UCA 40th anniversary • 25 Jun 2017

Reflections by three members of the congregation

1. Rev. Beverley Cameron


My thanks to Chris for inviting me to share some my experiences as a woman in ministry today. As the issue of LGBTI people in both ministry and membership of the UCA became a significant facet of my ministry, I shall share stories about that as well.

You will have received a brief summary of the history of both women and LGBTI people in ministry in the UCA. These give an idea of the gradually changing UCA positions in both ministries. My story fits into this framework.

I was not even a member of the UCA until 1983, but I’m told by former UCA Moderator, Rev Shirley Maddox that many women had been active lay leaders during the church’s period of formation and that some of them came into ministry bringing change with them. Shirley herself was the first minister to negotiate for part-time ministry and these are common now. She told me that some male ministers back then wanted a ‘nice compliant lady’ rather than a colleague with a mind of her own, but she later found more supportive male ministers and eventually became Moderator. She reminded me that a woman minister has served as Principal of our theological college and that another is currently Acting General Secretary. Times are clearly changing.

It was personal need and questions about Christianity that prompted me to enter the Uniting church as an adult. It is relevant to tell you that my previous university experience in BHS as both student and in administration introduced me to many gay and lesbian staff members. I became friendly with them and soon developed a relaxed acceptance of their world view. That relaxed view was to provide me with a significant element to my ministry, though I did not realise it at the time.

In 1986, my minister of the period, Rev Moira Laidlaw who was then minister in this church, suggested I think of ministry. I explored that possibility and by 1991, was ordained and inducted into ministry in West Pennant Hills UC on a part-time basis. I realised quickly that the congregation was quite ready to accept my somewhat naïve beginner’s sermons and my plan to include as much participation of the people in leadership as possible. I used my influence to encourage the women members to be more assertive in church life. They responded well.

But not everything went so smoothly. On joining the local ministers’ fraternal and having my suggestion that they change the name to ministers’ association because I was not a ‘brother’ but a ‘sister’ totally ignored, and, being treated as if I did not exist by the local Roman Catholic and Anglican priests, I wondered what else I might try. I suggested a regular pulpit exchange among the fraternal members so our congregations could experience different perspectives on faith. But, while my fellow UCA colleagues participated, the Baptist pastor, a likeable man, apologised with embarrassment and said his congregation would not accept a woman in the pulpit. I took a deep breath and kept going.

But the major confrontation still awaited. One Sunday, I was guest preacher to the neighbouring UCA congregation. I had not been in ministry long enough to realise that not all UCA congregations were as progressive as mine. I preached on the issue of inclusiveness in the church and used an illustration of a father who had rejected his son because the son had come out as a gay man. But when the son developed terminal AIDS, the father suddenly realised how much he loved his son and welcomed him back into to the family home til the son died. I had no idea that the congregation would be angered by this story til I stood at the church door to shake people’s hands and found some turned their backs on me. I received a couple of hostile letters, was called to account by their Council of Elders to explain my position on inclusion of members of the GLBTI community in the Church and was advised by their own minister to take time to reconsider my position before returning to preach again. That incident caused me much painful self-questioning but ultimately, only strengthened my original perspective.

Eventually, my congregation amalgamated with a neighbouring UCA, and though invited to become the full time minister for the new congregation, I regretfully decided in 1995 to move on and was called to a second part-time ministry. This congregation, however, was older and more conservative in their views and I soon realised that I did not feel as at home there as in my former placement. On one occasion when I had invited Bruce to be our guest preacher in his then role as Army Chaplain, one older woman whom I respected commented, ‘It is so good to have a man back in the pulpit.’ To give her credit, when I asked her how I might improve my ministry, she realised the implications of her words and was very embarrassed.

However, it was also during that placement that I mentioned in a sermon that I had attended the recent Sydney Mardi Gras and at the end of that service, one woman came up to me, glowing with gratitude. She had a gay son and as a result, had felt herself excluded from meaningful social interaction with other women members. My words had meant a lot to her. I set up some small group discussions on the LGBTI issue and the woman, who became a good friend, was clearly deeply relieved to be free at last to share her story.

After three years, owing to indifferent health, I moved from placed ministry to supply, and in 1998 for about six months in my first supply role, word soon got around of my sympathy for the LGBTI issue and I was asked to preach on that. Response was mixed and I had to be careful about phrasing my words during the ensuing question time, but there were no repercussions. Later that year, I was delighted to be invited to do supply at Balmain UCA, a very progressive congregation. Small in number, the members were mostly professional people eager for progressive ideas. One of them, a theologian, became my mentor and encouraged me along the path I was already on. The congregation grew considerably, mostly with younger professionals. I learnt recently that one of those younger women professionals, inspired by my example, has since become a minister of the UCA herself.

Shortly after my arrival, I represented my congregation at the induction of a priest into the local High Anglican church. I was the only female member of the all the clergy present from the local denominations and felt rather like a shag on a rock. I had not been invited to participate in leading the service, but when it was time for intercessory prayers, I was at the last minute directed by the organiser to offer them. From that awkward introduction, I resolved to get to know the other clergy and to make ecumenism my mission for the length of my stay in that congregation. Relating to the local Presbyterian minister and the local Catholic priest was challenging as they were clearly unimpressed with a female colleague, but after much effort and with the support of my own congregation, I did co-ordinate two ecumenical services during my time there. It was clear to me that the local congregations were far more supportive of such services than were their clergy.

At the end of that placement in 2001 after further health issues, I moved on to become a minister in association in Pitt Street Uniting Church. Their reputation as theologically progressive and active in social justice issues including their support for LGBTI members was appealing. I ran a mid-week meditation group and heard sad stories from several lesbian women of the rejection they had experienced from both church and family. I was invited on to UNITING NETWORK, a committee of LGBTI people who were at the time working to gain Assembly determination to allow suitable LGBTI church members into the ordained ministry. In the Assembly of 2003, as you can see on the summary, it was determined that LGBTI members, could in appropriate circumstances, be ordained into ministry.

Nowadays, being a woman in ministry is no longer an issue for the UCA. The National Church Life Survey of 2013 shows that 32% of its ministers are women. And I know of several lesbian and gay ministers of the UCA who are today living in partnerships and who are fully accepted by their congregations. The issue that remains for the church to consider is whether LGBTI people should be free to marry. But until the wider society has resolved this matter, it is unlikely that our Assembly could.

2. Rev. Bruce Roy

Like this congregation, I was Presbyterian prior to church union in 1977. For Presbyterians the move was more controversial than for the other two denominations, and this was born out by the fact that in the end some one-third of Presbyterian congregations voted not to join the Uniting Church - in NSW that figures was higher - possibly 40%.

So I begin by reflecting on my Presbyterian experience of church union.

Many years ago a Scottish minister in the Presbyterian Church in Queensland used to upbraid the state assembly members for departing from their true Presbyterian heritage encapsulated in the mother church, the Church of Scotland. After 23 years he decided to go back to Scotland for a visit. At the next State Assembly he apologised to the members because he found that his beloved Church of Scotland had moved on in those 23 years and the Queensland church had not departed from the true path! He wasn’t alive by the time we voted on church union so I don’t know whether that revelation would have had him vote for union.

This month the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia posted this comment on their web site:

“Thursday 22nd June marks forty years of a refocused and refreshed church.”

I agree with that statement but I have a different interpretation of what he meant. He says that The Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) is almost unrecognisable from what it was in the 1960s but what he means is that it reclaimed its reformed heritage in the face of liberal theology in the then Presbyterian Church and in the new Uniting Church. This included, for example, reversing the decision to ordain women ministers and elders. It also meant at one point withdrawing from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

There is a Latin saying that goes “
ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” - the reformed church is always reforming.

In the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union are these words:

“The Uniting Church enters into unity with the Church throughout the ages by its use of the confessions known as the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. The Uniting Church receives these as authoritative statements of the Catholic Faith, framed in the language of their day and used by Christians in many days, to declare and to guard the right understanding of that faith. The Uniting Church commits its ministers and instructors to careful study of these creeds and to the discipline of
interpreting their teaching in a later age….
“The Uniting Church continues to learn … from
the witness of the Reformers as expressed in various ways in the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Savoy Declaration (1658). In like manner the Uniting Church will listen to the preaching of John Wesley in his Forty-Four Sermons (1793). It will commit its ministers and instructors to study these statements, so that the congregation of Christ’s people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.”

There have been many unions of Christian denominations around the globe - the Church of South India and the United Church of Canada are notable examples. But I like the Australian decision not to name our church union the United Church of Australia. Rather we chose the Unit
ing Church in Australia - because the work of creating unity was not finished when this church was established, and whilst it is Australian in its context it is not confined by being Australian.

Uniting Church minister Rob MacFarlane has been attending a conference on Intentional Interim Ministry in Maryland, USA, and posted on Facebook: “[I was] explaining the Uniting Church in Australia to some American friends. Referring to ‘Uniting’, one said, ‘
It's nice to have the mission in the name.’”

Seen from my Presbyterian heritage, this is the true spirit of
ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.

By the time for voting for church union came about I was in Army chaplaincy and as such I had an easier passage into Uniting Church ministry than parish ministers. Defence Force Chaplains are regarded as being in an Assembly appointment and I participated fully wherever I was posted in regional presbyteries in Victoria, Queensland and NSW.

When I was posted to Brisbane in 1975 I lived in the suburb of Boondall and the nearest church was a Methodist church, so we joined that congregation for the two and half years before the anticipated consummation of church union.

Working in the Defence Force with clergy from other denominations, many of them picked up on, and some were envious of, the freshness and renewed vitality among us Uniting Church Chaplains.

And the same thing was happening in most Uniting Church congregations. There was a sense of looking forward, appreciating but not defined by, our several heritages.

One of the outcomes of church union was a much more national focus. I’m not sure about the other two denominations, but Presbyterians were very state based. I value this national outlook.

We are also a multi-ethnic church. There are almost 200 ethnic congregations in the Uniting Church, and many English-speaking congregations - such as ours - are multi-racial. We are a model for Australia.

When the Uniting Church adopted a consensus model of making resolutions this to me was moving the vision of being a uniting church into a practical reality by the way we relate to each other in debate. When decisions are based on a 51% majority there are almost as many losers as winners. That’s not really a win. But the Uniting Church is committed to a form of decision-making that seeks to include everyone in the decision. To me this process is of the essence of being a Uniting Church.

Uniting is who we are and what we do.

3. Warwick van Ede

I was 10 years old when the Uniting Church came into being, and my Methodist Church became part of it, and so the implications of that event were pretty must lost on me at the time. However, since then my involvement in the Uniting Church in Australia has given me much to be thankful for.

As a teenager, particularly later in my teens, I was encouraged by the fact that the Church made “space” for young people. Particularly in my later teens and early twenties, I was fortunate to be able to participate in various programs of education for lay persons. I remember with great pleasure the very gracious leadership of Reverend Dennis Towner who then ran the ELM (Education for Lay Ministry) Centre, based at North Parramatta. Here was I, a young person and a lay person, and the Church was providing me with training to enable me to deepen my faith and to engage in Ministry more meaningfully. This was and continues to be a remarkable thing, that the Church encourages its lay members to be actively involved in Ministry, providing opportunities to exercise their gifts, whether that be in lay preaching, leading worship, administration, or other things.

Some years later, and now in private legal practise, and at the encouragement of the late Peter Tebbutt, I was encouraged to join the Assembly Legal Reference Committee (the Assembly is the national body of the Uniting Church in Australia). The Assembly Legal Reference Committee (ALRC) advises the Assembly and other bodies of the Church in relation to the interpretation of the Church’s Constitution and Regulations in particular.

Being part of the ALRC has also meant that I’ve had the opportunity to attend four of the Assembly’s national gatherings, which occur every three years – the next one is in 2018, in Melbourne. I have attended Assemblies in Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and most recently Perth.

My experience of attending those Assemblies has been that in general terms they have been places to meet people of good spirit – people who are actively involved in Ministry in many ways in their own Congregations, both lay people and ordained people. There has not generally been a “parliamentary” style of debate at the Assembly, with “point – scoring” and unhappiness (although that sometimes happens) but generally there is a spirit of willingness to listen, and a genuine desire to find a way forward listening for God’s leading. It has been very encouraging to be part of a group of people who are searching for ways in which to bring in God’s Kingdom.

The Church itself in imperfect – it is an organisation and an institution. In one of my roles as National Convenor of Appeal Panels (Appeals are heard in the Church from disgruntled Ministers, Presbyteries and other organisations) I do in a sense get to see the Church at its worst, but that is rare.

We go forward in hope, that same hope which brought the founding Churches together 40 years ago, and we continue to search for God and how we can faithfully follow.