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Uniting Church in Australia Assembly - News
Thursday, 06 July 2006

Retiring President's address

I want to thank God and the Uniting Church for three amazing years in which my dependence upon our Lord Jesus Christ has deepened, I have had to grow in my understanding of discipleship nationally and internationally, and I have known the privilege of serving this great Uniting Church.

Recently I had my car serviced. When the consultant at the front desk gave me my service ticket, I turned it over and the number was “84”. Not again!  For the first few months of this triennium the one issue of sexuality encapsulated in Proposal 84 dominated all correspondence and thought as we attempted to work through how to responsibly be faithful to the last Assembly and the other Councils of the Church.  Slowly it became plain, that this was not only about the presenting issue of sexuality, it was also most definitely about the nature of the Uniting Church.  Despite what some wanted, the 10th Assembly overwhelmingly insisted on leaving the responsibility of ordination to the Presbyteries.  The Assembly called upon the Church to live by the governance of its Basis of Union.  The Basis of Union also calls us to live with the diversity of our partial views of mission and faith as together we work through to the truth Christ has for us to discover as a people.   In the last two years I have seen people growing into our Basis of Union, and refusing to accept a Basis of Division.  Christ calls us to live towards His future as a reconciling people, the Uniting Church, offering reconciliation and renewal in a fragmented society. 

This last triennium has seen the deaths of our first President Rev Dr Davis McCaughey, the Rev Dr Geoff Barnes, and the Rev Dr Ian Gillman, each members of the Joint Commission on Church Union Planning Committee, and as well our fifth President Sir Ronald Wilson.  We are losing our founding fathers.  How thrilled they would have been to be present at the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre Brazil, and see the World Church following the path emblazoned in the Basis of Union.  One of the most significant decisions of the WCC was to call all the Churches of the World to consider the document “Called to be One Church” to give priority to the questions of unity, baptism, catholicity and prayer.  In addition the WCC accepted into its Constitution that its meetings be conducted by Consensus meeting procedures, and asked our 7th President Jill Tabbart to guide their implementation.  The Spirit of Christ is leading the whole Church into new paths.  I was thrilled to see how the UCA is acknowledged by so many Churches throughout the world for the lead we are seen to be taking in this adventure of reconciliation and mission, and proud of the recognition given to the President Gregor Henderson for his service to the International Church.

Such a farewell address as this helps recall so many significant times.  Without the call of God to this office I would never have sat in the sand with Aboriginal friends at Millingimbi, stood on the tsunami devastated plains of the city of Banda Aceh, been at a memorial service on Bali, or have seen the human destruction let loose by religious hatred in Ambon.  I would never have visited detention centres, spoken to ministers of the crown, pleaded for the release of asylum seekers, or cried as they offered thanks to God for their release. I would never have ventured into the lion’s den of the senate inquiry into Industrial Relations with Rev Dr Anne Wansborough, or stood with Muslim friends alongside the burnt out Church Hall at Auburn.  These events and so many more have indelibly impressed the issues of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and human rights upon me in new and fuller ways.

There is one deep bass note that stays with me.  In 2004 I attended the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meeting and had the experience of visiting the Elminah slave castle on the coast near Accra Ghana.  There from the 16th to the 19th Century 15 million slaves were gathered in the castles along the coast before they were sent on boats to South America, North America, and Dutch East India, half to die before they reached their destination.  These castles are like white sepulchers, beautiful on the outside but stained with the awful violence of centuries of horror within.  I was partly prepared for this, for we are beginning to own up to the violence our forbears inflicted upon Aboriginal people in this land.  What cauterized the soul, one’s very being, was being taken to the Reformed Church meeting room, built right over the heads of the slaves.  There the words of Psalm 132 v13 were carved in the Lintel.  “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his habitation:” There the Reformed Church met, not for one decade, but nearly three centuries.  How could they have been so blind to the way of Christ?  But then came the question that has haunted us since that day.  What is it that we are blind to now?

The Christians amongst the poor are saying it louder and louder to Christians in the West.  How can you say yes to Jesus for your own individual Christian lives, live among the wealthy 20% of the world, and not hear the call of Jesus to care for the poor of the world.  Millions live in misery because of debt slavery, with nations paying off enormous loans to the West, and impoverishing their own people.  Indonesia pays 9 cents in every dollar to pay off debt, and only 1 cent for health and 1 cent for education. At the least they are saying we should get serious about the millennial goals to halve the number of children in poverty.

I would like to see a copy of the 1977 Statement to the Nation presented at the inauguration of the Uniting Church framed in the entry way of each of our congregations.  I want to highlight six affirmations from this prophetic statement even more relevant now than then.

First,“We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and the poor.” What a great nation this is, and what a great society we have here.  Yet thirty years on we see how enmeshed and compliant as a church we are with those whose gospel is that if the rich get richer, all the rest will be a little better off.  For too many of our politicians the market is God.  Budget after budget of this government has had a preferential option for the rich.  At least 10% of our population are trapped in poverty, and millions if not billions elsewhere in the world are sacrificed on the altar of this market economy. 

Secondly, and pointedly“We affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgement the policies and actions of all nations must pass.  We realize that this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day.” In the last three years I have found that in your name I have had to speak out on issues that have brought us into conflict with some of our nation’s leaders. 

Thirdly, in particular,“We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.” There are not enough voices demanding that as a nation we face the big issues which will not go away - sufficient fresh water, a sustainable environment in the city and country, alternative energy sources ready before oil reaches $150 a barrel, food for all.  With a concerted effort we could make poverty history, but instead the refrain is consume, consume, consume, with little concern for the tomorrows of our children and grandchildren.  

Fourthly it emphasizes, “We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being.”

Some human rights are negotiable in Australia.  Aboriginals, asylum seekers, the poor, and now Papuans.  Anti-terrorist laws have traded away basic rights before the law.  The government has abrogated our international obligations to asylum seekers. It has turned its face from David Hicks. Thank God for those within political parties who refuse to accept the excesses of these decisions. 

Fifthly a clarion call for truth and justice. “We affirm …the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice.” There is abroad in Australia a neo conservative ridiculing of what is dismissed as ‘politically correct.’  But what is dismissed is careful and responsible talk about truth and values, identity, diversity and gender. Education and art are relentlessly critiqued.  Only the field of economics seems above suspicion.  In this discussion too often assertion has taken the place of truth, and serial ignorance the place of responsibility.   Three years ago retiring President James Haire prophetically protested our leaders ‘serial ignorance’ of weapons of mass destruction and children overboard. ‘Truth’ he said, ‘Is the lifeblood of democracy’.  Three years on, and the ignorance of Australians left in detention has been the prelude to what seems the most serious case of all, our leaders awareness of the dealings of the Australian Wheat Board.  With dreadful irony cereal ignorance shows what happens when serial ignorance takes the place of truth and justice.  

Finally a vision for Australia“We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere – the family of One God – the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth the One who gave His life for others.”

John McCain a presidential contender in the last election was imprisoned for 5 and a half years as a POW in Vietnam.  He tells of the time he was punished for communicating with the person in the next cell, kept overnight in a punishment cell tied very tightly with ropes.  As he cursed and strained against the ropes, the door suddenly opened and a young gun guard he had occasionally seen entered the room, motioned him to be silent, and without looking at him, loosened the ropes that bound him.  He left without a word.  Just prior to the dawn he returned, quickly tightened the ropes, and was gone.  

In the months that followed he saw him occasionally, but the guard never even glanced in McCain’s direction.  Then on the Christmas morning he was briefly allowed out of his cell to stand alone in the outdoors, looking up at the clear blue sky.  He became aware of the young guard as he walked near, and then for a moment stood very close to McCain. Without speaking or smiling or looking at him, this young man just stared at the ground in front of them, and then, very casually, he used his foot to draw a cross in the dirt.  They both stood looking for a minute until he rubbed it out and walked away.

In that moment he said “I forgot my hatred, the war, and lived in the reality that bridges seemingly unbridgeable divisions in humanity.”  Two people each imprisoned in different ways found their common humanity before the God who in Christ had made it possible.  He saw him pass a few more times but there was never another encounter.

These last few years have taught me, that not only is Christ found in the service, witness and worship of the everyday to which we are called, but that the Lord Jesus also invites us into difficult situations where the prisons in which we live our lives become more obvious, even as his power gives us new visions of the way the unbridgeable can be bridged.  We do not need to be afraid of the other, afraid of the divisions, for in Christ we have the reconciling one who gives us a place to be and participate in any situation.  The Holy Spirit leads us on in this demanding and joyful discipleship of the mission of God.  

But still my first love is for those who are just discovering God’s message for them.  I am always humbled when I see the bright eyes of a person who has just discovered they are loved by Jesus, the tears of joy when forgiveness is received, the delight of a person seeing that there is a new beginning in Christ for them.  But once having begun each of us is called on in the mission of God to such amazing situations in our life, and nation, and world.  I thank you Lord, for these last three years.

I want to thank the Assembly officers and staff, they have been a great inspiration. It has been a delight to work with Terence Corkin, and affirm what a gift he is to the Uniting Church. I give profuse thanks to Jenny Bertalan my personal assistant for her help, gratitude for the wisdom of Elenie Poulos in the search for justice, and such tremendous support first from Kim Cain and then from Gavin Melvin, media persons extraordinaire.  Shining through all these contributions is the overwhelming thanks I owe to God for my beloved, Sandra, who with such loving and dependable support has stuck with me all the way through this long and amazing marathon.


Assembly yesterday elected the Rev. Alistair Macrae as its next President.

Mr Macrae, Principal of the Centre for Theology and Ministry, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, will succeed the Rev. Gregor Henderson when the Assembly next meets in 2009.

Thanking members of Assembly for their confidence and asking for their prayers, Mr Macrae outlined his hopes for the Uniting Church.

He said the Assembly had been immersed in the process of discernment about unity and diversity but that “if we are to be truly church, neither can be pursued at the expense of the other. To isolate them is to create idolatry.”

He said diversity in the church could only be meaningfully sustained if the core was strong and it was not true that the Uniting Church was weak on core doctrine.

“We are a creedal and confessional church,” he said. “But unlike some churches, beyond that strong core the areas about which we may — in good faith and good conscience — disagree kick in a bit sooner. And for many of us that freedom for diversity is the oxygen that keeps us in the church and the faith.”

Mr Macrae said the Uniting Church was fundamentally an ecumenical church and a multicultural church. “I believe we have a great gift to offer the wider community if we can model an alternative.

“Our culture patently has few clues about how to progress the reconciliation process. At times it feels like we don’t do much better in the church. But I sense a strong will in the Uniting Church to invest the resources, the prayer, the patience and pragmatism to explore ways to redress historical wrongs and restore justice. Let us not ask others in the public space to do what we do not do ourselves.”

Mr Macrae asked if the church was able to demonstrate in its life that the grace of God was strong enough to transcend all the things that threatened to divide it and he said he hoped it was increasingly becoming a “both-and” church, more than an “either-or” church.

“Not in the sense that anything goes or capitulation to relativism, but recognising that spiritual vitality, oxygen, comes when we hold the great polarities of faith and life in creative tension rather than eliminating one or the other.

“Can we be a church that is grounded in prayer and worship, both activist and contemplative, traditional and contemporary, orthodox and experimental, contextual and universal, which values both personal holiness and social holiness?”

Mr Macrae has been a rural minister at Mt Beauty and at Portland, Victoria. He was minister at Brunswick Uniting Church from 1995 to 2000, when he became Moderator of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania.

It was as chair of the Uniting Church’s Assembly Task Group on Sexuality, which produced the Interim Report on Sexuality in 1996 and Uniting Sexuality and Faith in 1997, that he first developed a national profile.

Mr Macrae is married to Clare, a writer, and has four teenage children. In his leisure time he is a sport “tragic”, and enjoys music, camping, cooking, reading, renovating and being with his family.


The Uniting Church today called for an end to human rights abuses and publicly committed itself to monitor and advocate for human rights in the face of increasing reports of violations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Uniting Church President, Rev. Gregor Henderson, said a statement endorsed by the 11th National Assembly meeting in Brisbane today, Dignity in Humanity: Recognising Christ in Every Person, offered a comprehensive expression of the churches’ commitment to, and support of, international human rights instruments.

“In 1937 representatives from churches around the world met to ensure that human rights were included in the United Nations Charter and the churches went on to play a significant role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, members of the Uniting Church are regularly reminded through the relationships we have with partner churches in our region, that human rights violations still occur.

“We are deeply troubled by reports from our partners in areas like the Philippines and West Papua that the most basic human rights we take for granted, are being ignored. Today’s statement commits us to take a very public stand against these situations.”

Rev. Henderson said the statement would provide a framework for other more specific resolutions of the Church, such as the commitment made today to support the Evangelical Christian Church in the Land of Papua, at a time when Papuan culture faces marginalisation through transmigration and military action in West Papua.

“Today’s resolutions commit us to continue to speak for those whose voices are silenced. They also call us to monitor and asses Australian Government policy and practice against the international human rights instruments,” Rev. Henderson said.

“We do this as an expression of our long-held commitment to the dignity inherent in every person as a human being made in the image of God.”

The National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, the Rev. Elenie Poulos, said as well as clearly articulating the Church’s motivation for upholding human rights, the resolution also offered encouragement to agencies and other groups within the Church to advocate for social policy and legislative outcomes consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations.

“This resolution calls on the Australian Government to ensure that it fulfils its responsibilities to uphold human rights. It also calls on the Government to develop and promote human rights education to help foster mutual understanding, healthy and harmonious communities, and justice and peace. It commits the National Assembly to play its part too, by promoting awareness and understanding of human rights through existing and future Church programs and promoting and respecting human rights in our work and mission,” Rev. Poulos said.

“We hope that this statement provides a specific frame of reference for the Church to continue and expand its current work in the area of justice and human rights, both on domestic and international levels. Today’s statements are affirmations of our belief in the dignity of each person as bestowed by God and recognition that human rights are essential for achieving peace with justice.”

Media Contact: Gavin Melvin, Manager, National Media and Communication – 0417 416 674

Following careful, and prayerful reflection and discernment the Uniting Church’s 250 member National Assembly has been unable to come to one mind on the issue of accepting into leadership positions those living in committed same-gender relationships

Acknowledging that there was a diversity of opinion within its membership, the Assembly today passed a resolution which re-affirms that matters relating to the placement and ordination of those living in committed same-gender relationships will continue to be made by the local Congregation and Presbytery on a case by case basis. This upholds the existing practice of the Church.

Uniting Church President, Rev. Gregor Henderson said Assembly members recognised this was an important issue for many members of the Church but that after lengthy discussions and spiritual discernment they had been unable to reach agreement as to whether the Assembly should further exercise determining responsibility on this issue and adopt a single policy to apply across the entire church.

“I am grateful for the gracious and respectful way that members of the Assembly addressed this issue. We were also deeply moved by the response of the Aboriginal arm of the church which, despite opposing the current practice, committed itself to remain within the fellowship of the Uniting Church. Our discussions over the last few days remind us that we have a range of deeply held convictions in our church on this issue and that we are not of the same mind at this time. Notwithstanding the hopes of many in the church, the Assembly resolved that it was unable to exercise further its determining authority in this matter.

“We have prayerfully sought to discern God’s will on this matter and I believe we have reached a position of integrity at this time that allows us to live in unity with our diversity.
The decision of the Assembly today recognises that there are a range of understandings about this issue.

“This decision re-affirms that congregations and presbyteries will continue to be the place where decisions around the ordination and placement of those living in committed same-gender relationships are made. Congregations who are unable, in all good conscience, to receive such a minister will not be compelled to do so. The resolution also calls the church to respect the decision of a congregation indicating its willingness to consider calling a minister in a committed same-gender relationship.”

The President of the Uniting Church, Rev. Gregor Henderson, today issued an invitation to the leadership of EMU and the Reforming Alliance, to meet with him and other church leaders next week to clarify the proposed Assembly of Confessing Congregations.

“On face value this proposal seems to suggest establishing a series of parallel structures within the Uniting Church. The Church’s Basis of Union provides for members of the church to work within the established councils of our Presbyteries, Synods and the Assembly and the proposed Charter appears to be in breach of this.

“The Uniting Church has received no formal communication on this issue. I am concerned the proposed charter lacks clarity and raises many more questions than it answers. With this in mind, I have invited the National Spokesperson of EMU and the Chair of the Reforming Alliance to meet with me next week to seek clarification of what is intended in the proposed charter.

“In the meantime, I encourage congregations to take their time before making any decisions and to wait until further information about the exact nature of this proposal is available.

“I also want to assure members that the Uniting Church works firmly within the traditions of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and am distressed to think that any members of our church would believe otherwise.”


The President of the Uniting Church, Rev. Gregor Henderson, today expressed surprise and regret that the leaders of EMU and the Reforming Alliance have refused to meet him to discuss the proposed Assembly of Confessing Congregations.

“It is with deep regret that I have learned the leaders of both EMU and the Reforming Alliance have twice declined my invitation to meet me next week to clarify the proposed Assembly of Confessing Congregations. I am still keen to meet with leaders of EMU and the Reforming Alliance and am hopeful that we can find ways whereby Reforming Alliance and EMU members can remain within the structure and fellowship of the Uniting Church.

“On face value, this proposal appears to have major implications for our church and it is entirely appropriate that the proponents make their intentions clear by meeting with me and outlining their vision.

“It is not fair for members of the church to be asked to sign on to such a proposal without further information and I am concerned they may be asked to do this in coming weeks. Congregations are entitled to all the information before they are asked to join a group that accuses the Assembly of apostasy (straying from the faith) and claims to reject the authority of Presbyteries, Synods and the Assembly.

“Members of the Uniting Church have a right to know exactly what is being proposed and how it might impact our existing Uniting Church structures,” Rev. Henderson said.

“I encourage congregations to take their time before making any decisions and to wait until further information about the exact nature of this proposal is available.

“The Uniting Church works firmly within the traditions of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and I am distressed to think that any members of our church would believe otherwise.”

Uniting Church leaders today condemned the Government’s plan to detain more asylum seekers on Nauru as inhumane, and urged Senators to vote against the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 currently before the Parliament.

In a letter sent to members of the Senate today, the Rev. Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, urged Senators to oppose the Bill on the grounds that it is counter to Australia’s international human rights obligations and ignores our responsibility to protect people in need.

“It is the sincerely held view of the Uniting Church that, were these changes to be passed, it would constitute an abrogation of our ethical and moral responsibilities to human rights and to the welfare of other human beings.

“This legislation an unreasonable attempt to exclude refugees who have suffered significant human rights abuses from seeking asylum as is their current entitlement under Australian law.

“There is also significant evidence that the amendments would put Australia in breach of our international human rights obligations,” Rev. Poulos stated in the letter.

Uniting Church President, the Rev. Gregor Henderson expressed deep concern over this new legislation which breaches standards of basic human decency and which will impact heavily on the welfare of asylum seekers.

“The changes do nothing to protect the health and dignity of asylum seekers,” Rev. Henderson said.

“This is a policy which will harm already traumatised people. Indefinite detention on Nauru has had a terrible impact on the physical and mental health of people in the past. Why would the Government seek to foster this destructive policy? Why would it once again be willing to sacrifice the well-being of children?

“Many dedicated Church members and groups are involved in providing support, aid and advocacy to asylum seekers detained in Australia. By detaining asylum seekers in Nauru, the Government is effectively removing this support network from extremely vulnerable people.”

Rev. Henderson urged the Senate to vote down the Bill.

“The Uniting Church in Australia will continue to advocate the just, compassionate treatment of asylum seekers and their families. Our primary concern will continue to be the health and welfare of asylum seekers.

“We pray and hope that the Government decides to abandon this terrible and inhumane policy.”

Rev. Henderson is available for interview on request

The Uniting Church today expressed its condolences to the people of Tonga and to the Queen and the royal family of Tonga following news that the King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died overnight.

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV died in New Zealand on Sunday evening 10th Sept after a long illness. He ruled the Kingdom of Tonga for 41 years.

The Uniting Church has a close affinity with the Royal family and the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga, with which it has had a long standing partnership. King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was a lay preacher in the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

Uniting Church President, the Rev. Gregor Henderson, said the death of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was a great loss.

“The Uniting Church joins with Tongan Australians in expressing our condolences to the Queen, members of the Royal family and the people of Tonga during this difficult time.

“Through our partnership with the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, members of the Uniting Church have maintained an on-going relationship between the two churches and their leaders. Leaders and members of the Tongan National Conference of the Uniting Church will be meeting for thanksgiving services for the life of the King in locations across the country later this week.

“King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV will be sadly missed. His death is not only a loss for the Tongan community but for the Tongan Church. His reign of 41 years was marked by profound Christian concerns for the Kingdom of Tonga and for Tongans throughout the world.”

The funeral will be held this Saturday with religious services on the Friday prior. With Rev. Henderson currently travelling internationally, the Uniting Church will be represented by the former President, Rev. Dr Dean Drayton, who visited Tonga four times during his Presidency.

Media Contact: Gavin Melvin, Manager, National Media and Communication – 0417 416 674