as given authority by Christian teaching and certain parts of the Bible, can result in tension and family violence. The portrayal of women in negative ways –– “as an incomplete and damaged human being; as intellectually and morally deficient; and as ruled more by her emotions, appetites and bodily desires” - is not in keeping with the foundation of equality of women and men, and does not preserve the human rights of women.

A 2012 statement for the Australian Aid program for Ending Violence against Women says that, “Violence against women, and intimidation of violence, is an abuse of women’s human rights. It limits women’s participation in social, political and economic life. This significantly impacts on development outcomes, affecting families and communities and placing significant strains on health care, social services and policing and justice systems.”

The belief of equality and dignity of all people does not hold within it a space for discrimination and violence on the basis of gender.

Pacific nations have strong cultural identities; and the power of UnitingWorld’s Partnering Women for Change program is that it has been developed from within the Pacific, in conversation and consultation with Pacific women. This Program is developed with the Gender Equality Theological Resources as a foundation, drafted from the perspective of a Pacific theologian. Our forum today and tomorrow, “Bridging the Gap: Gender Equality, Human Rights and Churches Learning and Sharing” will also give us an opportunity to explore the intersections between culture, human rights and our belief systems. This conversation, in my view, will also influence the Uniting Church in Australia, and in turn, the communities in which we serve there. Our conversations, and our learnings and insight will influence what we are able to do together.

As I said earlier, partnerships and relationships are so important. UnitingWorld is an accredited agency with DFAT and has a long history of working with DFAT both through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program as well as the Church Partnership Program in both PNG and Vanuatu. UnitingWorld is excited to now broaden this partnership to supporting DFAT’s Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative. We see today’s initiative as another vital link in progressing this work. We value this partnership, and the impact that it has had, and will continue to have on our work in UnitingWorld, and in the communities in the Pacific where, alongside our partners, we work to enhance and empower communities, promote justice and equality, so that communities can be connected for life, and be healthy and well-resourced.

Bringing about change in such an important area as gender equality, for the benefit of the whole community, takes a collective effort. In Fiji and the Pacific, Churches and the peoples of this region are key partners in this effort. While recognising and respecting local cultures, working towards a more inclusive model of participation and leadership will promote and resource communities to prosper and flourish in the years ahead.

This speech was delivered on the opening day of the Bridging the Gap: Gender Equality, Human Rights and Churches Learning and Sharing Fourm in Suva, Fiji on 12 May 2016.