For immediate release The Uniting Church in Australia is celebrating its 30th Anniversary this Friday, June 22. Congregations all over the country are holding special services or social events to celebrate the milestone. The third largest church in Australia, the Uniting Church was formed on 22 June 1977 when the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches united. The first service, held on the 26th of June, was broadcast live around Australia on ABC television. There are now approximately 2800 congregations and some 300,000 active members. In the 2001 Census, 1.2 million Australians described themselves as Uniting Church. Despite the strength of the Uniting Church in Australia, President Rev. Gregor Henderson says the Church is being far more deliberate in inviting people to faith. “30 years ago we didn’t need to worry about church growth in Australia. Huge cultural shifts of secularism, materialism and individualism have dramatically changed that”, Rev. Henderson said. “We now actively work on growing our church and planning for future growth.” “We are an inclusive, diverse and multicultural church. We have a good number of growing and vibrant congregations, new congregations starting every year, and 160 congregations worshipping in languages other than English - including 16 Aboriginal languages at last count. Looking forward I see a confident and joyful Church which is attractive and welcoming to all sorts of people.” An active voice on social justice throughout its history, the Uniting Church works on issues such as refugees, poverty, and Indigenous rights. The Church directly advocates for changes in Government policies to meet people’s needs better, and works in partnership with other organisations and churches here and overseas. “More than any other church in Australia, the Uniting Church actively seeks to work with other churches and faiths to achieve common goals.” The Uniting Church is also the largest non-government provider of community services in Australia through the UnitingCare network. Rev. Henderson said the 30th Anniversary is a time for all members of the Church to celebrate what we have achieved and our fellowship in Christ. “I invite everyone to share in our celebrations this week, whether it be going to worship or one of the events planned, or just going to the website to find out more about this extraordinary fellowship of Christians we proudly call the Uniting Church in Australia.”
Media Contact: Kathryn Crosby, Assembly Communication Unit – 0417 416 674
For immediate release
The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) of the Uniting Church is urging the Australian Government to revise its approach to its emergency response reforms to tackle Indigenous child abuse in the Northern Territory if it is to affect real improvements.
UAICC National Administrator the Rev Shayne Blackman said he fully supported moves by the Australian Government to provide positive intervention to tackle child abuse but questioned their hasty emergency response approach in an election year which he said lacked full and proper negotiation with relevant Indigenous stakeholders.
‘This rapid reform approach taken by the Government needs to be negotiated from the ground up in conjunction with those Indigenous community leaders with a demonstrable record of achievement and not just solely imposed from Canberra” said Rev Blackman.
‘“The Government’s ferocious and hasty reforms are laced with military style coercion and have not been fully negotiated with those Northern Territory communities in a manner and timeframe that will enable all Indigenous stakeholders in this issue to be in a position to support the reforms in any cohesive fashion.
“While positive intervention is required we do not welcome this fierce approach by the Government which further marginalizes Indigenous community decision makers and which will serve to create further resentment.
“Every Australian child deserves a secure future free of abuse and if the Government is impartial in its dealings with the citizens of this nation then the same heavy handed tactics it is employing in Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory should be applied rights across every town and city, with abuse perpetrators to be dealt with under our existing legal framework.
‘We are calling upon the Government to enact policy in collaboration with Indigenous leadership that encourages individual empowerment and ownership of responsibility and this requires a new structural governance framework that conduits Indigenous wisdom from a community level into legislative decisions.
“In the interests of equality and justice I call upon the Government to reassess its approach” said Rev Blackman.
UAICC Media Contact: Ramon Peachey (07) 4773 5077
The National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia has today welcomed the Rudd Government’s initiative to end the detention of asylum seekers on the island nation of Nauru.
Rev. Elenie Poulos, National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, praised Immigration Minister, Chris Evans’ decision to provide resettlement to seven Burmese men currently detained on Nauru.
“We congratulate the Federal Government on taking important steps to provide resettlement opportunities to these seven men who have been held on the island for more than a year,” Rev. Poulos said.
“We are pleased that the Minister has promised to quickly review the cases of the remaining refugees and asylum seekers and to end once and for all this damaging practice of detention on Nauru.”
Rev. Poulos said the Uniting Church was fully supportive of the dismantling of the Pacific Solution, set up by the previous Federal Government.
“The Pacific Solution has placed us in breach of our international refugee obligations and adversely affected our reputation as a country committed to upholding human rights.
“It has been a cruel policy and its detrimental effects on individual refugees, some of whom were detained for more than three years, have been well documented.
“This policy, which has cost millions of dollars, has seen refugees languishing on Nauru and Manus Islands for years with no access to proper services and appropriate representation, and no clear hope for future resettlement, as the Government played politics with their lives.
“We welcome action to dismantle the Pacific Solution policy, and to provide refugees with resettlement opportunities within the Australian community.”
Uniting Church in Australia members, congregations and agencies around the country are involved in caring for refugees and asylum seekers and advocating for just and appropriate policies which uphold their rights and respond positively to their needs.
The Uniting Church has spoken out against the Pacific Solution since its inception.
For immediate release
Uniting Church in Australia President, Reverend Gregor Henderson, has on the occasion of the United Nations International Day of Peace, this Sunday 21 September, called on Australians to believe in peace.
Church leaders from across Australia, including the Uniting Church, gathered in Canberra last Friday to keep poverty on the agenda in the lead up to the Federal election.
Vote  No More Poverty is a joint campaign of the Uniting, Anglican and Catholic Churches and their social services agencies and aims to raise awareness among members of our community and our political leaders about the growing rate of poverty.
The Uniting Church was represented at the launch by UnitingCare Australia National Director, Lin Hatfield Dodds and National Assembly ex President, Rev Prof, James Haire.
Ms Hatfield Dodds, said poverty is a growing problem in Australia and not just among unemployed people.
“While Australia has experienced economic growth in the last two decades much of this prosperity has passed by many Australians. Today, we have the dubious honour of being ranked fourth on the OECD list of countries with the highest percent of population living in poverty,” Ms Hatfield Dodds said.
“Today, 852,000 Australian children live in jobless households and 3.6 million Australians live on a household income of less than $400 a week.
“Agencies like UnitingCare which deliver the majority of community support in this country, see the despair and deprivation of Australia’s poor every day.
“Each year more and more Australians are suffering an unacceptable standard of living and poverty is no longer just about unemployed people.
“Many working Australians now find themselves struggling with poverty and as a caring church it is time we took a stand to see something done. That’s why we started this campaign.”
The campaign was launched at Parliament House in Canberra on June 24 following a national newspaper advertisement in the Australian that day.
Church leaders, including Prof Haire, told politicians and media representatives of the desperate need for the Federal Government to take a national leadership role in tackling poverty.
“Our faith and ethical traditions call us to ensure the health and well being of our communities. With this in mind we believe all Australians have the right to a decent life including access to work, education, housing, food and recreation.
“The message that we sent to our political leaders was that sadly, for more and more Australians, this is a pipe dream.
“There are no easy answers to solving poverty – it is a multi faceted problem often caused by more than one factor. However, the first step is to acknowledge the problem and work together at all levels of government to find real solutions.
“We called on the Federal Government to take a national leadership role on this issue and work through the Council of Australian Governments with State and Territory Government’s to develop a well resourced national action plan working across government and in partnership with the broader community.
“This is an issue we all need to be concerned and we are asking church members for their help to make politicians and political candidates aware of this issue. Please, in the lead up to the next election take the time to write to them or call them and ask …‘Do you care about poverty in Australia and what will you do to address it?”
The importance of good relationships between Indonesia and the Australia and transparency on all sides was the focus of a meeting between Uniting Church Officials and the Indonesian Ambassador in Canberra recently.
Uniting International Mission Reference Committee Chair, Professor James Haire and UIM Executive Secretary, Rev John Barr were received by Indonesian Ambassador, his Excellency, Mr Imron Cotan.
Rev Barr said the meeting focused on the need for transparency from all sides and on developing a good working relationship between the Uniting church and the Indonesian Government.
“Ambassador Cotan indicated his willingness to engage in further dialogue with the Church on issues of concern, especially those which concern out partner churches in Indonesia.
“He listened to our concerns about Ambon and the concern relayed to us by our partner church the Protestant Church in Maluku that Ambonese Christians as being portrayed as separatist and seeking to undermine the unity of the Indonesia Republic.
“Professor Haire and I reaffirmed the GPM's support for the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia and our Churches support for the GPM’s position. He also indicted he would voice these concerns with official in Jakarta,” Rev Barr said.
He said another pleasing aspect of the meeting was Mr Cotan’s generous offer to make himself available to the Uniting Church in Australia to further dialogue with us or to speak at a meeting or a gathering.
“This meeting was an important and strategic meeting. The Ambassador indicated that he is available for further meetings and I believe this may provide strategic opportunities for the Uniting Church in Australia to be an effective advocate on behalf of our partner churches in Indonesia; an effective educator and a positive facilitator concerning the development of positive relationships between Australia and Indonesia. “
Last Saturday (18 September) Julia Baird wondered “why the religious left are such pussycats when it comes to politics”. While she offered several explanations for why this may be the case, she failed to consider that the premise itself may be wrong.
Those of us who stand for a more progressive Christianity and who might be regarded as ‘religious left’ (or just ‘mainstream’ if the point of reference is the ‘religious right’ Christianity made famous by Jerry Falwell) try hard to little effect – the Uniting Church has made a number of public statements every week of the election campaign only to be ignored by the media.
It is distressing that the most prominent Christianity that figures in public consciousness these days is the reductive faith Julia writes about – faith concerned more about personal morality and judgement than caring for our neighbours. While this brand of Christianity may indeed find expression in party politics, most of the mainstream churches express their politics from within the church—speaking to government as the church—and in the day-to-day non-party political work of making life better for people. Through church agencies such as UnitingJustice we also work to encourage people’s participation as active citizens in our democratic state so that we don’t just have ‘leaders’ speaking out but local congregations and individuals enabled to discuss and raise issues in ways appropriate for them. In his piece ‘Labor blunders in bidding war’ (20 September), Robert Manne remarks on ‘the absence of any vision of the future’. It is not a point he comes back to as he assesses the effectiveness of Labor in the bidding war that is this election campaign. So maybe another reason that the mainstream churches appear absent is that we are calling for visionary leadership and this is obviously not what election campaigns are about.
What we do have in this election is a small-minded battle for the same tiny garden – the choice is between two gardeners working with the same plants but with slightly different methods of watering and feeding. The aim is to convince us to trust one or other of them to deliver more produce from that tiny garden.
The social, political and economic agenda that defines contemporary Australia is an agenda held without question by both major parties. This is why there are so few differences between the major parties and why talk about vision is unnecessary. The Church, however, does question the values and ideological assumptions behind this agenda.
When the potential prime ministers are fighting about who will fight better, who wants to talk of peace? When they are fighting over who can put more money into our pockets each fortnight, who wants to hear about homes for the homeless? Who wants to hear about justice when economic growth is what matters most? The pussycats are growling, Julia, but no-one is listening.
Rev. Elenie Poulos
Uniting Church President Elect, Rev. Gregor Henderson has seen refugee camps before. But he was profoundly shocked by what he saw in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
There are refugees from eight African nations in the camp but most are from Sudan.
Rev. Henderson led a small delegation from Christian World Service, the aid and development arm of the National Council of Churches in Australia, to find out more about the situation of Sudanese refugees in Africa.
We spent 24 hours in Kakuma. We slept in one of the refugee camp huts. Like the refugees we were without food for 24 hours.
“I’m going home with a pretty awful feeling,” Mr Henderson said just before we left Kenya.
“My overriding reaction is one of distress.
“I’m distressed at the circumstances that face these Sudanese people. They’re living in such dreadful circumstances in Kakuma.
“I’m distressed that it has gone on for so many years.
“And I’m distressed that we in Australia are not doing more for them, as churches and as a nation.”
As well as distress, Rev. Henderson feels admiration for the way in which the people of Kakuma seem to cope with their circumstances.
“We saw so many expressions of hope in God,” he said. “We saw so many acts of friendship with us, without any sense of resentment towards us, who have so much when they have so little.
“We even saw their ability to celebrate their culture and their Christian faith in the midst all this poverty, hardship and suffering and heartrending stories.
“In such uncertainty we saw people who seemed to be able to find hope from deep down.
“I’m distressed that people have been there eight, nine, 10 years - and a few even longer than that.
“They’ve had no useful employment in that time. They’ve lived grindingly on one meal a day. There’s a sense of the world passing them by and leaving them largely uncared for.”
Rev. Henderson left Kenya determined to do what he can to try to improve the conditions in Kakuma.
“We can’t just leave it there,” he said. “We can’t just tell their story and leave it at that. We have to do something more active - as a church and as a nation - to respond to their needs.”
Sudan’s future is uncertain. There is the tragedy of Darfur. A similar tragedy is looming in the east. And the peace talks between the north and the south have stalled yet again.
There could soon be fighting on three fronts between the Arab north and the Africans in the west, south and east.
Rev. Henderson said there is a great deal of uncertainty about the peace process between the Arab, Muslim north and the African, Christian south.
“We got such mixed messages about it,” he said. “The people from the church agencies seem to be much more optimistic than the people on the ground and the refugees themselves.
“If there is a peace agreement within the next few months, that will create a whole raft of new needs. And the people will be highly vulnerable as they seek to re-establish themselves in their own homelands with all the difficulties they will face there, not only in the initial few months but also in the months to come.”
Rev. Henderson said he is proud that the churches around the world are trying help these people.
“I’m sure that the suffering Sudanese would be even worse off if it weren’t for the churches,” he said.
“Their own churches are obviously doing a tremendous job in the camp, holding them together and seeking to provide what little support for them that they can.
“The wider church community, including the Australian churches through Christian World Service, is offering them some assistance and offering to walk with them.”
Rev. Henderson wants the Australian churches to look at how we can provide more help to refugees who have been approved for resettlement in Australia to get here more quickly.
Too many refugees get visas to Australian only to find that the Sudanese in Australia can’t afford to pay their air fares. So their hopes are dashed and they go back to refugee camps.
Rev. Henderson said Australian churches have been making statements that congregations would be willing to support asylum seekers to live in the community, rather than in detention centres, while their cases are dealt with.
“We should be able to help Sudanese refugees to get a new start in life,” he said.
“Could churches supply no-interest loans for those the Australian Government has accepted as genuine refugees so they can come sooner, rather than later, and not have to depend on the Sudanese community in Australia to muster the money for their fares?”
He also hoped Australia can generate some concern about the paucity of rations for the people in Kakuma.
“Apparently all they are receiving is three kilograms of maize, with a little salt and cooking oil, per person per fortnight, with occasional lentils thrown in,” he said.
“Surely the international community can do better than that. Surely they’re entitled to more than one small meal a day and a bit more nourishment for them and their children.”
Refugees asked the delegation to take up three points with the Australian Government. They would like Australia:
- To increase the number of refugees.
- To support education for refugees in Africa.
- To be ready to help in the reconstruction of Southern Sudan when a comprehensive peace
agreement is eventually signed.
“There’s plenty for us to speak to the Government about - and there’s plenty we can consider as further assistance from the church,” he said.
Rev. Henderson said he was very glad that the delegation had been invited to share the refugees’ conditions for 24 hours.
“I’m pleased we accepted the invitation of the Presbyterian community to live with them for 24 hours as they have to live,” he said.
“Knowing that we were there for only a night and a day meant it was no great sacrifice on our part. But I’m please we made that act of solidarity. We probably gained in credibility because of that.
“Even that taste says to us that they have one very poor meal each day, and each of those meals is the same - what you could call maize porridge - day after day, year after year.
“Eating would be no pleasure. Your body must accommodate to it somewhat. You would go to bed hungry each night and wake up hungry every morning.”
The delegation slept in a mud hut with very little ventilation.
“We were sleeping only two to a room. They sleep eight, or 10, or even 15 to a room. I can’t imagine that being anything but unbearable, night after night.
“There’s a complete lack of privacy and the sanitation provisions are so primitive. So are the cooking facilities.
“And the heat - and we were at the cool time of the year!
“This small taste we had of life in Kakuma makes me admire the spirit of the people.
“They seem so uncomplaining about their lot. If I had to do it for three or four days in a row I’d be at my wit’s end.
“You wonder what it must do to your long term health. Many of them, of course, said they feel sick. That probably speaks of malnutrition and various infections.
“We weren’t given mosquito nets - and we were blessed that there weren’t many mosquitoes.”
Rev. Henderson said there is a high incidence of malaria and digestive infections. “The level of medical care is very basic,” he said.
“We saw people who had had broken limbs that had never been properly set. We met people who needed operations for bladder and other problems. They can’t have them because the facilities just aren’t there.
“So the taste of their life was depressing. It makes you marvel that they can cope with it.
“We heard that every week children die because of inadequate facilities and lack of nutrition.
“I’ve been in refugee camps in the Middle East and Sri Lanka. These are the worst I’ve seen in terms of provisions and facilities.
“There’s no way that people can grow anything for themselves with that climate and the lack of water.
“The welcome we were given, as members of the fellowship and family of Christ, was extraordinary. We weren’t bringing any solution for them.
“I’m pleased we were able to share their conditions, rather than go off at night to somewhere a little better than where they were sleeping.
“It was a solidarity visit, not a spectator visit.
“The grinding hopeless of it all is terrible. It really turns your heart over. It’s appalling. It shouldn’t be.”
- The Rev. Gregor Henderson is chairperson of Christian World Service, the aid and development arm of the National Council of Churches in Australia. He is also national president-elect of the Uniting Church in Australia