I am at the 12 Assembly meeting - the national council of the UCA - at Uni NSW in Sydney. Last night we installed (yep, that's what they call it, Alastair said he felt like a light bulb ...) Alastair Macrae as our new President. The opening service at which this happened was amazing in its multiculturalism - seamlessly incorporating people from some of the main cultural groups represented in the UCA. Particularly members from the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, which is the Indigenous Congress in covenant with the Uniting Church, but also people with Korean, Fijian, Indonesian, and heaps of other cultural backgrounds. Some of their languages appeared on the screen at various times, and Story was told in one of the Indigenous languages. The music was really good - words I could sing without cringing, two violins, three guitars, two singers, brilliant pianist and drums. The singers were great! At one point they added some singers and did a more chant like song in four part harmony, which was fabulous (though one of the singers was quieter than the others, so she was harder to hear unfortunately).
Today we began the business of the meeting with a celebration of the covenant between the Indigenous members and non indigenous members of the UCA. Mmm what else. (A group of us went to the pub after the close of the business for the evening and I'd not eaten for a while before I drank a couple of beers ...)
We're spending a bit of time on the revision of the code of ethics for Ministers in the UCA. Bit difficult to get 280 people to agree on wording ... It's these moments when I feel sorry for the committee who have been working on the wording for months only to have us pick it to pieces in various places.
We've had small group discussion of some of the reports that have been received - there is a lot happening on the national stage of the church, a lot to be thankful for and to give us hope. My group spent some time talking about the work of the Christian Unity committee, who are building our relationships with other Christian churches in Australia and around the world. We also talked about defence forces chaplaincy, and the report of the Ministerial Educational Commission, who are putting a proposal to the Assembly, which we also talked about. Can't really talk here about the detail of the discussion, but these are the sorts of issues the Assembly is discussing this week, if you want to know.
Gregor Henderson, the outgoing President, addressed the meeting, and had a hopeful message for the church. I took his appraisal of a key area of growth for the UCA, interfaith relationships, as support for one of the mandates I'd like to implement for the Esther Project - to create space for the Abrahamic faith communities - Muslim, Jewish, Christian - to hear each other's engagement with the Sacred Stories that we share.
This evening we heard the report of the UAICC, and I was struck again by the growing, not diminishing, divide between Indigenous and non indigenous Australians in health, employment, housing, education. The speakers noted that this crushes the spirit of the people, so the key focus for the Indigenous church is to nurture the spirit of the people, so that they might find hope and healing. After all, if the people don't have hope, remain broken in their spirit, what good will any program be?
And throughout the time I've already had many conversations with people about the Esther Project, and receiving much encouragement as people hear the story, the hopes, the dream.
At the pub, I had an interesting conversation about the concerns for the place of women in leadership in the UCA. There is considerable concern that many of the key leadership positions in the church are held by men, and it must be said, mostly men from one area of the theological spectrum, and how will we make space for women to be valued enough to be elected to these sorts of roles? What can we do, how can we make changes, to enable women to be on equal footing. Unfortunately there are still men around who cannot be led by women. Who cannot bring themselves to look a woman in the eye and see her as an equal. Is it fear? I don't know. I hope I can write the characters of Esther and Mordecai to portray partnership between men and women in a positive and hopeful light. I would like to think this story can speak into our present context and offer us some hope.
For now, though, I'd better get some sleep - there is still a long way to go in this meeting. I must say again that it is worth the seven days of meetings to make connections with people from other parts of our church, to hear the stories of the things the church is doing nationally, to be encouraged that the Spirit of God is stirring within the soul of Australia, and the Uniting Church is out there with her.